March 18

How to Read Vehicle History Reports


These days, when you buy a car, there is a wealth of information available at your fingertips. The problem is finding what’s important and understanding the meaning of it all. Buying a used vehicle can be an extremely frustrating and confusing process.

Obtaining a Vehicle History Report (VHR) is the smartest way to learn everything you can about the vehicle you’re considering. Here, we’ll inform you about the most essential parts of a VHR, what they mean, and red flags to look out for when buying. Please remember that state laws for VHRs vary widely. If you are unsure or would like more specific information, contact your state DMV.

The Basics

A VHR is a tool for buyers to positively identify a vehicle and accurately describe its condition. Here’s a quick run-down of the information that you’ll need to verify first.

1. Make and Model

This is the easiest step. Does the car you’re looking at match the details on the report? It may seem obvious, but VHR-tampering can occur at the most basic level if you don’t pay attention. Make sure to check for the car’s year, engine size, and color. Popular models will have a lot of used vehicles on the market, so be sure the seller hasn’t re-used a VHR from a different vehicle.

2. Odometer

The miles on the odometer may not exactly match the report, but it should be in the neighborhood and certainly not lower than recorded. Some states may not require mileage to be reported if the car is too old, so check with your local DMV.

3. Number of Previous Owners

This is important to know because if a car has had a long string of owners for short periods of time, there may be chronic malfunctions that have caused it to change hands. Also check for missing periods of time when possession is unclear. This may indicate illegal activity or misuse.

4. Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

This is the most foolproof way to check the identity of your car. Each vehicle has a unique VIN, so by checking it, you can be absolutely sure that what is on the report will correspond to the vehicle you are examining.

Detailed Information

Now that we’ve gone over some of the basics, let’s delve a little deeper. A VHR will include a full report of the major events within a car’s lifespan. Here are the biggest points for you to pay attention to:

1. Title Status

The title status of a vehicle can give you many good clues. Look out for words like “loan,” “lien,” “lease,” or “correction.” By themselves, these conditions aren’t necessarily bad. Lots of people lease cars or the DMV may have made a mistake that needed a correction, but these factors are important to consider within the context of the rest of the VHR.

2. Registration

This pertains to the yearly registration tags for the license plate on the vehicle. The biggest thing to look out for is years without registration. This may indicate that the vehicle was out of commission from an accident or other damage, or that it was stolen or used illegally. All of these could have a huge impact on the condition of the car. Even without damage, it may be difficult to find financing or insurance for stolen vehicles or those used illegally. It’s extremely important to know about these factors beforehand.

Looking For Auction Vehicles Near You?

We’ll shoot you an email once every two weeks with vehicles up for auction near you. Don't sweat it, you can opt-out anytime.

3. Emission Inspection

It is mandatory that all vehicles pass emission tests. You should be wary of cars that have not passed these inspections. They are illegal to drive and the repairs can be very costly. If the car has failed emissions in the past but has passed more recently, it should be fine. However, if the inspection was recently failed, you may want to look elsewhere for your next vehicle.

Buyer Beware

So, you’ve verified the vehicle on the report is the same one sitting in front of you and the basics seem to look good, but you’re not quite done yet. There are some keywords that you should look out for that may indicate the vehicle is in less-than-optimal condition.

1. Auction Listing

Auctions are a great way to find vehicles for a bargain and there are many legitimate reasons why a vehicle may be up for sale, such as personal unsold cars or fleet vehicles. Some auction vehicles may need repairs. You should also remember to check when the vehicle was last inspected and/or when inspection is due. It’s always a good idea to ask if you can have your own trusted professional inspect the vehicle.

2. Rental

This term is used for vehicles that were part of a rental fleet, not a car that has been leased. The condition of these cars may vary greatly. Some rental services will try and wait as long as possible to have a car serviced or repaired to save money which can have a detrimental effect on the vehicle.

3. Repossession

The condition of the car may be good, but the red flag here is a financial one. A vehicle may be unaffordable for many reasons, such as high gas prices or insurance premiums. You may want to double check to be sure you can afford the vehicle. Also, if the previous owner couldn’t afford regular payments, he or she may not have had the funds for routine maintenance or repairs, either. This is something to keep in mind.

4. Salvage Title

When a car has a salvage title, you need to pay special attention to the details. It may be an opportunity to save some money, but it may also come with several drawbacks. The term “salvage title” has many determining factors which vary from state to state.

A salvage title vehicle may have extensive damage; a questionable history due to illegal use or being stolen; or it might just be an older car with a ding in the fender. Discovering exactly why a car has a salvage title can save you a lot of money – either by buying the car affordably or by avoiding it altogether. 

5. Accidents

Many vehicles have been in accidents, and the older the vehicle, the greater the chance. While minor accidents are understandable, you should be wary of a vehicle with a major repair or a long history of repairs. It’s especially important that all repairs were performed by a professional. Home repairs or repairs done cheaply to maximize profit for resale may put you at risk for malfunction or injury.

6. Water, Storm, or Fire Damage

These forms of damage are dangerous particularly because they are hard to assess. The damage may seem largely cosmetic, but the effects could be much worse in the long-term. You may not even realize there is a problem until it’s too late. It’s especially important that you have the electrical systems checked.

To see all these points in action, check out sample VHRs from Carfax and AutoCheck.

Now that you’re a pro at understanding VHRs, the process of buying a used vehicle should be much more clear. By checking the most important pieces of the report, you’ll be able to recognize potential drawbacks and make an informed decision that will keep your family safe on the road.


AutoCheck, buying used cars, Carfax, salvage title, Vehicle History Report, VHR, VIN

You may also like

Towing Tips: Payload, Curb Weight, GVWR, and More

Truck and Trailer Tires: Understanding Load, Sizes, and More

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}