Rachel Bodine graduated from college with a BA in English. She has since worked as a Feature Writer in the insurance industry and gained a deep knowledge of state and countrywide insurance laws and rates. Her research and writing focus on helping readers understand their insurance coverage and how to find savings. Her expert advice on insurance has been featured on sites like PhotoEnforced, All...

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 19, 2021

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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 pre-owned vehicles, there are several factors you definitely need to consider, such as previous maintenance, motor vehicle accidents, and more.

Sure, you will get some of this information from whoever is coordinating the sale – be it the previous owner or third-party dealerships – 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 percent 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.

What’s the 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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How to find Your vehicle’s mileage?

Another detail included in most reports is the mileage on vehicles. Sure, you can see the miles yourself on the odometer if you are purchasing it in person. Yet seeing the build-up overtime 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.

What do the accident and theft records indicate?

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.

How to get a free vehicle identification number check (VIN)

Most VINs are located in the lower-left corner of the dashboard and you can read it by looking through the windshield. However, you might also find it inside the driver-side door where the door latches. 

There are many services that you can use to get a free VIN check before you buy a used car. Sites like the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) , VehicleHistory.com, or iSeeCars.com can do the VIN lookup and provide information on the vehicle you want. 

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) has a VIN check search tool that can tell whether your vehicle has been reported as stolen or lost, salvaged, or declared a total loss following an accident. This is the most simple way of getting VIN checks – to get the VIN report, just enter your VIN number.

For a more thorough VIN lookup, head to Vehicle History to get data such as fuel economy, cost to own and price analysis. Additional things you’ll get in this include: selling history, current recall info, detailed list of the expiration of manufacturer warranties, price predictions about the best time to buy a particular make and model. 

On the other hand, iSeeCars offers another smooth VIN check experience. Your free car history report will include: price analysis, price history, projected depreciation, the best times to buy and sell. All the data you gather should match across providers. 

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Should I get a mechanic check before purchase?

There are cases when a free VIN check report could come clean, even though the car has undergone major repairs. This is so because the owner probably paid out of pocket instead of filing an insurance claim. To have peace of mind, it is best to hire an independent mechanic to check your vehicle before purchase. 

Therefore, it might be a good idea to get an inspection from a certified diagnostic mechanic before buying your car. Also, make sure to watch out for hidden flood damage. The smell of mildew or mold could indicate water damage. 

What’s the bottom line?

Obviously, the specific details reported will vary by provider, but the three points listed above are pretty standard and should be included in most reports. Vehicle history reports should include detailed information about the vehicle’s claim history and title information. The report will also help you in your search for previous insurance records. 

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.