read VIN
The number of used cars available to buy online can be intimidating. You can find any car you want and filter down to the right transmission, year, mileage, and color. It’s an exciting process and the pictures on the listings often look great!

But how do you know how dependable a vehicle will be or about its true history? There’s a key piece to online vehicle listings – one you might have overlooked in your original search. This is the VIN and it will help you get the full picture of your potential new ride.

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What’s a VIN?

VIN stands for vehicle identification number and is a standardized 17 character code (VINs include both letters and numbers) that lets manufacturers, the government, and consumers track a vehicle. The current standard was established in 1981 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in response to the growing number of manufacturer specific identifiers. To learn more about its history, the NHTSA has a short description on their website.

This standardization is good for the average consumer because it allows you to use one system to track cars as well as outline which standardized parts to use when you need to do repairs. VINs are not unique to cars and can be found on trucks, motorcycles, and any other vehicle that needs to be registered at the DMV. The VIN is essential in used car buying because it allows you to look up a vehicle history report (VHR) and track when and where a vehicle was made, sold, and repaired.

Finding a VIN

A VIN can be found in a vehicle’s official paperwork (the title and registration) and on the vehicle itself. Each manufacturer can place it where they want on the car. The VIN can also be found in insurance documents and in the owner’s manual. If the vehicle has been repaired, it will also be found in manufacturer-associated body shop repair records. If the car was stolen and not recovered, it will be in a police report.

No access to paperwork? No problem. The VIN is always found on the car itself. Most commonly, you will find it on the bottom of the driver’s side dashboard or under the hood at the front of the engine. Other places to check would be on the driver’s side door jamb or in the wheel well. To get a few more ideas on where to find the VIN, check out the DMV online.

Interpreting a VIN

Each of the 17 characters in a VIN tells you something about the vehicle. It can be broken up into three sections – each one telling about a different part of the vehicle.

Digits 1 – 3: World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI)

This segment explains which country the car was built in, the vehicle manufacturer, and the vehicle’s type or manufacturing division, respectively.

Digits 4 – 8: Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS)

These numbers explain the model, body style, engine type, and transmission of the vehicle. This section of the VIN is particularly useful to repair shops – and to you if you plan on fixing up a used car – because it helps identify the correct parts to use. Double check this with VIN lookup sources, as each manufacturer has their own method for coding this section.

Digit 9: Check Number

Digit 9 is called the check number and is used to detect an invalid VIN according to a special formula. The check digit determines how to translate the other 16 digits in the VIN to establish whether it’s real without needing to contact the manufacturer or another source. For more information on how this works, check out the formula.

Digits 10 – 17: Vehicle Identifier Section (VIS)

The last several digits pertain to the vehicle itself. Digit 10 is a character that translates to the manufacturing year and digit 11 is for the manufacturing plant where it was assembled. The last 6 digits are the vehicle’s serial number. This numbering is unique to each manufacturer and relates to the order vehicles are completed at the plants.  

Decoding a VIN in “Real Life”

Let’s walk through this quickly and work through an example. Imagine you’re wanting to get a Toyota. You know they put their VIN on the top left side of the dash, so you check there and find it.

3TMCZ5AN5GM015742

Let’s look at each piece. The WMI is 3TM; VDS is CZ5AN5; the check number is 5; and VIS is GM015742. Broken down, what does all this stuff mean?

  • WMI: 3TM. This means the manufacturer was Toyota de Mexico and it was made in a US plant.
  • VDS CZ5AN5. It’s a Toyota Tacoma.
  • Check Number + VIS: 5GM015742. The vehicle check number is 5 and the serial number is 015742. It was made in 2016 and the approximate mileage is “new.” We can also tell from this number that the car was actually manufactured in Toyota de Mexico’s Baja, California plant.

This is about the extent of free information. If you want more information – such as mileage per previous owner, police reports, and recall information – you might have to pay, depending on what state you live in. A great overview of basic decoding for a number of brands is provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) in their Passenger Vehicle Identification Handbook. The most recent editions cost money but earlier editions can be found online.

Using a Vehicle History Report (VHR)

The vehicle history report (VHR) is a document that can’t be made up or hidden from you and it will tell you accurate information about a vehicle, not give you a sales pitch. As a used car buyer, this is the information that you need to make the most informed decision. The NICB has a free service to determine if a car is reported as stolen or reported as salvage. In addition, the National Motor Vehicles Title Information System (NMVTIS) gives a list of its approved VHR providers. Private companies, such as Carfax, can provide their own reports for most used cars.

VIN used car

When checking through this detailed information, look for whether the manufacturer’s warranty is still in place. If the warranty is in place and the car fails, you might be protected under your state’s lemon law. The VHR also tells you how many times the car has been sold and the approximate mileage at each transaction. Repair records will tell you whether the car has been in any accidents and if it needed serious repairs. You can also find safety recall information and whether such issues were solved. Finally, the VHR will also tell you if the car was reported as stolen or is considered a salvage car.

Now that you’re a VIN expert, you can get more information than something like “red 4 door 2016 Toyota Tacoma” for the vehicles you’re considering. You’ll be able to learn about the future reliability of the car and a little about how it was handled by its previous owners. Avoid the headaches and get the used car you want.

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