Obtaining a vehicle history report is an integral part of any used-car purchase. It’s one of the best ways to learn about a given vehicle’s past and help make your search for a used car much easier. Most importantly, the report tells shoppers if a car has a branded title. Branding means an insurance company has declared the vehicle a total loss and given it a salvage title because of an accident, flood damage or other catastrophic event.
Typically, the information on a vehicle history report includes a summary and an overall evaluation of the vehicle, supported with details, dates and locations. The report makes it easy to see if the car has been registered in numerous states. Other information can include maintenance records, the number of previous owners, accident information, odometer verification, and lemon law and recall checks.
Several companies sell vehicle history reports, promising to reveal the past of any given vehicle. In this article, we’ll take a look at the two largest vehicle history report providers, AutoCheck and Carfax, since they are the ones you’ll most often encounter.
Keep in mind that no report is perfect. It’s only as good as the incidents that have been reported to the database. If, for example, someone gets into a minor accident and decides to repair the car without involving an insurance company for fear of rates going up, the accident will not be reflected in the report. Similarly, if the body shop handling the repairs does not share its data with the vehicle history companies, it will not appear on a report either. That said, we still recommend running a vehicle history report before driving across town to see a car in person.
Carfax is the most well-known provider of vehicle history reports. It dates back to the late 1980s when it faxed reports to its customers. It is also the most expensive. A single Carfax report costs $39.99. Three will cost you $59.99, and six sell for $99.99.
The Carfax report is the benchmark for all other vehicle history reports. We’ve found it to be the most detailed and user-friendly among the vehicle history reports we tested. If a vehicle has had multiple owners, that’s clearly labeled and organized in different sections. Carfax also has more detailed maintenance records. This information can serve as a guide to what issues the vehicle might have had. It also is an indicator that a prior owner took good care of the vehicle.
We ran a report on a 2008 Lexus ES 350 that spent its life in Texas. Carfax had 25 service records, including one to replace the drive belts. That’s an expensive repair and good to know about as a buyer. AutoCheck only had four service records and did not have the information on the drive belts.
AutoCheck, owned by Experian, is the newer of the two companies and we’ve found its data less comprehensive and detailed than Carfax’s. AutoCheck is notable for assigning a vehicle score to each report. This score predicts the likelihood a car will be on the road in five years. It compares vehicles of similar age and class based on a scale of 1-100. It is meant to be a quick reference when choosing between similar vehicles, but don’t place too much stock in this number because a high score isn’t a guarantee of a flawless vehicle.
We ran a report on a 2017 Toyota Tacoma, which advertised a “clean title” in its classified listing. The Tacoma received a score of 95 out of 96. Sounds like a good truck, right? But this Tacoma was involved in two accidents, according to the AutoCheck report. Carfax also caught these two accidents but also noted where the Tacoma was damaged and that it was declared a total loss and issued a salvage title.
AutoCheck charges $24.99 for a single report. But most people likely opt for the higher-tier plan at $49.99, which gives you access to five reports in 21 days.
HOW TO GET A REPORT FOR FREE
Most major used-car dealer websites and third-party shopping sites, such as Edmunds, will provide a free Carfax report or AutoCheck report. If you find yourself on the used-car lot and want to know the history of a particular vehicle, simply ask for a report. All dealers have vehicle history report subscriptions and will run a free report for interested buyers. If the dealer refuses to run a vehicle history report or provides an outdated report, it could be a red flag.
EDMUNDS SAYS: A clean vehicle history report isn’t a guarantee you’re getting a good used car. We still recommend a mechanical inspection. But running a report is a valuable first step that could also protect you from buying a car with a checkered past.
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