That “Car” Fax Thing

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You’ve probably heard about Carfax (and similar services, including AutoCheck and EpicVIN) that offer “vehicle history reports” which search state motor vehicle and insurance records using the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) sussing out potentially radioactive problems such as major accident damage that may not have been disclosed by the seller.history report lead

These services typically charge $30 or so for a single vehicle report – or (in some case) you can buy a subscription that lets you check multiple vehicles for a set price. Epic – a newcomer  – charges the least: $7.99 per report (with a supplementary auction report that covers wholesale auctions, where title skulduggery is more common, available for an additional $2.99).

Well, is it money well-spent?

Generally, yes – but in the same way that a radar detector is worth the money. In both cases, there’s no absolute guarantee that you’ll avoid a problem. But it’s fair to say it’s guaranteed your chances of having a problem will be reduced.

Here’s the deal:

Your car’s VIN is comparable to your Social Security number. It’s a unique to the vehicle and used to record and track information about the car from its date of manufacture forward. If you look at your title and registration paperwork – as well as your insurance paperwork – it will have the vehicle’s VIN. This means such things as date of original sale and subsequent sales to new owners (if any) ought to be on record. Also the mileage at each sale, which can be very helpful in terms of sussing out odometer fraud.VIN pic

The latter is one of the major “worth it” factors here. If, for instance, a report uncovers a disparity between the mileage a used car has today vs. what it had three years ago (i.e., the advertised mileage now is 58,326 but three years ago it was 158,326) you’ve just saved yourself a lot of trouble for less than the cost of less than half a tankful of gas.

Another big one is evidence of a “salvage” title.

What’s a “salvage” title? It’s issued to the owner of a vehicle whose car was considered a total loss by the insurance company, as the result of accident or flood (or similarly extensive) damage. What sometimes happens is the insurance company will cut a check for a certain amount, but leave it up to the owner to either repair the car or throw it away and use the money to buy a replacement car. If the car is fixed so that it appears to haver never been damaged and then re-sold, one of the ways of finding out that it was previously damaged is via the vehicle history search – and evidence of a “salvage” title on file.carfax pic

However, it’s not guaranteed that a previously damaged vehicle will be identified as such.

For instance, if a vehicle is in a major accident but the damage is not reported to the insurance company (no claim filed) and the owner has three car fixed on his own, there will be no record of the damage for the vehicle history report to find. A report run on such a car will come back “clean” – even though the vehicle had in fact been badly wrecked. Also, laws vary state to state, with loopholes making if possible to “wash” a damaged car’s history by shipping it from one state and re-titling it in another.

This is why it’s important to double check.

Run the vehicle history report, by all means. Spending less than $50 dollars on a purchase involving many thousands of dollars is absolutely money well-spent. But follow up this initial “virtual” (online) screening with a more thorough physical screening. If the car was ever in a major accident, there will be physical evidence of this. Some parts of the car will look newer, for instance. Modern paint-matching techniques are very good, but a trained eye will be able to tell partial repaint, nonetheless. There will usually be evidence of overspray, for example. This never happens at the factory because the body panels are painted before such things as exterior trim and weatherstripping are installed. A person who knows what to look for will also notice evidence such as bent – and repaired – suspension/frame components. Non-factory welds (e.g., frame repairs) are usually easy to spot. Be suspicious of an underside slathered with black tar “rustproofing.” This one way prior damage and evidence of repairs done is hidden from causal view. Keep in mind that no car built since the late 1980s needs aftermarket “rust protection” – and in fact, applying “rustproofing” to a car already exposed to the elements (i.e., one not fresh off the assembly line) will usually accelerate rust by trapping moisture that would otherwise dry out.epic vin pic

There are other clues, too – such as weird “tracking'” or alignment problems, which hint at serious accident damage to the car’s frame. If the car has trouble staying in its lane without counter-steering, that’s a bad sign. So is uneven tire wear, especially on opposite axles (i.e., the right front tire seems obviously more worn out than the left front tire).

VIbrations through the steering wheel are another red flag.

Now, it’s entirely possible any of the foregoing  could be due to ordinary wear and tear, the need to have shocks or struts replaced – an out of round brake rotor or bad brake caliper – and so on. But it is imperative – if you want to avoid inheriting someone else’s ex-wreck – to determine whether a drivability problem is the result of normal (and easily fixable) wear and tear. Or something much more serious.

Also be aware that the “we’ll buy it back” guarantees touted by Carfax and the other services have lots of “outs”… for them. Due diligence is just as important when reading the fine print as it is when you’re checking out the car itself.


Cost per report: $39.99 for one, $49.99 for five (valid for 60 days); $54.99 unlimited (valid for 60 days).

Special features: 


Cost per report: $7.99 for one; $2.99 for supplementary auction report

Special features: Includes photo history, where available. Contest currently under way; see here for details.


Cost per report: $29.99 for one, $44.99 unlimited (for 30 days)

Special features: Buyback protection; mobil App

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  1. Carfax is great: Besides the obvious flags mentioned above, I look as to *where* the car has lived its previous life. A spurious entry by a repair facility, or perhaps the state DMV location, or emissions inspection location are all great clues. Upshot is that you have a car that was from Upstate NY, Western PA, or one of these other areas that are hard on cars, and not even know about it. Also these reports show how many owners the car has had, with less owners the better. Get the Carfax *before* you buy! Oy, I bought a 97 Mercury Mountaineer AWD 5.0 that was pretty clean, but I didn’t inspect underneath…. rustbucket. The car is treating me okay, but every initial repair is 3x the normal cost! (but subsequent repairs in the same area are okay….)

  2. Been told by more than one person who does car inspections that it’s virtually impossible to spot a difference of say 80k miles in use (not accident repair).

    Given the wear out parts don’t show such things, and that some sort of real tear down isn’t performed, which is not really done.

    Of course a 50k car is not the same thing as a 130k car, so if a report can help detect this fraud, it was worth it.
    more imp. than the salvage spotting.

    One thing about salvage:

    If the repair has a certain cost attached to it, with a certain set of parts (and these estimates shouldn’t really be inflated, as the ins. comp. don’t want to shell out more than they have to), then most of the time, the only way to make money consistently would be because corners were cut doing the repair, just making it look good. Not saying it can’t be done, esp. as a DIY for a body-shop mechanic with access to his facility, but…

    So I think for high-volume mass market cars, the car wouldn’t have been totaled otherwise.
    And if it’s for water damage, it’s almost impossible to get rid of all mold causing issues, esp. on cars with lots of soundproofing material, like a Phaeton with its hundreds of pounds of that stuff

    Best deal I ever made: bought my totaled 928 S4 off the insurance company for a song (don’t know why they pegged it so low), and sold it to DC parts in NC, for a nice bit extra.
    They must have still made a killing on the parts they got out of that one…

  3. I went to look at a 7.3 diesel pick’em up a few years ago- showed 177K miles on the odometer. Seemed to have a lot of wear on the bed, and suspension had some issues. Ran an Autocheck (I find that they generally catch more stuff than CarFax)- turns out the truck had almost 600K miles on it! -And it’s current owner was oblivious- as he had paid top dollar for it from a used car dealer. Looks like the “discrepancy” occurred at that stealership. The 4 accidents the truck had been in, were on him, though! As someone who has made a living with cars in one form or another for a good part of my life, I was amazed at how the truck had no real indication of having such high mileage- other than the extreme wear in the bed (under the bed liner)- Oftentimes these days, it’s just one little thing like that that tips you off- always pay attention to that one little thing that doesn’t seem quite right…..

  4. People need to get over their gov’t/consumer-advocate-nazi fear of salvage titles. The thing is: You want to know, because such vehicles are worth less; but don’t write-off a vehicle just because it was branded salvage. Some of the best deals out there are salvage vehicles- as long as they are fixed properly (If the only way you can tell that they were slavage, is from the CarFax report, then they were probably fixed properly…).

    Like anything else that the state gets involved with, their intrusion into title branding is often non-sensical. Go to the Copart auction, and you’ll see vehicles that are trainwrecked, which have clean titles; and vehicles where you can’t even spot the damage, it’s so minor, and they’ll have a salvage title.

    It’s even worse with older vehicles- which are likely to be totaled for a bent bumper or even very minor cosmetic damage.

    One of my current vehicles- a full-size Ford van, I bought when it was 3 years old for $4500- it had been in an accident, and was purchased by my friend from the salvage auction, and fixed. Best vehicle I’ve ever had- almost 300K miles on it, and all I’ve ever had to do was a heater core and a fuel pump on it. I’ve pretty much been driving nothing BUT salvage vehicles for the last 20 years…never a problem; always a good deal. Just know what you’re getting, so you pay an appropriate price, ’cause everyone’s so paranoid of salvages, they go cheaper and are harder to sell.

    • Moleman, I “totalled” my pickup but just because it was old. A new one would have been just another insurance thing. So showed my insurance people all my receipts and they looked it over, covered it in full. I “totalled” it again, simply again because of the age and not the amount of damage. It was still in great shape with people lined up to buy it since it looked like new inside and out and had everything suspension, drivetrain, steering and a/c all new, even the cooling system. No insurance company would give me comp and collision on it after that due to age. The last “total” looks like a keeper. And I’d rather have that 6.5 Turbo diesel Chevy than anything made now. Nothing to go wrong, no computer, just reliable parts, a great driver and much more room inside than any pickup within 15 years of it.

      Being on the road every day, I see brand new vehicles of all sorts stranded by software or hardware problems and that’s almost all of what you see in big rigs these days.

      Tires are another issue however. Very few tires are made in the US and almost all are Asian made even if they have a common US name. I see lots of shredded tires and even light trucks(pickups). The SUV’s and such with huge wheels with nearly non-existent sidewalls on the tires don’t surprise me much when I see them down and out. It seems too, that none of those owners ever thought about a flat or certainly don’t know what to do when one occurs judging by the amount of them on the side of the road with a flat.

  5. since i only buy cars and mostly trucks from the 60s and 70s the carfax and others including online insurance quotes are uselees due to them not alowing the earlier vins with less digits.

    caveat emptor folks

  6. Traded a 2004 Forester for a new 2010 Forester. Carfax reported the 2004 was totaled. The car was hit by metal debris about 6 months after I bought it new, with minor damage.

    I had to give the accident report to the dealership and dispute the Carfax report, which was easy, with the “true” accident report. After that was taken care of the dealership made the deal.

  7. Carfax showed a 100,000 mile
    discrepancy that 2 competing
    companies missed, on a very clean car.
    They have a much wider range
    of auto and tire repair facilities
    in their network.
    The extra money spent was worth it – as it prevented a big mistake.

  8. As someone who worked in the car business for several years, good article and all accurate information. Carfax is basically useless in lieu of an inspection by a knowledgeable and experienced trained eye. As stated, if the customer paid cash to fix the damage to a private party or if the body shop doesn’t report to carfax, the damage won’t show up on the report.

    Cars usually don’t have overspray but you can tell differences in paint texture and appearance over factory paint as a first clue as to where to start looking for damage.

    Cars being sold on dealer lots have often been painted to take off parking lot rash, careless scrapes and scratches and the like so it doesn’t automatically kill the deal but at that point it’s good to have a knowledgeable party along with you or take it to one that can fully assess the vehicle and give you an opinion.

  9. Also bear in mind that not all insurance companies report damage to the data sources that CarFax and the like use. Some never report, and some report inconsistently.

    It also takes time for reports to filter through the system. From what I’ve gleaned on the internet, sometimes extensive repairs paid for by big insurance companies still do not appear on the vehicle history report for well over a year. Sometimes these reports can appear within a few months. It’s very unpredictable.

    It seems that a very large percentage of insurance-repaired damage does not make it into such vehicle history reports, though I can’t get a sense for how large.

    Overall, these reports are helpful to know about odometer fraud and salvage titles, the latter of which may be useful for negotiating a much lower price if the car is otherwise in good shape (e.g., the example above).

    These are far less helpful in uncovering damage and repair histories, though they are yet another tool, and one that is likely worth it overall.

  10. A salvage title doesn’t necessarily mean the car is no good.
    I bought a corolla a few years ago that was salvaged mainly because the airbags deployed. It needed a new drivers side fender and door skin plus the airbags replaced. I bought it and fixed everything but the airbags, since the cost was prohibitive and I could care less if the airbags functioned or not.
    Safety police spank me now….

    • Great point bobbastard. I have 2 first gen scion xb’s that I run for taxi’s. Both are salvage title and both are excellent cars.

      One has over 200,000 miles on it…….they beat the hell out of my KIA soul that has a clean title and started falling apart at 100,000.

      The big thing with salvage/rebuilt titles is to make sure they were fixed right.


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