Using VIN numbers to check car accident history

When purchasing a used car, experts say it’s best to spend a few dollars to obtain a vehicle history report. Most dealers will run a vehicle history report for used cars, which will be provided to potential buyers. However, if you’re shopping for a used car from a private party, or at a dealership that does not provide history reports, it is well worth the investment to pay for a vehicle history report for any used car you are seriously considering buying. Keep reading to learn how and why you should check vehicle history before signing for a used car.

(And forgive us the redundancy: “VIN” in part stands for “number,” but most of us think of the code itself as a “VIN number.”)

What is a vehicle history report?

What is a vehicle history report? This is a detailed history of the vehicle from the time it was first sold. It is tied to the VIN for the vehicle, since all sales, registrations, titles and repairs include a vehicle’s VIN. The VIN, or vehicle identification number, is a unique string of numbers and letters that uses a code of sorts associated with a vehicle’s manufacturer, country of origin, model, and when it was built. As a consumer, by using the VIN, you can check to see if the car has been stolen, involved in a collision, suffered flood damage, issued a salvage title, and subject to safety recalls. This information is typically contained in the vehicle history report, along with other information, such as when the car has been registered to different owners or in different states. 

How to get a vehicle history report

Two of the best-known companies providing vehicle history reports are AutoCheck and Carfax. Go to their website, type in the VIN of the car you want a vehicle history for, and the search will return the number of records found. At that point, you have the option of purchasing a single report for the vehicle, or you can buy unlimited reports for 30 days.

Are there any free history reports available?

There are numerous websites that claim to offer free vehicle history reports or VIN checks, though it’s worth cautioning that you may be getting what you pay for. These services may not be as accurate as paid services, or they may be limited in the information they offer. For example, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit that provides resources to fight insurance fraud, offers a free VIN check tool. However, the check will only provide information about insurance claims related to the VIN, and only includes information reported by the organization’s member insurance companies. Other reputable services include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s VIN check, though since this government organization focuses on vehicle safety, it’s limited in that it will only report recalls related to a VIN. These are good resources to have and use, but it’s unlikely that you’ll get a comprehensive vehicle history report without paying for it.

What is Included in a vehicle history report?

Vehicle history reports typically include information about the vehicle’s ownership history, such as how many times it’s changed hands, and whether it was leased or purchased, or used for police, taxi, or other fleet services. It will tell you the length of ownership for each owner, what states it’s been registered in, and last reported mileage at the times of registration. That information can also tell you the estimated miles driven per year, and may indicate suspected mileage rollback or odometer rollback. A VIN check will give recall information and warranty information. Other information includes major accidents, structural damage, if the car has ever been rebuilt, salvaged, junked or declared a total loss, flood damage, hail damage, airbag deployment, or branded a lemon.

What is not included in a vehicle history report

A vehicle history report does omit certain types of information. For example, a vehicle history report will not tell you who has owned the vehicle in the past, or provide any contact information for previous owners. Information about the vehicle’s maintenance history is not included. That includes any details about emissions testing and about the car’s current physical condition. While a vehicle history report will show you if a car has been in a collision that resulted in an insurance claim, you won’t learn anything about the collision, such as who caused it, where and how the collision occurred, or the extent of the damage. You also won’t learn about any body damage that didn’t result in an insurance claim, such as fender benders, and whether such damage, if any, was properly repaired. And the big caveat — a vehicle history report may not include accident history or other information that the owner intentionally concealed or did not file with insurance. For example, consider that a vehicle’s owner may have caused a hit-and-run, collided with an animal, or significantly damaged the car in some other way. If the police were not involved and an insurance claim was not filed, such an incident wouldn’t show up on the vehicle history report, regardless of the severity of damage. 

Why do I need a vehicle history report?

That said, a vehicle history check is still a good idea. In case you’re tempted to roll the dice and just take the seller’s word for the car’s history, be aware that you could be in for some headaches. A vehicle history report will track a vehicle’s history even if it’s been moved from state to state to “wash the title clean,” and it may alert you to other red flags. 

Benefits of car history reports

A clean vehicle history report isn’t necessarily a green flag to buy a particular vehicle. However, a vehicle history report with red flags is all you should need to walk away. In other words, a VIN check is just one tool you can use as a consumer to make a smart buying decision. Buying a vehicle history report isn’t the only thing you should do when buying a used car. It’s also recommended that you have the vehicle professionally inspected and take a test drive. After that, it’s up to you to negotiate the deal, armed with all the information you need to be in the driver’s seat.

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