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How to Check a Used Car’s History Before You Buy It

Man and woman looking at cars at a car lot.
Nestor Rizhniak/Shutterstock

Before you buy a used car, it’s always a good idea to check the vehicle’s history and get the full story. Here’s how to make sure you’re not getting ripped off.

Buying a used car is an excellent option if you need a new set of wheels, but don’t have thousands of dollars to drop on something fresh off the lot. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get duped when you buy a used car. There are tons of horror stories about people buying cars with serious mechanical issues or finding out their new car was stolen from its original owner.

So, how do you protect yourself when buying a used car? You use the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to research its history and make an informed decision about purchasing.

What’s a VIN and Why Is It Important?

When purchasing a used car, you should always find out the vehicle’s VIN. A VIN is a string of 17 letters and numbers that act as a vehicle’s social security number. No two cars have the same VIN, so you can use it to look up a vehicle’s history. When you look up a VIN, you get access to information like registration, recalls, service records, and more.

Drawing showing where to find the VIN on a car.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

You can find a car’s VIN by looking on the driver’s side front door or at the front corner where the windshield meets the dashboard. VINs are also recorded on a car’s insurance card, title, and registration. It’s ideal to see the VIN yourself and snap a photo with your smartphone rather than accepting the VIN from the seller, unseen.

Why Should I Check the VIN When Buying a Car?

You should always check the VIN before you purchase a new or used car. When you do so, you get a basic history of the car, including claims of theft, damage, or accidents. Imagine driving a stolen car off the lot. That’s an extreme example, but not unheard of. If you run a VIN check, you can avoid some of these major problems.

A VIN check also reveals if something happened to the car that might compromise its ability to run safely. You can also get service records for the car and find out if it’s had regular maintenance, like oil changes.

If you’re purchasing a car from a reputable dealership, they give you a VIN report free of charge before you buy the car. Your salesperson should go over the report with you. The report will provide you with lots of info on the car, including how many owners it’s had, any accidents it’s been involved in, any insurance claims that have been filed on it and whether it’s facing an open recall.

What Should You Look for in a Car’s VIN Report?

Gauges on a car's dashboard.
Song Pin/Shutterstock

If the dealership has given you a car’s history report, what should you look for? There’s usually a lot of information in there, but here are the most important things you should consider.

Is It Legal?

If you’re purchasing from a reputable dealership, you won’t have to worry about whether the car is legally available for sale. If, on the other hand, you’re buying from a private owner or a potentially shady dealership, make sure the car has a free and clear title. The VIN report informs you if a car has ever been reported stolen.

The Number of Previous Owners

The VIN report shows how many previous owners a car has had. If it’s had two or more, this might be an indication that something’s wrong with it—mechanically or otherwise. If you notice this, you might want to get a second opinion on whether the car’s fit for purchase.

Has It Been in Any Accidents?

An accident can affect a vehicle in many ways. Cars that have been in accidents might have extensive damage, even if it isn’t visible to the naked eye. If a car’s been in an accident, make sure it’s safe to drive, and all issues have been repaired.

Similarly, cars that have been in accidents are worth less than cars that haven’t. That means an accident can affect both the purchase price and resell value. You might be able to negotiate a lower price to buy a car that’s been in an accident. However, you’ll also have to sell it for less money.

Has It Been Taken Care of?

Many VIN reports show a car’s maintenance records. You can see when and how often it received routine care, like oil changes or tire rotations. If you’re buying a used car, it’s important it was well taken care of by its previous owners. Otherwise, you might face hefty repair fees more quickly than you anticipated.

Are There Any Recalls or Warranties?

A VIN report also indicates any open recalls on a vehicle model. Most of the time, a dealership takes care of recall repairs for free, so you won’t have to worry about a recall costing you money. However, it’s important you know about open recalls, so you’re aware of any danger when operating the vehicle.

The VIN report also includes whether the car is still under warranty. A warranty can save you money on any costly repairs that come up.

Where to Check the VIN History

There are several ways you can check a used car’s VIN history. Here are some of the best places to check out a car’s history.


CarFax is a leader in providing detailed VIN reports to would-be purchasers. Many reputable car dealerships provide CarFax reports for used-car purchases. You can also purchase a CarFax report yourself on their website if you’re buying directly from an owner or a dealership that doesn’t offer this service. One CarFax report costs $39.99.

National Insurance Crime Bureau

The National Insurance Crime Bureau provides a database of theft or loss records for cars. You can input a car’s VIN to see if it’s been marked as stolen or severely damaged at any point in its history.


VehicleHisory’s comprehensive VIN report gives extensive details about a car’s inspection and performance records, safety ratings, warranty, and more. You can also learn when and where the vehicle has been listed for sale.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers a VIN lookup that tells you if a car is under any recall orders.

Other Ways to Get Info on a Car

In addition to online services, you can get in-person support to learn more about a car’s history and fitness for purchase.

Ask the Dealership

If your dealership doesn’t automatically provide you with a CarFax report, you can always ask for one. If they want you to buy from them, they’ll pay the nominal fee to give you the information you need. If they refuse, they don’t really want or deserve your business.

Speak to the Owner

If you’re purchasing a car directly from its owner, you should absolutely ask him about its history. Here are some good questions to ask about a used car:

  • How long have you had it?
  • Has it been in any accidents?
  • Does it have any cosmetic or mechanical issues that need to be fixed?
  • Have pets been in the car?
  • How was this car previously used?

Keep in mind the owner might not tell you the truth. You should always try to confirm what you’re told with a CarFax report or an examination by a mechanic.

Have It Examined by a Mechanic

If you have a mechanic you trust, you can ask him to examine the car you’re thinking of buying. A mechanic knows what to look for to determine a car’s safety and effectiveness. See if you can take the car to the mechanic’s shop, or ask your mechanic to come with you.

Buying a used car can be stressful and scary. What if you make the wrong choice and purchase a lemon? The best way to prevent this is to do as much research as possible ahead of time. Arm yourself with knowledge, and it’ll save you from making a costly mistake.

Hayley Milliman Hayley Milliman
Hayley is a former Teach for America teacher turned curriculum developer and writer. Over the past five years, she's written hundreds of articles on everything from education to personal finance to history. She's co-author of the book  Females. Read Full Bio »
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