In a NutshellYou can check the history of a used car you’re thinking about buying to see what you might be getting into. One of the ways to dig into a used car’s past is to get a free Carfax report, which provides information such as the vehicle’s accident, damage and ownership history.
If you’re in the market for a used car, you probably want to make sure you’re not going to buy a dud.
Carfax provides vehicle history information for buyers and sellers of used cars in the U.S. and Canada, and there are three ways you can get a free Carfax report.
- When you shop for a used car on the Carfax website or on sites like autotrader.com and cars.com
- On a car dealer’s website or at a car dealership
- Through a private seller
But keep in mind that not every online listing, car dealership or private seller will supply a free Carfax vehicle history report. Remember, too, that a Carfax report might not include every facet of a car’s history.
- What is a Carfax report?
- How do I get a free Carfax report?
- What are some alternatives to a free Carfax report?
- What should I look for in a vehicle history report?
- What should I do after reading the vehicle history report?
Carfax compiles a history report for a vehicle based on data it collects from U.S. motor vehicle agencies, police departments, fire departments, collision repair centers, auto auctioneers and other sources. Carfax says its vehicle history database contains more than 22 billion records.
Each report relies on data reported to Carfax for a unique, 17-digit vehicle identification number, or VIN, which includes information about a car’s history.
- Major accidents
- Past owners
- Maintenance history
- Structural damage
- Manufacturer recalls
- Odometer readings
- Warranty information
Carfax says its reports can help you steer clear of buying a car with hidden problems, including damage caused in an accident.
“Accidents are always a big concern, and a small accident might be a deal-breaker for many,” says Carfax spokesperson Jim Sharifi. “That said, if a car has had a small accident and the damage was repaired correctly, it could still be a great car. That’s why we’ve taken additional steps to explain the location and severity of accident damage on our vehicle history reports.”
Carfax provides three avenues for getting a free Carfax vehicle history report.
1. Used-car listings
Carfax says every car listed for sale on its website comes with a free Carfax report. Websites like autotrader.com and cars.com also might include free Carfax reports with their listings. If a used-car listing lacks a link to a free Carfax report, Carfax suggests requesting one from the seller.
2. Car dealers
Many used-car dealers offer free Carfax reports on their websites. If you don’t see a link to a free report, Carfax recommends reaching out to the dealer to ask for one. Reports also might be available by visiting a car dealership.
3. Private sellers
If you’re considering buying a used car from a private seller, ask for a free Carfax report. Keep in mind that that the seller might not have a report or might be reluctant to share the vehicle’s history, according to Carfax’s website.
What are some alternatives to a free Carfax report?
Aside from getting a free Carfax report, there are several ways you can get a free vehicle history report.
Get free information from another provider
Companies like VINcheck.info and AutoCheck also supply vehicle history information.
VINcheck.info supplies vehicle history information based on data tied to a car’s VIN or license plate number, including accidents, odometer readings and damage. VINcheck.info promotes its vehicle history reports as no-cost alternatives to reports from Carfax and its competitors.
AutoCheck offers only a free two- or three-digit vehicle history score, which grades a car’s history. You have to buy a report to obtain a car’s full background.
Buy a vehicle history report
In addition to the numerous websites that offer vehicle history reports, the federal government’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System lists approved providers of vehicle history reports starting at $2.95. These reports, intended to only provide data on indicators associated with preventing auto fraud and theft, broadly cover title information, previous damage and odometer readings — but nothing beyond that. The system’s data comes from three sources: auto recyclers, salvage yards and junkyards.
The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, notes that since information in one report from one company might not be complete, you may want to consider getting a second report from another company.
If a report is outdated or you think information might be missing or made up, the FTC suggests reaching out to the company that produced the report for clarification.
Once you get a vehicle history report, here are some questions some dealers recommend you ask.
- Has the car been involved in any crashes?
- How much damage has the car sustained?
- Has the car ever been totaled?
- Has the manufacturer issued any recalls?
- Does it look as if the odometer has been altered?
- How many owners has the car had?
- What type of maintenance and repair has the car undergone?
What should I do after reading the vehicle history report?
A vehicle history report from Carfax or another provider can help you decide whether to buy a car. But it’s not the only consideration.
For instance, the FTC points out that a vehicle history report isn’t a substitute for a vehicle inspection by an independent mechanic, even if the car has been certified by a dealer or if it comes with a warranty. This inspection can detect hidden damage and other problems.
Whether you get it for free or buy it, a vehicle history report can be an important tool when you’re purchasing a used car. Although a vehicle history report might not reveal everything about a car’s past, it can help you make a more informed buying decision.
Here are some other steps to take if you’re buying a used car.
- Go on a test drive.
- Review maintenance records.
- Figure out the value before negotiating a price.
- Research the car’s maintenance and repair costs.