By: Sarah E. Sanuth, is an insider in the automotive industry  with many years of experience in the car dealership and repair business

Vehicle history reports have become a staple in the used car buying process. Most of us request a “Carfax” report not knowing what it will or could contain. Of course we all want to know whether or not the vehicle we are about to purchase has been in an accident or involved in the floods, and $29.99 seems like a small fee for peace of mind. But before we rely on such a report, we need to understand its limitations, and what the information in it really means.

These are the following areas in which Carfax claims are included in each report:

Title information, including salvaged or junked titles:

This information is available to anyone free of charge. A simple call to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the state in which the vehicle is registered/titled in will tell you this. Junk yards are required by law in some states to report, or hand over the title when a vehicle has been junked. Salvage vehicles have to be inspected by the state in order to be legal and obtain a salvage title.

Flood damage history:

This information is also free. It can be obtained from the National Insurance Crime Bureau at NICB.org. This website also compiles information about stolen and total loss vehicles and will allow you to check up to 5 VIN numbers per day.

Total loss accident history:

If the used car you are researching has been in a total loss accident, and is not listed in NICB, then it most likely will not be listed on a history report either. When vehicles have been deemed a total loss by insurance companies or the police department, the VIN gets branded to alert anyone of such incidences. However, if the police or the insurance company is not involved when this happens, you will not see this listed in any report.

Odometer readings:

While odometer reading may seem important, the most important issue when it comes to odometer reading is that the mileage is correct. Calling the Department of Motor Vehicles will tell you whether there is evidence that it has been tampered with by the branding of odometer discrepancy which will be stated on the title.

Lemon history:

Lemon usually refers exclusively to new cars. Most states do not classify any used car as a lemon, and therefore any “lemon laws” that your state may have will not apply here. However, having a vehicle that has, or has had problems, does not classify it as a lemon. If a used vehicle is up for sale and has at least 30,000 miles on, the probability of it having more than the normal quirks of that specific make or model is rare. However, “lemon” vehicles have to be branded on the title that they are in fact “lemons.” A simple call to the department of motor vehicles can provide you with this information as well.

Number of owners:

This information is also available through the Title Division at the Department of Motor Vehicles. As long as you have the VIN number, you can find out how many times the title for that vehicle has been issued, etc. If the vehicle has been titled in a different state prior, they can tell you which state it was titled in and a call to that states department of motor vehicles can provide you with the rest of the information.

Accident indicators, such as airbag deployments:

Again, if the vehicle was not inspected by an insurance company or the police didn’t respond to the accident, this information will not be listed on the vehicle history report. To find out this information, all it takes is an inspection by a qualified mechanic. When items such as airbags go off, they can’t be repaired, but rather need to be replaced. A look at this part will tell you whether or not it has been replaced.

State emissions/inspection results:

Emission and inspection information is very rarely included in a history report. There are some states that do report this information or allow companies such as Carfax access to their database, but if the information isn’t reported, you will not have that information.

Service records:

Unless the repair facility that worked on the vehicle kept record and reported those records through the database, they won’t show on a history report. Most of the time, the only service records that will be listed for a vehicle is something that has been repaired due to a manufacturer recall as this is mandated by the National Traffic and Highway Safety Administration.

Vehicle use (taxi, rental, lease, etc.):

If the vehicle has been used as a taxi, rental car or other, the owner of the vehicle at the time would have been on the title records. You can request this information from the department of motor vehicles as well.

Can I Get Most of the Information from the DMV?

Most of the information that you would want from a car history report may not be there, as the information on all these items are not logged or reported. The most pertinent information that you need would be title history, one call to the Department of Motor Vehicles can give you most of this information.

For the basic information, most DMV’s will provide you with the information free of charge over the phone. However, if you want the detailed information such as number of owners, service and emissions records, vehicle use and accident indicators, a Title Search application will need to be filled out and a small fee paid. The fee is dependent on the state, but varies between $5-30.

If from there you receive a report back that lists accidents, you may also request from the DMV any accident reports associated with it. Again, there is a small fee that is dependent on the state; on average is $1 per page. Call your local Department of Motor Vehicles for more information. Also visit the state DMV website to see if there’s any online access to the information.

How should you use these reports?

Vehicle history reports should only be a means to rule a vehicle out, never to count a vehicle in. Keep in mind that just because the report doesn’t list something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But if the item is listed, then it most likely did happen.

These history reports are very inconsistent and much of the information that you think that you are getting is not there. The problem with this is that the information contained in them is only as good as the information reported.

Companies such as Carfax and AutoCheck will state in their disclaimer that they are not responsible for the information that is contained in the report, nor are they responsible for any errors that may be contained in it. However, if you do choose to use a vehicle history report, remember that it can give some insight on that potential used car. However, don’t rely on them as absolute, because what you are looking for just might not be there in black and white and nothing can replace the knowledge and experience of a qualified mechanic.

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