What is a vehicle history report?

Couple at a car dealership looking through paperworkImage: Couple at a car dealership looking through paperwork

In a Nutshell

A vehicle history report contains a range of information on a car, including previous owners, odometer readings, open recalls and damage, accidents or repairs. You can typically get one online or through some car dealerships. While a vehicle history report can tell you a lot about a car’s past, you should also get the car inspected and take it for a test drive to help determine it’s not a clunker.
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The car-buying process can be tricky, especially if you’re considering a used vehicle. If you’re buying, how can you be sure the car is ready for the fast lane? If you’re selling, how can you increase the odds of a hassle-free sale? A vehicle history report can help.

A vehicle history report can tell you what happened in a vehicle’s past. The report includes details including who owned the car, work they had done to the vehicle, and if the car was in any accidents.

If you’re buying a used car, this information can help you check whether the vehicle has hidden issues. As a seller, providing a vehicle history report for potential buyers can ease their concerns about the car’s history, possibly making it easier to sell the car.

Let’s take a look at some of the key information included in a vehicle history report, as well as where to get one and what to do once you have the report.

What information can I find in a vehicle history report?

A vehicle history report can contain basic information about a vehicle’s past. It has:

  • Previous owners and how they used the car
  • Accident history and damage
  • Title information and liens held on the vehicle
  • Service history and recall notices
  • Odometer readings

Previous owners and how they used the car

This information is key to understanding how the vehicle was used in the past. Were there multiple owners? Was the car used for business or personal use? Did it experience potential wear and tear as a rental car or taxi?

Tips for buying from a private seller

Accident history and damage

If the vehicle was involved in any major accidents, or if it had flood damage, this should be listed in the vehicle history report. This information can help you determine if the car will still be safe to drive.

Title information and liens held on the vehicle

The vehicle history report should include a car’s title history, including any salvage-title branding. A salvage title indicates that the car was declared a total loss following an accident or theft. A car with a salvage title may require extensive repairs down the road or have hidden problems — and in some states, driving a salvage-title vehicle is illegal.

The title information can also help you make sure that the seller is the actual owner of the vehicle.

If there’s a lien on the vehicle, this can mean the seller still owes money on the car. Creditors or other third parties could have a right to repossess the vehicle if the loan isn’t paid back according to its terms. In addition, the seller may need to get permission to sell the vehicle and pay off the car loan or roll the balance onto a new loan before the car title can be assigned to you.

Service history and recall notices

A vehicle’s service details can give you an idea of how well the previous owners maintained it.

The report should also let you know if the vehicle has any open recalls that you may need to address.

Odometer readings

The report should include the vehicle’s most recent odometer reading. If that number doesn’t match what the odometer shows when you look at the car, the seller may have rolled back the odometer — a red flag when buying.

Where can I get a vehicle history report?

To get a vehicle history report, you’ll typically need to have the vehicle identification number, or VIN. This 17-digit number is often found on the lower left side of your car’s windshield, as well as on the car’s registration card and insurance documents.

Once you have the VIN, there are a number of websites you can use to get a vehicle history report, like Carfax, AutoCheck and instaVIN. The report typically costs somewhere around $10 to $40. You can also use the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s free VINCheck database to see if a car has been reported stolen or is a salvage vehicle.

If you’re buying a used car from a dealership or shopping through an online marketplace, you may be able to get a vehicle history report for free.

What should I do after getting a vehicle history report?

While a vehicle history report can tell you a lot about a car, it won’t give you the complete story. A vehicle history report is only as good as the information reported by police departments and insurance companies. If an accident wasn’t reported, it might not show up on the report. And even if it was reported, it could take months to appear on a vehicle history report.

There are a couple of things you can to do help you get a more complete picture of the car’s condition before you decide to buy it.

Get an inspection

A vehicle history report won’t tell you how the vehicle currently drives, whether there’s any wear and tear or if it needs any minor repairs, like a tail light replacement. A pre-purchase inspection by an independent mechanic can help you identify any mechanical issues and give you a sense of the car’s reliability.

Take a test drive

Before you buy, take the car for a spin to see how it runs. Drive the car on roads, highways and hills, and pay attention to things like the suspension, brakes, steering and how the car accelerates.

Bottom line

A vehicle history report is just the first step in researching a used car you might want to buy. Be sure to test drive the vehicle and get it inspected before handing over your cash or taking out a car loan.

Buying a used car can be overwhelming, but doing your homework can help you avoid ending up with a lemon.

About the author: Paris Ward is a content strategist at Credit Karma, providing readers with the latest news that will aid their financial progress. She has more than a decade of experience as a writer and editor and holds a bachelor’s… Read more.