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You may think you’re ready to buy a used car, but have you checked its past?

Getting a vehicle history report is a critical step in the car-buying process. The report uses the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to find important information on the car, where it’s been, and how it’s been used.

It can tell you whether the car has been in an accident, flood, or fire, and if it’s been stolen and recovered. It will also tell you the odometer reading, the service and ownership history, and the all-important title branding, which will indicates whether the vehicle has been salvaged or deemed damaged beyond a certain percentage of the car’s value.

If you’ve found a car that seems too good to be true, stop, it might be. Before you buy it you should take it to a third-party mechanic for an inspection, call the owner, and run the vehicle history report first – or risk a costly mistake.

“It's important to remember that for the vast majority of consumers, buying a car is a big deal,” says Jim Dykstra, chief executive of Vinadvisor, an online car shopping portal. “There are just a few topics in the same category as car buying. Along with buying a car, buying a house, saving for college, planning for retirement, are often referred to as ‘kitchen table’ topics. There are three core considerations for most consumers when it comes to choosing a vehicle: What do I need the vehicle to do for me? How long will I keep this car? What is my budget?” 

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Like personal credit reports, several services offer these reports on a vehicle’s provenance for a fee. They only require that you type the VIN (which is sometimes included in the used car’s listing). Then you’ll order the report and receive a PDF immediately. Most will include a description and overall evaluation of the vehicle with details such as dates and locations for when it was serviced and sold. The report will tell you if the car has been registered in numerous states by previous owners, which could hint at a problem, and whether it has been recalled or repurchased by the manufacturer under the lemon law.

What Car History Services Are Available?

Most companies sell a single report for a fixed fee, usually ranging from $10 to $40, or a subscription for a higher price. However, not all vehicle history reports are the same. Industry leader Carfax, for example, provides more detailed reports than competitors, including information such as service department records that other reports may skip. Carfax sells single reports for $39.99 and packages of five for $59.99. An unlimited subscription to the site costs $69. CarFax is a U.S. News Best Cars partner, so you can also find CarFax reports on our used car listing page. They're often free.

AutoCheck, owned by global personal credit report giant Experian, issues each vehicle a numerical score that compares the car to similar vehicles built that year to help put it in context. AutoCheck charges $24.99 for a single vehicle history report, $49.99 to access 25 reports within 21 days, or $99.99 for 300 reports in 21 days.

Then there are several smaller, less expensive services such as VinSmart, VinInspect, and MotoSnoop, but these might not provide the same amount of detail as the bigger companies. Note that some used car listings will offer free access to its vehicle history report and some dealers have subscriptions to Carfax or AutoCheck and can run a report for serious customers free of charge.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau also offers a free VINCheck service to determine if a vehicle has been reported as stolen but not recovered, or has been reported by an insurance carrier as a salvage vehicle. The website allows five searches within a 24-hour period per IP address.

Managed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) provides a database of companies that issue vehicle history reports consistent with federal legal requirements.The VIN Look-up Tool is the only official federal resource for vehicle history, and the government provides instant reports free of charge. The report is generally shorter than vehicle history reports from Carfax, AutoCheck, and others because it provides information only on five key safety indicators: current state of title and last title date, brand history, odometer reading, total loss history, and salvage history. It does not include vehicle repair histories, recall information, and other care and maintenance data.

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The NMVTIS is the only system that insurance carriers, salvage yards, auto recyclers, and junkyards are required to report to regularly under federal law. The database covers a comprehensive range of personal vehicles – cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, motor homes, and tractors – and contains title information from the majority of state motor vehicle registries. Note that there is no uniform timeframe for states to update the registry. Some states report and update the system in real time as transactions occur, while others send reports every 24 hours or within a few days.

However, the NMVTIS report may not include information on significant vehicle damage if the vehicle was never branded by a state titling agency or determined to be a “total loss” by an insurance company. To complicate matters, brand types and definitions vary by state, so insurance carriers are sometimes required to report a “total loss” even if the vehicle’s titling-state has not branded it as “salvage” or “junk.”

For a complete picture of the used vehicle you’re considering buying, you should request the NMVTIS report in addition to one from another service such as Carfax, which is available on our used car listing page, often for free. Remember that a vehicle history report is one factor you should study before buying a used car, but it’s not a substitute for a test drive or independent vehicle inspection. You’ll have to step away from your computer for those.