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Buying a used car can be a stressful process, partially because it's not always obvious what the vehicle's been through. It's easy to spot dents, dings and scratches with a cursory look at the vehicle, but a visual inspection doesn't necessarily tell you how well it's been maintained or if it's been in an accident.
A vehicle history report is your key to understanding a vehicle's condition and can help you avoid future headaches.
What Information Is Included in a Vehicle History Report?
A vehicle history report provides crucial information you can use to determine whether a used vehicle is worth the asking price or if it's even a wise purchase at all. Here are some of the more important details you'll typically find:
- Accident history: Vehicle history report providers gather data from government motor vehicle departments, law enforcement agencies, repair shops and insurance companies to create a list of any accidents involving the car. This may not include minor fender benders that don't get reported. If the vehicle suffered serious structural damage or airbag deployments, you may want to consider a different car. Even if a car has been deemed roadworthy, the car may never drive like new again, or be as safe if it's involved in a major crash.
- Other damage: If the vehicle suffered damage from other sources, such as a fire, vandalism, flood or hail, you'd likely find it in the history report. In some cases, it may not be an issue. For example, hail and vandalism typically don't cause lasting problems. But if the damage was due to a fire or flood, there could be lingering issues you'd have to deal with if you bought the car.
- Title history: A vehicle's title history can tell you a couple of things. First, it'll show you if the car has a salvage title—this happens when a car is totaled in an accident, but someone else comes along and repairs it for resale. Salvage title vehicles may have significant problems that could cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars in repairs, so it's best to avoid them. Second, if you notice that the car was moved across state lines several times in a short period, it could be a sign that a previous owner was trying to clear certain negative information from the title.
- Previous owners: The vehicle history report will show how many owners the vehicle has had. Additionally, you'll be able to see when and where it was bought and sold. For example, you'll be able to see if a vehicle was used as a rental car when it was new. While it's not necessarily a deal-breaker if a vehicle has had many owners or was used as a rental vehicle, you may be able to use that information to negotiate on the price.
- Mileage: A vehicle's odometer gets reported at certain points in its life, such as when ownership changes. If the current odometer reading shows a lower number of miles than what's been reported in the past, that's a huge red flag. Rolling back odometers isn't as common as it was when mechanical dials were the norm, but it's still possible.
- Service history: The best clue you have to a used vehicle's potential longevity is how it was maintained. Not all mechanics report this information, but many do, and if the vehicle's maintenance information appears on its history report, you'll be able to compare it with the schedule recommended by the manufacturer. If you're buying from a private party instead of a dealership, consider asking for their service records to get a fuller picture. If they can only provide scant proof that the vehicle was regularly maintained, you may want to enlist the help of a mechanic to perform an inspection.
- Recalls:: Manufacturers issue recalls from time to time when they find that a factory part isn't working properly or was incorrectly installed. When this happens, the manufacturer typically covers the cost of fixing the issue. As a vehicle changes ownership, though, it becomes increasingly difficult for manufacturers to contact the current owner. So check the vehicle history report for any open recalls that haven't been addressed.
How to Get a Vehicle History Report
In some cases, the seller may purchase a vehicle history report to put their prospective buyers at ease. If they don't offer it themselves, ask if they have the report and if you can get a copy to review it.
If the seller doesn't provide one, though, there are a few places you can go to get a look at the vehicle history report. You'll need the vehicle identification number (VIN) to request the report. The U.S. Department of Transportation provides a free database of recalls by VIN, so you can start there.
If you're not planning on shopping around for a vehicle, you can purchase just one vehicle history report. But if you think you'll want to compare your options, you can order reports for several vehicles at a discounted rate.
Next Steps After Reviewing the Vehicle History Report
Once you've read through the vehicle history report on a used car, plan to ask a mechanic to perform a pre-purchase inspection. This typically costs between $100 and $200, according to J.D. Power. That may seem a little steep, but it could save you from buying a car that'll cost you far more in the long run.
You'll also want to take the vehicle for a test drive to get an idea of how it feels on the road and to potentially spot certain issues that crop up only when the vehicle is being operated.
If you're purchasing from a private party, you may also want to check the National Insurance Crime Bureau to make sure the car hasn't been stolen.
When it comes to deciding on a fair price, take your time with the negotiation. It may help to use the information found in the vehicle's history report to give yourself some leverage. A spotty maintenance record, accidents or other issues could help you shave some money off the seller's asking price. Listen to your gut too. If the seller seems desperate to get rid of it or is otherwise trying to pressure you into making a decision, it could be a red flag. There shouldn't be any guilt associated with walking away if you don't feel right about the car in question.
Make Sure Your Credit Is Ready for a Car Purchase
If you're planning to finance your vehicle purchase, another way to maximize your savings over the life of your car is to build a good credit history. Auto loans are secured by the vehicle as collateral, so they tend to charge lower interest rates than, say, personal loans and other unsecured financing options.
Check your credit score before you start the car-buying process. If it's not where you want it to be, take some time to improve your credit. Depending on how much you increase your score, you could end up saving hundreds or thousands of dollars over the life of your auto loan.