How to Read a Used Car History Report

August 19th, 2016 by
Used Car History Report

Auto City always recommends carefully examining a used car history report for any car that interests you.


When you’re shopping for a used car, Auto City always recommends carefully examining a used car history report for any car that interests you. There are various options out there, with two of the most popular being CARFAX (the company that pioneered the concept back in 1986, sending its history reports via fax machine) and AutoCheck.

In both cases, consumers can pay for various levels of access, including purchasing a single history report, multiple reports, or unlimited reports. But here’s the thing: If you’re shopping at used car dealerships, a good dealership should offer vehicle history reports for free on every one of its cars. At Auto City we use CARFAX for all used cars that we sell.

Vehicle history reports are important because they can offer you substantial insights about a car’s past in terms of ownership, title, and sometimes even maintenance records. It will show each time the car was registered and where. It can also point out if the car’s title is “branded,” meaning that at some point an insurance company considered it a total loss and gave it a salvage title, whether from a bad accident, flood damage, or something else. You might also see if the car was in an accident that wasn’t bad enough to total the car, in which case you’d want to verify that everything was repaired properly.

Please understand that vehicle history reports are not always 100% reliable. There are such things as “false positives,” which means the report makes the car look clean when in fact there was major damage or accidents that somehow didn’t make it onto the report. Although such instances are relatively rare, you should still consider a vehicle history report as one source of information. You might still have a trusted mechanic carefully inspect the car and give you his professional opinion about its condition.

When reading a vehicle history report, keep the following in mind:

Ownership. You can verify how many different people have owned the car and if it has been registered in multiple states and locations. It will also tell you the kinds kinds of owners – individual, government, corporate fleet, rental, and so on.

Title. Make sure it’s never had a salvage title or other title problems.

Mileage. A history report serves as a good check on mileage, which should be recorded with every “historical event” included in the report. The mileage should go up in sequence throughout the report. If not, the odometer may have been hacked.

Other red flags. Look for reported accidents, airbag deployments, and anything that else that indicates substantial damage was sustained by the vehicle because you want to find out if everything was thoroughly and properly repaired.

Service records. Not all history reports have them, but when they do it’s a nice bonus to know at least some of the vehicle’s service history.

Hint: For a detailed step-by-step guide on how to read a history report and pick up on all the important information, please read our How to Read a CARFAX Report guide. 

In most vehicle history reports, any information that is negative about the car will typically be highlighted so it stands out. And again, keep in mind that the history report is only as good as what was reported into the databases from which the report draws its information, which means there can be mistakes and omissions. There are also shops that don’t report their information up into the relevant databases.

Pay especially close attention to the most recent parts of the vehicle’s history. If you see multiple changes in ownership or multiple auction sales in the last year or two, this could be an indicator that something is seriously wrong with car.

As you can see, checking up on a used car that interests you by getting its vehicle history report can reveal a lot about a car – enough to make you either want to go ahead and make the purchase or run the other way!