When it comes to inspecting and buying a used car, there are many different things you need to check.
You’ll want to examine the condition of the bodywork, check all the electronics work, listen to the engine and so on.
However, there is one pre-purchase check that many people overlook … and very much to their detriment.
That check is running a vehicle history report using the car’s VIN number and/or licence plate.
Although it’s crucial to thoroughly inspect the bodywork and mechanical condition of any used car you are thinking of buying, it’s just as important to know the car’s hidden history (if it has any).
Depending on where you live in the world, there are different services for checking a car’s history via its VIN and/or plate number, and the exact nature of what information you’ll be able to glean will vary from country to country and service to service.
However, at a high level, the reason for running a “vehicle history check” (which I’ll use as the generic term as these checks can be called different names in different localities) is simple.
Any used car has history, and sometimes this history is bad. The current owner might know about it, or they may be blissfully unaware … but as soon as you pay them and drive off in the car it becomes your problem.
Here are some of the issues that a vehicle history check can help you spot:
- Whether the car has outstanding finance owing on it – In many jurisdictions, if you purchase a vehicle where the previous owner still owes money to a bank or finance company, they effectively have claim on the car and could come and repossess it. Here in New Zealand this isn’t an issue if you buy from a registered motor vehicle trader as they have to guarantee there is no outstanding finance (and if they make a mistake it’s their problem) but it can be an issue with private car sales. I believe – and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong using the comment feature below – that in the United States a dealer can even sell you a car with outstanding finance.
- If the car has been recorded as being involved in an accident (including being seriously damaged and repaired) – There’s no doubt that panel beaters and body shops can work magic on cars. However, you still want to know if a vehicle has been involved in a serious accident prior to making a purchase decision. You might decide that the risk of underlying structural damage is simply too great, and choose to look at another example.
- If the car has been involved in natural disaster damage e.g. floods – Once again, you want to know if the car has been subject to natural disaster damage in the past, and if so whether it resulted in a write-off that has been repaired on the cheap. Even if the repair has been done to a high standard, if you buy the car not knowing about its history and then go to resell it in a few year’s time, you might experience worse-than-anticipated depreciation as the next buyer may check the history.
- Whether the odometer looks to have been wound back – Depending on the service used, you’ll be able to see the odometer history of the car and check for any irregularities and inconsistencies.
- You can better understand the ownership history of the car – A high number of owners isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but its still worth understanding the ownership history of any car you are looking to buy. For example, if a seller claims the car is “one owner from new” but its actually had several previous owners, what else are they trying to hide from you?
- Whether the car has been reported stolen – Where I live, there is an epidemic of car thefts at the moment. While most vehicles are being stolen to be used in ram raids and joy rides, some are stolen to then be on-sold. You don’t want to wind up receiving stolen property, do you?
- When the vehicle was imported (if it’s an imported) – For example, if you’re buying an ex-JDM car, then you’ll be able to see when it was imported from Japan. You can read more here on our JDM meaning guide.
Therefore, if you’re going to buy a used car it’s critical to do a vehicle history check using a trusted service that operates in your area. For example, here in New Zealand, CarJam is one of the best providers of pre-purchase vehicle checks. In the United States, Europe and Australia, CarVertical is a popular option.
While these services typically charge a small fee (usually $10-20, depending on exactly what is being checked) it is worth every single cent. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to buying a used car.
You don’t want all your hard work put into inspecting a car to be undone after purchase by discovering that the car has outstanding finance, or that it has done thousands more miles than claimed on the odometer.
Buying a proper pre-purchase vehicle history check is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from buying a lemon of a car. However, it amazes me how many people I talk to who don’t bother doing this, or don’t want to for the cost of a few cups of coffee.
If you’re going to spend four or five figures on a car, then it’s a total no brainer to spend a few bucks to have greater insight and clarity on the previous history of a car.