If you listen to the Car Pro Show, without fail when I get a caller looking at used vehicles, the last thing I say is "make sure it has a clean history report."
The same advice goes to you: If you are in the market for a used vehicle, you want as much information as possible to learn about a vehicle's past life. Has it been in a wreck? Has it been in a flood? Is the odometer accurate? Is the title clean? These are all questions every buyer should want to know if considering a pre-owned vehicle.
You've seen the ads for that cute little car fox that is the mascot for the most popular vehicle history report in America, CarFax. So, the question is, how accurate is the report? The truth is, it is a mixed bag. Information on a vehicle history report is only as good as the information received.
The Two Major Players
CarFax is the more expensive of two major players. AutoCheck is the alternative, and the one I have recommended over my radio career. I can't prove which is more accurate, but my experience tells me AutoCheck is better and it's cheaper. One CarFax runs you $39.99, you can get three different reports for $79.99, and five reports for $99.99.
On the other hand, AutoCheck sells a single report for $24.99, but you can run up to 25 different cars for just $49.99 as long as you run all the reports in a three-week timeframe.
Which Report Has The Most Information?
There is little doubt CarFax offers more information about prior service. It lists service visits, recalls that have been done, and routine maintenance. Again, this is only as good as the information the company receives. Not all service departments or garages take the time to report.
AutoCheck gives the vehicle you are looking at a score, as well as the average score range for similar vehicles. If you are looking at multiple vehicles, the score can be a big help and I've found it to be useful.
What Kind Of Information Is On The Reports?
Both the companies will tell you if there has been a reported collision, flood damage, an odometer rollback, or if the title of the vehicle is "branded". A branded title can mean a vehicle has been deemed a total loss by an insurance company, or once a vehicle goes through a lemon law buyback, it will be denoted on the title. You can find out if a vehicle has been stolen, and if it passed or failed yearly emission tests.
You can also see registration information. If a vehicle is registered or the registration is renewed, that info will be on both reports. You will get information also on how many owners the vehicle has had, or if the vehicle has been repossessed. A one-owner vehicle doesn't always mean you are getting a great car, after all, it only takes one owner to wear a car out. A repossessed vehicle is not necessarily a bad thing, just bear in mind that once a person knows a car is going back, he or she stops doing any maintenance normally.
My Personal Experience
About seven or eight years ago, I was on the hunt for a low mileage, nearly new Range Rover HSE. I had set an alert at AutoTrader.com for a white one with tan interior, the larger supercharged engine, DVD player, under 15,000 miles, and 22' wheels. While I was very specific about what I wanted, I would receive an email if one popped up anywhere around the country.
A week or so later, the perfect Rover appeared in Chicago. I looked at it online, made a call to the dealer (a highline used car warehouse operation) and asked questions, the first being "is there any evidence of prior damage?" The manager assured me there was not, and offered to email me a CarFax, which he did. The CarFax was perfect.
We agreed on the price and shipping charges, and I called my bank to do a wire transfer of the funds. My bank said the money would be sent in less than a half an hour. Then a bell went off for some reason and it hit me I needed to follow my own advice and look at an AutoCheck, too. Guess what? AutoCheck showed not only a prior wreck but also frame damage to the right side. I was able to get the wire transfer stopped in time, thankfully.
Don't Rely Solely On Any History Report
There are just too many things that can go wrong to rely on a history report. CarFax has been the subject of a class action lawsuit that was settled. It offers a Guaranteed Buyback if a vehicle you pull a report on has a branded title, but the company admits that two years into its program, it had only bought back nine vehicles out of millions of reports purchased. They don't make it easy, either. On the CarFax website, try to find a phone number. You won't. All inquiries must be sent by email.
There is no substitute for buying a car from a reputable dealer that will stand behind what it sells. If you have any concerns, there are also used car inspection services in every major market that are trained to look for mechanical problems a well as any prior damage. Usually these services will go to the car's location, and they charge around $150, money well spent in some cases.
As stated above, I have more trust in AutoCheck, based on my experience in the auto industry, as well as the personal experience I had with the potential Range Rover purchase.
In fairness, however, consumers are sometimes to blame. I've seen many cases where a person has a wreck, gets the needed repairs, and rushes to trade the car off, knowing there will be no history report done that quickly.
CarFax and AutoCheck are good to look at, just don't assume the information is foolproof.