Financial Resource Center

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It used to be that the best determiner if a used car was a dud or not was to kick the tires and thump the rear quarter panel. Beyond that, you had to take the dealer’s word for it and hope the new undercoating he threw in for free wasn’t there to cover up something.

The days of trusting the safety of your family to someone in a plaid sport coat and ill-fitting pants are long gone.

Vehicle history reports have leveled the playing field between used-car sales people and used-car buyers. Everything you need to know about the vehicle is in a report. But which one should you read? The one from the dealer? One you can get your own?

From the dealer. A Carfax report is probably the most common you’ll find from the dealer. There are a few others, but the information should all be the same. Double-check things, though. Compare the VIN on the report to the one on the car. Do the specifications on the report match the window sticker/vehicle you’re looking at? If there are any irregularities, ask them to run a report while you’re watching. Or just leave. If you think a dealer is fudging a vehicle history report, who knows what other shady things they are doing. Leave and report them to your local business association or state Attorney General.

What you can do. You can run a free report at Vehiclehistory.com. It won’t be as detailed as the ones you or the dealer pay for, but it will have a lot of information. If any of the information between your report and the dealer’s doesn’t match up, ask for clarification or look for a different dealer. One great thing here is that you can find people’s complaints about a vehicle’s make, model, and year. So you can learn ahead of time what problems you may face with the vehicle. It will also list the history of any recalls for the car.

Another place to check is NICB.org/vincheck. This is a service run by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. It tells you two things: if the car was stolen and not reported recovered, and if the car was ever recorded as a total loss. If either of these come back positive for the vehicle, don’t buy it. For starters, it’s insurance fraud to resell a vehicle that was counted as a total loss. Secondly, it could be stolen property. Both are going to cause problems for you.

If you do run into a car for sale that fails the NICB check, call the police. The seller might not know but now you do, and you want nothing to do with that problem.

Keep it old school. All the technology in the world is going to fail you when it comes to reporting actual wear and tear on the vehicle. Rust spots and a worn-out transmission aren’t going to make it on the Carfax report. Walk around the vehicle, thump the panels. Take a peek underneath and look for rust. Take it out on the road, get it up to highway speeds. Listen for anything that sounds odd. Does the steering feel okay? How are the brakes?

In the end, there isn’t one single way to make sure you’re getting all the information you should have about a used car. Make sure the seller gives you a printed vehicle history report. Double-check it. Use the free resources out there to check for yourself. Then, in the end, make sure everything looks good. So kick those tires and tap the quarter panels.