Guide to Understanding Vehicle History Reports

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Obtaining an accurate, up-to-date vehicle history report (VHR) is an important part of buying a used car. It gives valuable insight into potential issues the vehicle may have, previous owners, and maintenance and repairs. But if you’re not particularly auto savvy, it can be difficult to decipher exactly what a VHR is telling you — and that could lead to a bad buy.

This guide will help used car buyers at any level evaluate a vehicle history report. It will go over what to expect in a detailed report, potential red flags to keep an eye out for, and how to attain a VHR. Don’t let jargon intimidate you into a car you aren’t completely confident in buying; understanding all the details about a vehicle’s past is crucial, so let this be your guide to smarter shopping!

What makes up a vehicle history report?

Vehicle history reports are sometimes referred to as VIN (vehicle identification number) checks. Depending on where you get a vehicle history report from, the layout will likely vary. However, most reports include:
  • Vehicle specifications
  • Title information
  • Registration information
  • Accident history
  • Service records
  • Odometer recordings
We’ll discuss each of these individually, noting what information is included in each section and why that information is important to consider in your buying process.

Vehicle specifications

This section will cover the basics of your car: its VIN number, make, model, year, style, engine type, country of origin, and country of manufacture. It’s important to pay close attention to all of these details to ensure that they match perfectly with the car you’re looking at; mistakes can happen and you might realize you’ve been given the paperwork for a similar but ultimately different vehicle, so it doesn’t hurt to double-check that everything matches up.

Title information

Seeing how many owners a used car has had can give you much more insight than you might realize. While it’s not totally uncommon for a vehicle to have more than one owner, the pattern to look for is multiple owners within a short period of time. This can often point to the car having many or recurring mechanical issues that caused its owners to decide it was more trouble (and therefore costlier) than it was worth. However, there are also potential reasonable explanations: for instance, a father could have purchased the car for his own use, then transferred ownership to his son or daughter when they went to college. Inquire about the circumstances regarding multiple owners, and cross-check the information with service records. If you see that each possession led to significant repairs, there’s a good chance the vehicle isn’t in overall good condition. Further, having multiple past owners can make it trickier to track down maintenance and repair records, so it’s not always as easy to tell if the car has been properly serviced.

This section will also give you lien and loan information about the vehicle. Take special note if the car has ever been repossessed, meaning it was taken away from the owner for failure to make payments on it. Although repossession alone isn’t a red flag, it could indicate that the previous owner also couldn’t afford important maintenance and repairs.

Finally, pay attention to where the car has “lived” throughout its life. Different parts of the country face various climates and conditions that could lead to unseen damage. For example, if the car has spent a significant amount of time in a tropical climate, there could be electrical damage from exposure to regular to heat and humidity. Similarly, extreme cold can cause a car to run less efficiently and result in supplemental issues. Depending on the level of care the car received while in these conditions, there could be problems that haven’t yet become apparent — but their covert presence and delay in repair could cause even greater issues.

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Registration information

Responsible car owners know to re-register their car each year, so you should see a consistent pattern of updates from year to year. If one is late by a month or two it isn’t necessarily a major red flag, but seeing a lapse for many months or even years usually points to a bigger problem. Unregistered cars cannot legally drive on the road, so failing to renew a registry may point to a major mechanical problem that kept the car from being used.

Service records

Seeing official records of regular vehicle maintenance is one of the most important parts of a vehicle history report. Ensure there have been consistent oil changes, wheel alignments, transmission checks, and brake inspections. Depending on the car’s age and mileage, it may also be due for a new battery or alternator. Many manufacturers also offer inspections or check-ups after a car has reached a certain age, especially if there have been recalls or safety updates. Look for these kinds of service records, and if they appear to be missing, inquire about whether the work was done. Your dealer may be able to help you track down service records missing from the VHR. A lapse in general upkeep can cause major problems later on, so if there seem to be gaps in care or records that are completely missing and you aren’t able to absolutely verify the work, it may be best to move on.

Accident History

The truth is that most cars end up in an accident at some point in time, so don’t expect this section to be completely void of history in order for it to be worthy of buying. However, seeing multiple accidents could point to any number of issues. Not only could there be resulting mechanical problems, a history of multiple accidents could even point to a mechanical issue causing accidents. This can be especially telling if it was a single-car accident. Compare the accident history with service records to see which — if any — repairs were made, by whom, and when. If there seems to be a major time lapse between the time of the crash and the repairs, the delay may have caused problems to exacerbate. Make sure that the appropriate repairs were made, and the car was thoroughly inspected for any other issues. If there was extensive damage but limited repairs, especially recently, tread carefully.

Also, keep in mind that a single major accident can cause detrimental mechanical issues. Collisions with other cars, especially if both cars were moving, can be especially damaging. Pay close attention to the details of the accident and walk away from anything that feels questionable.

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Odometer readings

Mileage is another important factor to consider when it comes to buying a used car. Pay attention to how often the car was driven, especially from owner-to-owner. You should see consistent readings from inspections, repairs, and maintenance. Although there’s always a chance the information was genuinely overlooked and unintentionally left out, most reputable mechanics will know to always mark it down.

What are potential red flags I should look for on a vehicle history report?

Fleet/rental vehicle

Keep in mind that in some instances, former rental cars will be used but in good condition overall. However, fleet vehicles sometimes face significant abuse by renters, and some are even stolen and used for criminal activity before they’re recovered. Storage of illegal substances in out-of-sight compartments of the car (under the hood, for instance) or other damage could occur, and that means there could be underlying issues. That could — but not necessarily — even be the reason the vehicle was taken out of use.

It’s also important to consider that not every rental car company keeps their vehicles in top condition during use. Oil changes could get pushed for weeks past their appropriate time when business is in high demand, and “minor” repairs could get ignored completely if it doesn’t affect the immediate performance of the vehicle. Maintenance policies aren’t always perfectly laid out or followed, so keep that in mind.

Insurance loss

“Insurance loss” is essentially jargon for a totaled car. It could be as a result of a terrible accident, an extremely old or used car past the point of safe driving, or even a stolen car that was recovered too late. Insurance companies that designate a car as a total loss see the vehicle as more expensive to repair than to replace, so unless you’re looking for a lemon to fix up, skip the hassle.

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This is another indication of a totaled car. It can mean one of a few things: the car itself was totaled, it’s built from parts of other totaled cars, or it’s able to be used to build another car. Salvage vehicles are a risky buy and usually end up costing quite a bit of money in repairs.

Water damage/storm registration

Water damage usually stems from an accident involving a body of water or the car being involved in some kind of natural disaster like flooding or extreme storms (in which case it might have a storm registration designation). Even if the car seems to be in good working order immediately following the incident, water damage can cause endless serious problems for the electrical system — it’s usually just a matter of time before they show up. Avoid any car with this kind of history.

Auto auction

There are many reasons a car might go to auction, be it a former fleet car or repossession from a broken lease. However, some end up on the auction block because they need major repairs and have a difficult time being sold. They’re usually fixed up and ready to go by the time they make it to a dealer lot, but be sure to follow up on its reason for going to auction and any repairs it's had since then — especially if it’s recent.

How do I get a vehicle history report?

Most dealerships will offer you a vehicle history report for a car that you’re thinking of buying for either no or low cost. However, you can also find them online through websites like AutoCheck and CarFax. Many websites offer bundle deals when it comes to purchasing a VHR, so if you do choose an outside source, be strategic!
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