Understanding a Vehicle History Report
Category: News. Written by Grant
As a follow-up to our earlier article on Ten Reasons to Get a Car History Report, we’re now going to walk you through the process of actually reading and understanding vehicle history reports. You’ll quickly learn how to spot the good, bad and the ugly, so that you can be one step closer to buying your used car.
Different vehicle history services use different formats for their reports, but for the purposes of this article, we will be using AutoCheck. We already know what you’re asking: “Why AutoCheck over CARFAX?” Well, CARFAX has a bigger name because of advertising, but AutoCheck is used by professionals, provides more detailed reports and also offers unlimited reports for 60 days. Considering that the average person pulls 10 vehicle history reports before purchasing a used car, it’s an easy decision really. If you click on the AutoCheck link, you can view a sample report on the bottom right hand side of the page.
Before we start, we would like to give a big thanks out to Edie Hirtenstein, who is the Senior Product Manager at AutoCheck for her assistance on this article. Edie was kind enough to agree to an interview to help explain and answer questions we had about AutoCheck’s features and services.
When running a vehicle history report, each car will have certain information that includes:
- VIN Number
- Engine Type (Ex: 2.0L I4 EFI)
- Year / Make / Model / Style (2004 Toyota Camry / LE / 4DR Sedan)
- Last Recorded Odometer Reading (Ex: 45,290 miles)
- Country of Origin / Manufacture (Ex: America, Japan)
- Calculated Vehicle Owners (Ex: 3 owners)
When comparing the used car that you’re looking at against the vehicle’s history report, you want to make absolutely sure that the car’s description matches the official information. Some sellers might make an honest mistake and list their vehicle a year off, but less ethical types might “fudge” their car listing in the hopes you won’t pick up on it.
Pay close attention to the calculated vehicle owners, because that is an important aspect when assessing the quality of a car. A car that has had many owners is not ideal because it’s harder to keep track of maintenance records with multiple owners, which is important to know. You don’t want to have a timing belt go out at 100,000 miles when the last owner “claimed” that the owner before him performed the service – you want the actual records. Also, there might be reason the car as changed hands so many times, such as a stuttering engine or intermittent electrical problem that doesn’t show up readily on a test drive.
AutoCheck Vehicle Score
If you’re the type of person that bores easily by details or is daunted by the sheer amount of information involved in buying a used car, AutoCheck has made life easier. As a proprietary service, AutoCheck lists a vehicle score that rates each vehicle on an absolute score of 1 to 100. It takes into account various factors such as: age, vehicle class, number of owners, mileage, usage, title brand, mileage brand, accidents and other factors. In addition to the vehicle score, the report lists the scoring range of similar vehicles (based on year and style) as a comparison.
Example: AutoCheck Score 52. Comparison Vehicle Score 38 – 50.
The comparison score is useful, because age is the most important determinant in vehicle score. This means that the used car you’re looking at might have a seemingly low score because of it’s age, but may score better than vehicles of roughly the same age and model. In fact, the comparison represents the scoring range of the middle 50% of all similar cars, so beating the comparison score puts your vehicle into the top quarter of vehicles in the AutoCheck formula.
Reading the Full Vehicle History
The full vehicle history is the section that lists all recorded events with the car in chronological order. From being titled at the dealer lot to yearly tab renewals, every major event will (hopefully) be found in the history section.
Because there are so many different types of events, we will list both the most common events along with those that you should keep an eye out for:
- Vehicle Manufactured and Shipped to Dealer: Indicates when a vehicle is essentially delivered to a dealer. If a vehicle does not have this event, then the vehicle may have been imported from outside the US or be a rebuilt vehicle.
- Title: Represents a change in vehicle ownership.
- Title (Loan/lien reported): Car was purchased with a loan.
- Title (Leased vehicle): Car was leased from the dealership.
- Title (Corrected Title): Generally indicates a paperwork error on owner of the car with the DMV.
- Registration Event/Renewal: Annual tab renewal. Be careful if you don’t see a renewal each year, as that indicates the car was likely broken, was in an unreported accident or had some unknown reason for not getting renewed. Note that older cars sometimes have missing data from earlier years, so make sure a vehicle has been renewed lately.
- Odometer reading from DMV: These events indicates the last official odometer reading from the DMV. Different state DMVs have different requirements on when odometer readings are mandatory, but most will report odometers during a title transfer. Note that cars older than 10 years are not required to disclose odometer readings.
- Passed Emission Inspection: You want to see these events, as that means the car passed mandatory emissions inspections.
- Reported at Auto Auction: Many cars go to auction for legitimate reasons: expired leases, unsold cars and fleet vehicles. That said, there area cars sold at auction include are in need of fixes or repairs. These vehicles are usually fixed by the time they go onto a dealer lot, but if you find that one of the last entry of the vehicle history report lists a car going to auction, you will definitely want to have the car inspected if considering a purchase (that said, our recommendation is you always get an inspection.)
- Fleet / Rental Fleet: Fleet and rental vehicles tend to get a bad reputation because there are many stories of people renting cars and abusing them. Certain companies also have horrendous maintenance policies and essentially do minimal work on a car before taking them out of the fleet. The other way to look at it is that most rental drivers are adults that have no interest in abusing the vehicle, while the good rental companies use a scheduled maintenance for their vehicles. To each their own on these type of vehicles.
- Repossessed: Indicates a car that was taken back from the owner for failure to pay. While a repossessed car in and itself is not a bad indicator (unless you’re superstitious), but what it can imply is that if the owner could not afford car payments, then there is a good chance they could not afford maintenance on the vehicle.
Red Flag Events
- Insurance Loss An insurance loss is a nice way of saying the car has been “totaled”. This can be caused by a stolen car that was recovered too late or a vehicle that had been in a major accident. Stolen cars often suffer significant abuse and are even used in crimes, which may not be the history you wish to associate with your vehicle. Accident vehicles that are totaled are extremely dangerous and probably are followed up with a salvage or rebuilt title if still on the road.
- Collision with Another Vehicle: Even though practically every driver eventually gets into an accident according to road statistics, you still want to avoid vehicles that have been in accidents. While most accident vehicles are fixed up and run fine, there may be unseen damage in the frame or other parts of the car that are a ticking time bomb. Just remember you have many vehicles to choose from while looking for a car, so don’t ever feel committed to one vehicle.
- Salvage / Rebuilt / Rebuildable: A huge red flag. These events are caused when a car has been totaled or rebuilt from a totaled vehicle. These type of cars are often sold for cheap, but it’s definitely a buyer beware situation. You’ve been warned.
- Failed Emission Inspection: Another major warning sign, especially if recently added to the vehicle history. Vehicles that do not pass emission are not legally allowed on the road and can take thousands of dollars to fix up. If a car failed emissions then passed later, it is generally a safer bet.
- Water Damage / Storm Registration: These are specific insurance loss related events that deal with water damage to the car. This is an important distinction because water damage is a ticking time bomb, as it wreaks havoc on electrical systems.
Where Does the Information Come From
Throughout the life of a vehicle, it can pass through multiple organizations that create a paper trail. These include the DMV, auto auctions, dealers, salvage auctions, junk yards, insurance companies, towing companies, police and other independent sources. By law, these organizations are all required to supply the vehicle information when a major event happens with the vehicle. AutoCheck also claims to have access to exclusive auction information that CARFAX does not, which is one reason why car auctions may prefer AutoCheck’s services.
Sometimes, fresh information won’t show up on a vehicle history report either because it hasn’t been reported to the proper agency yet or updated in the history report. According to Edie, AutoCheck updates their databases every 48 hours with information they receive from the various state agencies and sources, so you will usually see recent information that has been reported.
Examples of Real Vehicle History Reports
Now that you’ve read this article, you should have an adequate understanding of what goes into a vehicle history report. For the truly serious buyer or the curious, we will follow-up by showing some actual vehicle reports from AutoCheck that we obtained during our How to Buy a Used Car for Under $1,000 project. In those reports, we’ll show you how to read each specific report and even read between the lines to understand a vehicle history report completely.
We would like to thank Edie Hirtenstein at AutoCheck / Experian Automotive for her help while researching this article!