Car Culture, Car Reviews

Good or Bad Car? What to Look for in Vehicle History Reports

January 23, 2020
Vehicle History Report
If you’ve ever purchased a house, you know how important the initial home inspection is to identify potential problems. Without one, you run the risk of buying real estate’s version of a “lemon.” The same logic applies to used cars and vehicle history reports: Although you can buy a pre-owned vehicle sans a Carfax or AutoCheck report, it’s never in your best interest.

Getting a vehicle history report is one thing, but understanding its contents is another story. Here are some red flags to look out for as you dig up dirt on a used car’s past.

Anatomy of a Vehicle History Report

First, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the structure and contents of a vehicle history report. As a prospective buyer, you’ll have to comb through every report to identify the good from the bad, so having a grasp of the basics is crucial.

The types of valuable information you’ll find on a vehicle history report include the following:
  • Vehicle information, such as VIN, model and features;
  • Ownership history and details like length of ownership, purchase locations and vehicle usage;
  • Title history identifying Salvage, Junk, Flood, Hail, Odometer Rollbacks and other title statuses;
  • Past accidents and recalls; and
  • In-depth history and maintenance/service records for each owner.
You can review sample reports from the two major players in the biz, Carfax and AutoCheck, before you head to the dealership. Now, on to the meat of this succulent rack of ribs I call an article.

How to Identify a Good Car From a Bad Car

1. Multiple Owners

As a general rule, a one-owner car is probably a more reliable vehicle. Multiple owners may be indicative of a vehicle that’s been used and abused. Some dealers call these “hot potatoes,” and that’s because those vehicles quickly change hands so the past owners aren’t stuck footing a major repair bill.

Red flag: Any vehicle that has been owned by more than three owners over a six-year span.

2. Poor Maintenance Logs

Dealerships report all performed auto service and maintenance to their chosen vehicle report company. These should clearly be listed in your vehicle history report. Maintenance includes everything from routine oil changes and tire rotations to more major work like autobody repairs.

Red flag: Good vehicles will either have on-time maintenance or no list of maintenance at all—some people are able to change their own oil or rotate their own tires. But any vehicle that has a spotty record of service is a clear sign of poor ownership. For instance, a car that gets an oil change at a service center once over 18 months, then again 5 months later, should raise an eyebrow.

3. Bad Accidents

Small fender-benders aren’t usually a make-or-break reason to throw in the towel on a used car. These types of accidents don’t affect the vehicle’s mechanical components or ability to perform, and with a good collision center at work, repaired areas shouldn’t be noticeable. A vehicle that notes that “Damage was reported after accident” is probably in good shape.

However, a bad accident is cause for concern. A vehicle history report should have detailed information to help shoppers identify the severity of every collision.

Red flag: Review the details of every accident; any noted damage that’s “moderate” could involve a rebuild. Deployed airbags are a sign that damage is severe enough to warrant an ambulance and tow truck.

4. Locations

Although location isn’t a true sign that a car is good or bad, it can point to potential issues. For instance, cars that have lived on the coasts or in areas that get frequent floods are at a higher risk of coming with undocumented water damage. Coastal cars may also be more apt to rust or corrode if they haven’t been cared for regularly. Similarly, used vehicles from places like Wisconsin are at greater risk of undercarriage damage thanks to road salt and ice-melting chemicals.

Red flag: If the vehicle comes from an area that’s experienced a major weather event, like a hurricane or massive flood, compare those dates with ownership dates. Cars that emerge from that region shortly after the weather event are a gamble.

5. Liens

A lien means the car isn’t owned by the seller; it’s likely owned by a dealership or banking institution. Sellers, therefore, do not have the right to sell you the vehicle, and creditors can repossess the vehicle the very second a loan goes into default—even if you’ve already paid for the vehicle.

Red flag: A vehicle history report noting a current lien is an immediate walk-away scenario. Either the seller does not know about the lien or is trying to scam you. Buying from a used car dealer near you, you won’t have this risk, so a lien isn’t likely to pop up on a vehicle history report.

6. Gaps in Registration

Not every registration snafu is concerning. Cars can be off the road for a variety of reasons: owners go out of the country, another vehicle is used during the winter or an injury disabled the driver from using the car, for example. But a history of late vehicle registrations or unpaid plate fees should be questioned.

Red flag: If registrations aren’t paid for on time every year, it could be a sign that the owner isn’t caring for the vehicle well. Additionally, there could have been an unreported accident or undocumented repair that they’d waited to perform.

7. Rental Cars

Places like Carmax will frequently sell past rental cars as used cars. People who drive rental cars aren’t always the most trustworthy drivers; they more frequently drive aggressively and care less about the condition of rental vehicles.

Red flag: Any vehicle owned by a rental company, especially for fewer than three years, could be on sale because of mechanical issues. In some cases, rental car companies will get rid of vehicles after an accident or customer voided the vehicle’s warranty, as well.

But to really guarantee you are choosing a good car, it’s a great idea to bring the vehicle history report and car to a qualified mechanic. Full check-ups and inspections can identify flaws that aren’t highlighted on a vehicle history report.


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