How to Find Out A Car’s History

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Are you skeptical when you visit a used car lot?

It's easy to feel like a used car salesperson is trying to take advantage of you, especially if you're a first-time buyer. But with a little research into the check car history, you can spot red flags and avoid buying an uninsurable clunker.


How to find out a car's history

Since 1954, U.S. automakers have provided each vehicle manufactured with a vehicle identification number (VIN). At the time, there was no industry standard and VINs varied by manufacturer. In 1981, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stepped in and created a standardized VIN system that required all automakers to use a 17-digit VIN.

Since no two VINs are alike, they are essentially a "fingerprint." The information embedded in the VIN includes:

  • The vehicle manufacturer
  • The country of origin of the vehicle
  • Plant where the vehicle was assembled
  • Model, body type and engine
  • Model year

Identify the VIN. You can find the VIN on the lower left side of the vehicle's windshield or on the driver's side door pillar. You can also find it on your vehicle registration or insurance card.

Conduct thorough research. Visit the National Insurance Crime Bureau's free VINCheck website to learn about a vehicle's history. This website provides valuable information about whether the car was stolen and never recovered and whether it had a title for scrap. VINCheck is only an initial guide, as it does not include information about previous accidents.

You can provide additional useful data, such as

  • Accident history
  • Service history, such as oil changes and transmission replacements
  • Type of use, such as as a cab or rental car
  • Owner's history
  • Worrisome title marks, such as fire, hail, and flood

Note, however, that not all accidents are reported and may not appear on a report. For example, if a previous owner was in a fender bender and paid for the repairs themselves, this will not appear on any report.

Have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic. Motor vehicle history reports are very useful, but may be incomplete. The Federal Trade Commission recommends that a vehicle history report be supplemented by an independent vehicle inspection.


Why is car history important?

Based on the history of a car, you can determine if it is worth buying. If you find that the car has a troubled past, you should look for another vehicle.


A car's history plays a role not only in your purchase decision, but also in determining your car insurance rates. For example, insurers look to see if there are any anomalies (such as an old car) that could make insuring the vehicle riskier.


Car insurance for cars with bad driving records.

While previous accident repairs do not hinder obtaining insurance, a junk title is likely to. Such a title indicates that the car was deemed a total loss by an insurance company, then rebuilt and deemed roadworthy. However, many insurers consider vehicles with a previous salvage title too risky to insure and may refuse to offer certain types of coverage or the coverage at all.

"While most insurers are reluctant to offer comprehensive and collision coverage for vehicles with salvage titles, they may be willing to offer liability coverage for these types of vehicles," says Dan Scroggins, executive director of AAA Club Alliance.


Petty work pays off

Before you spend thousands of dollars on a used car, you can save yourself a little work. The VIN number is a good place to start, along with an independent vehicle inspection by a mechanic. The last thing you want to do is find out you bought a car with hidden damage or a car that is uninsurable.

You also want to know how much insurance will cost for your future car. Compare quotes from several insurance companies before buying a vehicle so you don't get blindsided by the insurance bill.