Before you buy a used car, you need to find out as much as you can about its past. What the car went through during the time before your potential ownership is vitally important for its future. A neglected or damaged vehicle can spell disaster in the future, and you need to be sure that you’re buying a car that was properly maintained and well-loved. Vehicle history reports are the best way to find out what a car has gone through over the course of its life. Here’s what you need to know about a vehicle history report.

What Is a Vehicle History Report?

vehicle history report
The vehicle history report uses the car's VIN to pull car information. 

A vehicle history report is a listing of a vehicle’s information based on its vehicle identification number (VIN). Every car gets a VIN when it rolls off the assembly line, and that number is how automakers, insurance companies, police, car sellers, and maintenance personnel keep track of all the car’s official information. Think of the VIN like your car’s social security number.

In a vehicle history report, there will be a wide variety of information, including past ownership, liens on the vehicle, title history, accident history, odometer readings, rollback alerts, lemon determination, and various other details depending on the car and the type of report ordered. All of this information can tell you quite a lot about a vehicle, and it helps you to know whether or not it’s smart to purchase the vehicle.

The Difference Between Free and Paid Vehicle History Reports

Vehicle History Report
There are plenty of vehicle history report options online. 

There are essentially two different kinds of vehicle history reports. A basic VIN check, which is free, and a detailed vehicle history report, which usually comes with a fee. There are a number of companies out there that offer vehicle history report services⸺both free and paid reports. The main difference between all of these free and paid reports is the level of detail.

In most cases, the free report gives the most basic information. It will tell you things like how many owners the car has had, if there are any liens on the vehicle, or if it was stolen. Some free reports will go much further than that and get into odometer readings and accident history. Paid history reports can get very detailed. Some even show maintenance specifics, which can tell you a lot about how the car was maintained during the last few years of ownership.

Is a Free Report Enough or Should You Pay for One?

vehicle history report
Free reports are good, but paid reports will be more detailed. 

If you’re shopping for a car, you should always get a vehicle history report. In the early stages of the car buying process, the free vehicle history report should suffice to show you the essential information. Once you are really interested in a particular vehicle, it’s worth it to pay for the full report. Although some of the vehicle history reporting companies charge what seems to be a hefty fee, you’ll save yourself tons of money in the long run by avoiding a bad car.

When searching for a good vehicle history report company to go through, go with the big names. They’re well-known for a reason. Carfax is the top-dog in this space. The company’s prices are a little higher, but you get what you pay for. These are the most detailed reports you can find. A good alternative is AutoCheck, which provides easy to read reports that are almost as detailed as Carfax reports.

Carfax vehicle history report
The Carfax history reports are some of the most detailed you can get. 

Before you get your credit card out and buy a vehicle history report, go into the dealer and ask them to pull the report for you. Most dealers have subscriptions to a vehicle history report company’s materials. This means they’ll probably provide you with the report free of charge. If the dealer won’t, go somewhere else. There are plenty of cars for sale in the world.

If you’re doing a private sale, then you may have to bite the bullet and buy the report. This cost can add up quickly, though, so see if the seller will buy provide the report for you. If he or she won’t provide the report, then go ahead and make the purchase.

Vehicle history report companies require a fee for a single report, but many will let you pay a slightly higher price for a certain number of vehicle history reports in a given amount of time. This means you can pay once and look up several vehicles. For example, AutoCheck has a package deal that lets you access 25 reports in 21 days for a single $50 charge.

What Do You Need to Look for in the Report?

Vehicle History Report
Make sure to look over the vehicle history report well before you make your purchase.

So you have your report. Now, what the heck do you actually need to watch out for? Every section of the report can reveal red flags about a particular vehicle. Some of the most obvious things you need to keep an eye out for are accidents and other damage, theft records, liens on the vehicle, and title status. All of these things can make it difficult after you buy the car to get it registered and out on the road. You want a clean and clear title, no accidents, no flood or fire damage, and no thefts on the car’s record.

Another thing to think about is the number of owners. You don’t want a car that’s had five owners. Generally, the fewer the owners on a used car, the better. A single-owner vehicle is usually well taken care of. If a car is very old, expect a couple different owners. Be realistic, but stay away from anything that has passed hands every year or so.

vehicle history report maintenance maintenance
Make sure to get as much maintenance history as you can before you buy a used car. 

After looking at the number of owners, check the mileage on the odometer of the car to the mileage rating in the vehicle history report. If they don’t match up, there’s something wrong. Rolling back an odometer isn’t as easy as it used to be, but it’s still practiced by some shady sellers. Checking the mileage number against the vehicle history report will ensure you don’t get swindled.

From there, we’d go to the maintenance records. Are there any? Are there large lapses in regular maintenance? If you see large spans of time with no maintenance records, it doesn’t necessarily mean the car was neglected. The owner could have been doing oil changes and other basic maintenance on their own. Still, any lapses in maintenance records should be noted and taken into consideration.

If all of these things in the vehicle history report look good, the car is probably a sound machine. While a vehicle history report can’t show you every little thing wrong with a used vehicle, it should provide the necessary information to make an informed vehicle purchase.