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How to Understand a Vehicle History Report

The process of buying a new or used car is fairly similar. Newer cars tend to have more features and a higher price tag. Used cars are generally more budget-friendly but have the chance of being less reliable. Fortunately, when buying a used car, the prospective buyer can get a snapshot of the car's past through a vehicle history report (VHR).

Vehicle History Report

A vehicle history report may help the prospective buyer when deciding to purchase the vehicle or continue their search. Keep reading to discover what information is typically included in a VHR and how someone can obtain one before the sale is complete. Additionally, we'll discuss the accuracy of these reports and what the prospective buyer should do after receiving one.

What is a Vehicle History Report?

A vehicle history report provides a glimpse into the car's past. The amount of information contained within a VHR can help the buyer make an informed decision about purchasing a car and how much the car is worth. A VHR is tied to the vehicle identification number (VIN), and the information is gathered over the vehicle's lifespan. Every time the car goes through an emissions test, the date and mileage on the car is stored in a database. When someone pulls a vehicle history report, the records are collected from various sources and put into a single document.

Here are some of the important information contained in a vehicle history report:

  • Previous owners and how they used the vehicle
  • The vehicles collision history and damage
  • Title information and liens on the car
  • Recall notices and service history
  • Odometer readings

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Let's take a deeper dive into what each means and how to use it when buying a used car.

Previous owners and how they used the vehicle

One of the main aspects of a vehicle history report is outlining the previous owners of the vehicle and how it was used. VHR services may pull information from public records to provide this data to the consumer.

Additionally, the vehicle history report may detail when and where the vehicle was bought and sold. Generally, a vehicle with a single previous owner is more valuable than one with several owners. The report may indicate that the vehicle was previously owned by a rental car company, a fleet operator, or a business. While a commercially-owned vehicle may not be a deal-breaker for some, that knowledge may help during the price negotiation process.

If the report indicates that the vehicle was commercially owned, it's recommended to consult with a mechanic to conduct a pre-purchase inspection.

The vehicles collision history and damage

Arguably the most important information contained within a vehicle history report is the vehicle's collision and damage history. VHR services gather that information from law enforcement, the motor vehicle department, insurance companies, and repair shops to provide a list of any collisions involving the vehicle.

Information such as severe structural damage and airbag deployments may be included. Tread carefully if that is outlined in the report. The vehicle may be considered roadworthy, but it may never drive the same, or worse, not be as safe if another major collision occurred.

Additionally, if the report shows no collision history, don't assume that the vehicle never suffered any type of collision. Minor collisions never reported to any agencies or companies mentioned above will not show up on a VHR.  

Before committing to the purchase of the vehicle, it's advantageous to get a pre-purchase inspection by an independent mechanic to ensure the vehicle is safe to drive and the previous repairs were done properly.  

Title information and liens on the car

Individuals can glean a lot from the title history portion of a vehicle history report. One of the best aspects of the title history is seeing if the vehicle carries a salvage title. A salvage title refers to a damaged vehicle that an insurance company deems a total loss, and the insurance company paid a claim on it.

Vehicles with salvage titles may require the new owner to pay an arm and a leg for repairs. If the report indicates the vehicle has a salvage title, it's maybe best to steer clear of that vehicle. Additionally, suppose the report shows that the title was issued in various states in a short time. In that case, it may suggest that the previous owner was attempting to wipe out specific negative information from the vehicle.

This section of the report may also show if there is a current lien on the vehicle. A car lien refers to outstanding debt on a vehicle. If the report shows a lien on the vehicle, that means the seller still owes money to the lender. If a used car is purchased with a lien, creditors have the right to repossess the vehicle. Check with the seller to determine if there is still a lien on the vehicle. The seller may need to receive permission to sell, and they'll need to pay off the remaining balance on the car loan.

Recall notices and service history

The recall notices and service history section may provide the prospective buyer with valuable information to help make a sound decision to continue with the purchase.

Recalls may occur when the manufacturer discovers a factory part is not working properly or installed incorrectly. Fortunately, the manufacturer will generally cover the cost to resolve the issue. However, it becomes hard for the manufacturer to locate the current owner when a vehicle changes ownership. It's recommended to check the vehicle history report for any outstanding recall notices.

In addition, to recall notices, VHRs generally outline the service history. The service history section may provide the buyer with how the previous owners maintained the vehicle. Additionally, it may indicate to the buyer the vehicle's longevity.    

Odometer readings

Generally, vehicle history reports outline the current odometer reading. The odometer reading is typically reported during certain points of the vehicle's life, specifically during a change of ownership. If the odometer on the vehicle is lower than what the report shows, consider that a red flag and proceed with caution. Odometer rollbacks are a shady practice that some sellers may try to get away with. Fortunately, odometer rollbacks are less common nowadays since odometers are digital as opposed to mechanical. However, they may still happen.

What Information Isn't in a Vehicle History Report?

Vehicle history report services try to provide the most up-to-date information, but there are certain instances where specific information will not be present. VHR services can only report on things that they are aware of. For example, the mechanical state of the vehicle, worn parts, burned-out light bulbs, and other related issues will not appear on a vehicle history report. Additionally, there is a chance something major happened to the vehicle between the last reported issue and when the buyer receives the report.

Also, the individual names of the previous owners are not included in the report due to privacy concerns. 

How to Obtain a Vehicle History Report?

There are several ways to obtain a vehicle history report. Generally, the vehicle identification number is needed. The VIN is a 17-digit number, and it's typically located on the lower left side of the car's windshield. 

Once the VIN is received, there are a few companies that specialize in vehicle history reports. Carfax is the most popular service, but places like AutoCheck and InstaVIN are great alternatives. These services generally charge anywhere between $10 and $40 to receive a full report. While $40 may seem like a steep price, it may be beneficial to spot a potential issue then wait and pay more for repairs.

However, there are available options to obtain information on the car for free. The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free tool for users to gather more information on a used vehicle. Their VINCheck database is not an in-depth vehicle history report, but users can see if the car has ever been reported stolen or if it's a salvage vehicle.

Shopping for a used car at a dealership is another viable option to obtaining a free vehicle history report. Most dealerships have a subscription to one of the services previously mentioned, and generally, they will provide it with no additional charge. However, if the car salesman declines or provides an outdated report, it could represent a serious issue with the vehicle.


Are Vehicle History Reports Accurate?

Vehicle history reports are a mere snapshot of the car's past, but they don't tell the full story. The main issue with vehicle history reports is that reporting sources are pulled from various places such as vehicle registries, insurance agencies, mechanics, and much more. With information being pulled from a variety of entities, there is a chance that mistakes may happen or some important information was omitted.

Fortunately, services like Carfax and AutoCheck offer buyback guarantees, where they will buy the car back if the car was bought based on inaccurate information. However, it's important to understand the details of each respective buyback guarantee because only certain inaccurate information is covered.

What to Do After Receiving a Vehicle History Report

A vehicle history report may help prospective buyers make informed decisions when buying a used car. However, the VHR should not be the be-all-end-all. Here are a couple of things to do before committing to the purchase.

Get an inspection of the vehicle

Vehicle history reports are great for gathering more information on a used car, but it doesn't tell the buyer how it currently operates. In addition to obtaining a VHR, we recommend getting a pre-purchase inspection from a third-party mechanic to provide and identify any potential issues and offer the buyer a feel for the car's reliability. 

Take it out for a spin

Before buying any car, specifically a used car, it's advantageous to take it out for a test drive. Try various surfaces such as normal roads, highways, and hills when taking the car out for a test drive. When on the test drive, pay close attention to specific things such as the suspension system, brakes, steering, and acceleration speeds.

Gerber Collision Is Here to Provide You With Assistance

It's smart to acquire a vehicle history report on a used car you want to buy. However, it's important to remember that VHRs provide a glimpse into the vehicle's past, but it doesn't offer the complete story.

If you happen to get into a collision with your used car, our wonderful technicians at Gerber Collision are happy to help. We offer windshield replacement and repair, auto body repair, hail damage repair, and paintless dent repair. Contact Gerber Collision at 1-877-743-7237 or schedule an appointment through our online portal.

DISCLAIMER: This article is presented for informational purposes only and should not be seen as any kind of advice. The information provided herein or linked to via this article is 'as is' with no guarantee of accuracy or completeness. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.

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