Published October 05, 2012
Car buyers are often wary of buying a used car because they don't know its history. They worry the money they save on buying a used car will be eaten away by a problem from a previous car accident or an issue that results in costly repairs. One way to provide peace of mind is to review a vehicle history report before you make the purchase. However, these reports have their limitations.
Vehicle history reports typically provide information on the car's owners and title, including whether it has been recorded as a junk title, flood-damage title or salvage title. It also has car insurance total-loss records, theft data, car accidents reported to the police and open liens or car loans, and the odometer reading associated with these incidents. Some companies providing vehicle history reports also collect information on a used car's service history, whether the car has been towed or impounded, and if it had a lemon law claim.
Most of this information comes from VehicleHistory.gov, the website for the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, or NMVTIS, a federal database overseen by the Department of Justice where all insurance carriers, auto recyclers, junkyards and salvage yards are required by federal law to report their information.
Consumers can't access the database on their own. The Department of Justice has a short list of approved providers that utilize this information. Those users sometimes combine their own data with what's available on the website to create their reports that are sold to consumers.
Accessing a used car's history is as simple as ordering a vehicle history report from one of the companies providing this service. But be aware of what the report provides for the money you are spending. The cost for a report typically ranges from $6.95 to $29.99, and the cost difference doesn't necessarily mean a better quality report or additional information for the specific used car you are researching.
All of the companies approved to provide the data from the NMVTIS have access to the same information, so in that sense, vehicle history reports from different companies are very similar, regardless of the company you choose and regardless of the price of the report. While the "extras" that many companies provide can be worth some additional cost, the additional data may not apply to the specific car you are researching.
For example, many car history report providers say they include Department of Motor Vehicle data, but not all state DMVs provide data to these companies. Be sure to read the details for each company offering vehicle history reports to see what information may be lacking in the used car you are researching.
Regardless of the car's history, it's a good idea to review a used car's complete service records. Ask for copies from the current owner or ask the dealer for a printout from the service database if the car is sold through a dealer, and hire an independent mechanic to do a thorough inspection of the car before you buy.