Learning a Vehicle’s Past: What to Look for in a Vehicle History Report

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D. Gilson is a writer and author of essays, poetry, and scholarship that explore the relationship between popular culture, literature, sexuality, and memoir. His latest book is Jesus Freak, with Will Stockton, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series. His other books include I Will Say This Exactly One Time and Crush. His first chapbook...

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UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020

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No matter how much research or shopping around you do, purchasing a used vehicle always feels like a gamble. If you’re currently in the market for a pre-owned vehicle, there are several factors you definitely need to consider, such as previous maintenance, accidents and more. Sure, you will get some of this information from whomever is coordinating the sale – be it the previous owner or a third-party dealership – but it’s also important to dig deeper than what they are telling you. They are, after all, trying to make a sale, so they may omit any information they think might deter you from making the purchase.

That being said, it’s always a good idea to do a little homework on your own. A great way to gather hard facts about a vehicle’s past is to request a vehicle history report from a reputable organization. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System provides consumers with a list of approved providers, to help ensure they only get 100% accurate information on the vehicle in question.

However, running a vehicle history report is not enough to ensure you don’t get stuck with a clunker. You also have to understand the data the report is giving you. In an effort to spread awareness, DMV.org provides a free sample report on their website to help people become more familiar with the format. If you feel like you still need some help analyzing the information, read on for some tips on what to look for when you have a vehicle history report done on a potential purchase.

Number of Owners

Any good, worthwhile vehicle history report should include a rough estimate of the previous number of owners. It’s a general rule that the quality of a car goes down the more owners it has. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but if a rather “young” vehicle has had a dozen owners, it’s highly unlikely it has been given the care and maintenance it needs to be a top-performer.

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Mileage

Another detail included on most reports is the mileage on a vehicle. Sure, you can see this yourself on the odometer if you are purchasing it in person. Yet seeing the build-up over time on the report helps give a more accurate picture of the car or truck’s actual activity over its lifetime. A car owned by a traveling salesman or used by a rental agency will likely have more wear and tear than one used by a person who has a 9-5 desk job.

Accident and Theft Records

The number of accidents should also be noted on the report, along with any records of theft. Both of these details can greatly impact a vehicle’s future performance. For instance, if a vehicle has previously been reported stolen, there’s a chance any number of the parts were tampered with and altered, potentially improperly. The same goes for any repair work done to the car. Sure, it might seem fine, but, depending on how detailed your report is, you will likely have no information on where or who repaired the car or truck, leaving the quality of work done a complete mystery to you. A minor mistake made during a repair five years ago might not be currently causing problems, but over time the quick-fix could wear down and cause more harm than good.

Overview

Obviously the specific details reported will vary by provider, but the three points listed above are pretty standard and should be included on most reports. Scrutinize your vehicle history report with a keen, sharp eye and investigate any discrepancies you find between the data and the story you’ve been told about the car, truck or SUV in question. A little extra work now could potentially save you lots of time and money later.

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