How to check used car history records by the VIN number

Updated: January, 2015

By opting for a used car, you can save a lot of money, but you have to be careful to avoid buying a "lemon". Thousands of car accidents happen every day and many cars are restored and sold on the used car market.

Accident car

While the majority of cars are restored properly and will function almost as good as new, those repaired by shady repair shops may become a nightmare for the next owner. In general, cars that have been repaired after an accident are more likely to develop rust, as well as mechanical and electrical problems. Check this photo. We took it at one of the local collision repair shops. They keep this half of the car, so when they get another same-model car hit in the back, they will "cut and shut" the two parts together and sell this car on the used car market.
Another category of cars used car buyers should avoid are those that have been flooded. Flash floods are becoming a common occurrence and once in a while you might come across a vehicle that had been flooded in the past like this one in the photo.

Signs of vehicle being flooded
This used car shows signs of flooding. Read more

It may look flawless and drive fine, but if water has gotten inside the car it is likely to develop expensive-to-repair electrical problems in the future. Odometer fraud is another issue. Even though tampering with odometers is illegal, this practice is still going on. According to the NHTSA, there are approximately 452,000 cases of odometer fraud per year in the United States.
Used car buyers should also be careful when buying cars that were previously used as a rental vehicle. Some of the ex-rental cars might be kept in good shape, while others may have been abused or poorly maintained. For these reasons, used car buyers should consider checking used car history records BEFORE signing the contract. There are several companies that provide this type of service. Carfax, one of our partners, is well known and has benefited many used car buyers since 1996.

VIN number at the left corner of the windshield
VIN Number

To check the history, you need the Vehicle Identification Number or VIN. It's a 17-character number with letters and digits that you can find in the left front corner of the windshield (in the photo) or on the manufacturing label on the door jamb. First, you can check if there are any records available for the car you are interested in, it's free:
Free CARFAX Record Check
It shows you how many records there are available for the VIN number you enter. If you want to see the records, you need to buy the full report:
Order CARFAX Vehicle History Reports
A single Vehicle History Report™ at CARFAX will cost you $39.99. You can order 5 reports for $49.99 or unlimited reports for $54.99. You can pay online by credit card or via PayPal. The CARFAX® history report also shows the number of previous owners, some service records and states or provinces where the car was previously registered. The report also includes the vehicle warranty information. It works in Canada too.

Sample history report
Portion of a sample history report

When you get the report, pay attention to the dates and the corresponding odometer records. If it shows that one year the car was driven for 15,000 miles and another year for only 3,000 miles, you may need to check the vehicle more carefully.
Of course, keep in mind that if the history report doesn't show "bad" records, you still need to thoroughly check the vehicle yourself and have it inspected by a mechanic. This is because not all accidents are reported and the mechanical condition of the vehicle can only be verified by a thorough mechanical inspection; things like engine or transmission condition are also important, but they are not marked in the history report. Read our used car checklist with photos for tips on how to spot some potential problems, including flood damage, accidents and more.

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