When you’re buying a car, it pays to do your research. Used cars in particular need to be checked out in detail; sometimes a car has a less than savory past. If you’re considering a used car, here’s how to get a look at its past.
First, get the car’s vehicle identification number, or VIN. Every car sold in the US has a VIN, usually found on the driver’s side, either on the dashboard near where it meets the windshield or on the door post where the door latches. It should be fully visible and undamaged. If the VIN is unreadable or otherwise impossible to find, you can find it on the car’s title, or its current registration.
However, if you can’t find the VIN on the car, or if it looks altered to you, that’s your first warning sign. Check the VIN against as many sources as you can find before running any history reports, and when you receive the report, check the vehicle description against the car you’re looking at. If it’s not a perfect match, it’s time to step away.
When it comes to running the report, you’ve got multiple options. A good place to start is the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. A federally operated database, the NMVTIS collects regular reports from junkyards, car recyclers, and insurers and is the most comprehensive resource for car data. While you can’t access it for free, it has a list of report providers and finding one that offers a cheap report is simple.
That said, spend the money to get the most detailed report possible, unless you trust the seller completely or know the recent history of the vehicle. Used cars can have surprising histories and incidents may be deeply buried in their pasts.
Once you secure the report, there are a number of red flags to look for:
Multiple owners: If a car has seen quite a few owners over a short period of time, that may be an indication that there’s something wrong with the car that you may not be hearing about from its current owner.
A “branded” title: Vehicles are generally issued a new title when an insurance company declared them a total loss. Almost always, this means the car shouldn’t be on the road; it’s been flooded, it was wrecked in an accident, or otherwise severely damaged.
Locations: Different parts of the country have different effects on cars. Areas with harsh winter storms, for example, may lead to more rust on steel parts. If a car’s been relocated, ask the owner why it’s taken a journey.
Unexplained body work: Not every accident is reported to insurance companies; sometimes, the previous owner just covers up the damage. If you see a lot of body work, ask why.
Mileage: Every time a car is inspected, goes through a smog check, or otherwise visits the shop, mechanics log the mileage. If the mileage doesn’t steadily go up on the report, the odometer may have been tampered with
With any car, do your research. It’ll save you money, aggravation, and time.