Finding a Reliable Source of Information
Buying a used car can be a stressful process. Unlike buying a new car from a dealer that comes with the comfort of a factory warranty and an unwritten history, buying a used car is like inviting a stranger into your home. There are the facts that someone previously has owned the car, and its condition is based on that person’s ability to maintain it. You’re spending potentially thousands of dollars on the word of some guy you just met on the Internet who obviously has an incentive to do what it takes to sell the car you’re interested in. Wouldn’t you like a way to verify his claims? That’s where the vehicle history report comes in.
The Vehicle History Report
A vehicle history report is an investigation into the documented past of a vehicle. The report provider scours the public (and sometimes private) records that exist about the vehicle in question. Several governmental agencies make their records available to qualified businesses. These records consist of different events in the life of a car, such as service, accidents, flood damage, liens. It’s a snapshot of the vehicle’s past.
Note that the report does not include any events that were not reported. This means if someone was involved in an accident and repaired the damage themselves the report would not indicate the damage. It also may not include events that happened outside the country, such as while traveling to Mexico. As with anything, use your common sense. Even with a vehicle history report you should never buy a car or truck unseen. At the least have an independent service shop look at the vehicle for you.
NMVTIS (National Motor Vehicle Title Information System) is a government agency that has gathered key vehicle title information from around the country. Most states now report title events to NMVTIS, making it a useful service. NMVTIS makes reports available through authorized resellers around the country. This has spawned a number of new vehicle history companies over the past couple of years.
These companies offer reports based off the data provided to NMVTIS about the title history of a vehicle. The main advantage to NMVTIS reports is their price. They can cost a fraction of the price charged by other more traditional reporting services.
A California law recently passed requiring all car dealers to provide vehicle history reports with their used cars. This has led to the number of reporting companies to grow even larger. It’s important when looking at vehicle reports to take into account the accuracy of the provider.
In order to compare the different vehicle history reports I selected a particular vehicle to submit to them all. To make this interesting I picked a truck with a known set of issues. This 1998 Chevrolet C1500 Club Cab Pickup has had a long and hard life. Purchased in Oklahoma it went through three different owners, ending up in California. Then unfortunately in November of 2011 it was involved in an accident that forced it to be totaled. It ended its life in the salvage yard, with a salvage title, waiting to be most likely sold for scrap.
The salvage title means that the truck cannot be registered to drive at your local DMV. It cannot be registered until you have proven to the police that the vehicle is again safe to have on our highways. In this case it would amount to repairs that would cost more than vehicle is worth.
The salvage title is an example of a “brand.” A brand is a reason to flag the vehicle as being a bad purchase. Brands include flood damage, fire, hail, mileage inconsistencies, and other good reasons why you’d want to avoid a particular vehicle. Brands should be called out and highlighted in any vehicle report.
In order to get a good feel for the differences in the vehicle history reporting services, we purchased a report for our damaged vehicle from four different sources: CARFAX, Autocheck, InstaVIN, and VehicleHistory.com. CARFAX and Autocheck have reports based on their own proprietary set of data, while InstaVIN and VehicleHistory.com generate reports based on NMVTIS information.
The current best-known brand for vehicle history reports is easily CARFAX (affiliate link). CARFAX has been in the business of reporting on vehicle history for years. They have developed a system of data gathering that encompasses over 20,000 sources. They use this data to assemble a detailed view into the history of a vehicle. They are also favored by many used car dealers as the vehicle history provider of choice.
The CARFAX report is detailed, but also expensive. At $39.99 per vehicle (or $49.99 for five vehicles) it’s not an impulse buy. If you’re involved in serious car comparison shopping you can also buy an unlimited number of reports for 30 days for $54.99. At that point the price becomes a bit easier to swallow.
What do you get for that money? Well, the most detailed report, in my opinion, of the four companies. The report is divided into several sections. Each section tells a part of the story about the vehicle.
First, you are shown a summary section. This gives a quick breakdown on the condition of the car. In the case of our test vehicle it immediately indicated that the vehicle was “Branded: Salvage Damage” and “Structural Damage Reported.” It also noted that the truck had over 185,000 miles on it at the time of the last report. Looking at the service and title data, CARFAX determined that the truck has had three owners in the past.
The CARFAX report is then broken down into sections reporting the history divided by the previous owners. Several service history records are indicated. Under “Additional History” the report breaks down the trucks past into “Red Light, Green Light” indicators. This makes it easy to spot the damage done to the truck by the third owner.
In the interest of transparency, I am an affiliate of InstaVIN. I’ve chosen to represent them on Decode This because of the value versus price ratio I feel they bring to the table. Still, looking objectively at their offering, it’s hard to argue about what you get for your money.
For $6.99 you can purchase InstaVIN’s Vehicle History and Title Report. This gives the basic information about the vehicle, based on data provided from NMVTIS and other data sources.
The InstaVIN report also starts off with a summary section, which notes quite clearly the salvage title status of our test Chevy pickup.
The report is divided into sections that call out title information, salvage status, title brands, and other key points of data. It does not include the history of the previous owners, nor does it include service history. But it does include the key information accurately for our vehicle. And at $6.99 I believe it to be a bargain for the average shopper.
InstaVIN also offers a “Buy two get one free” offer, as well as six reports for $24.95.
VehicleHistory.com is also a NMVTIS-based reporting service. They offer reports at a remarkably low rate of $1. As a matter of fact, this offering is what inspired me to write the comparison in the first place. I know for a fact that NMVTIS charges it’s licensees more than $1 per report. So how can VehicleHistory.com sell their information for less than that? Well, by being a bit deceitful.
I purchased one of their reports by entering our test VIN into their web page. The website then proceeded to “calculate” and “process” the VIN to generate a report. I don’t know why the dramatics are required. In the end the report isn’t generated until after you purchase the report. Perhaps it’s a way of verifying the VIN before they have to purchase the information from NMVTIS. But none of the other providers go through these steps to generate a report.
Once you’ve verified your VIN and it “downloads” (taking several minutes) the report, you are taken to the payment page. Read very carefully the section below the credit card information. You can indeed purchase an individual report for one dollar (I can verify this). But if you aren’t careful, it’s quite easy to also sign up for their optional monthly subscription for $120 a year!
By entering your email address and clicking to “log in” to your account, you are giving them the permission to charge you over the next six months $120 for the ability to look up additional VINs. The text on the purchase page reads:
You will receive access to millions of vehicle vin records. By typing your e-mail address and clicking “Yes” below, that will constitute your electronic signature. You may search stolen vehicles, lemons, odometer issues, flood damage and much more. This is your written authorization to charge your account according to the order summary.You will also be added to our mailing list. Please continue below.
The actual link to retrieve your $1 report is at the top of the post-purchase page, much smaller than the text and button to sign up for the annual account. They are clear in the text on what you are purchasing, but if you don’t read carefully you could potentially find a nasty charge on your credit card. This is the method they use to counteract the low initial price.
Overall, looking at the report you are given, I’m not sure it’s even worth the $1. The report itself consists mainly of a bunch of checkmarks, indicating the status of a variety of data points (this method is used by all the other vendors, but in this instance the data seems very sparse). Unfortunately the report completely missed the salvage status of our test trucks’s title! It indicated no issues with the vehicle, giving it a clean bill of health.
There was no additional information regarding the history of the vehicle, such as ownership information or service history. The only addition to the report came in the form of several used cars being advertised as a part of the report. The cars are listed as “Similar Cars For Sale”, but of the ten or so vehicles included not one was a pickup! Just random cars from someone’s inventory.
I think the poor quality of the report and the potential possibility of signing up for a subscription you hadn’t intended to purchase makes me recommend skipping this provider.
Autocheck is an Experian-owned company. They have a strong reputation in the industry, and have partnered with eBay to provide vehicle history reports for the thousands of vehicles listed on the auction site. Autocheck offers a unique “Buyback Protection” plan that will cover you in the case that the information provided in their reports was inaccurate.
An Autocheck report for a single vehicle will cost you $29.99, much cheaper than a CARFAX report, but not as inexpensive as InstaVIN or VehicleHistory.com. An unlimited (for the month) number of reports can be purchased for $44.99. Pricey, but still not the most expensive.
Autocheck reports also come with an “Autocheck Score”, which compares the condition of the particular vehicle in question with all the other vehicles of the same model available in the market. This gives a quick visual indication of the quality of the car. It’s a good tool; I wish the other providers had a similar feature.
For our test vehicle Autocheck immediately indicated it was a salvage vehicle in the summary section at the top of the report. It calculated the number of previous owners as two (instead of three as indicated by CARFAX). The pickup gets an Autocheck Score of 57 when the range of comparison vehicles is 63–81. Obviously this is a sub-par vehicle.
The report continues with a number of checkmarks (green for good, red for bad) that indicate the history of the vehicle. It notes the last mileage of the truck as being around 185,000. It also reports on the same history events that CARFAX reported, indicated the life of the truck since 1998.
After looking at the data provided by these four companies I see that it is important to trust the provider of the data you’re reviewing. No matter how inexpensive a report is, if the information is inaccurate, it’s worth nothing. It even has the potential to be very expensive if it leads you to buy a car because of faulty information.
For this reason I cannot recommend VehicleHistory.com, even with their low price. This is also ignoring their questionable practice of upselling you to a $120 subscription.
If I was looking for an inexpensive report to get a good feel for a vehicle’s suitability I have no problem recommending InstaVIN. Even though their reports are not as detailed as CARFAX or Autocheck, for $6.99 it’s a good deal just to know “Yes, this is a safe purchase.”
For the most comprehensive report I feel CARFAX edges out Autocheck. I like the way the CARFAX report breaks out the individual owners, and provides what I feel is an easier report to read.
Autocheck is less expensive than CARFAX, but contains nearly the same information. The Autocheck Score is also a boon to people who want a quick estimate of the vehicle in comparison to other examples on the road.
WINNER ON VALUE: InstaVIN
WINNER ON DETAIL: CARFAX