What’s a Carfax Report and Do I Need One?

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A Carfax vehicle history report is an essential part of the used car-buying process.

Buying a used car is a big purchase that comes with a lot of risks. Proper maintenance and regular service ensure a car lasts tens of thousands of miles. However, used cars are not all equal, and a vehicle’s history report could provide great insight into how reliable the car will be in the future. A Carfax vehicle history report helps track this information and offers it all in an easy-to-read report.

The report collects various vehicle information from multiple sources like insurance companies and state government agencies to create a detailed history of a vehicle. Everything is tied to the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, making it easy to track a vehicle’s history.

Keep in mind, the Carfax is only one piece of information in the car-buying process, and there are ways for gaps to appear in a car’s history report. But it’s still a very valuable tool.

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What Does a Carfax Report Show?

The Carfax vehicle history report can contain a lot of information about a used car. The Carfax could include accident data, service history, how it was used, and the ownership history.

Each car will be different, but the report could include accident data such as the crash’s severity, where the vehicle was damaged, whether or not it was repaired, and a record of structural damage. The report should also indicate if the airbags deployed during a crash. A specialist is required after airbag deployment, so you’d want to ensure the airbags were professionally replaced before buying a used car.

The report should also include the vehicle’s service record. This should show when the oil was changed, tires were rotated, and any safety inspections were completed. It should also indicate if the vehicle had any recalls and if they were fixed, along with other maintenance records. Major services like an engine or transmission replacement would also show up here.

The report will note if the car was used as a personal vehicle, a rental car, a taxi, or a police vehicle. This is important because specific uses, like a taxi, lead to more wear, require more maintenance, and increase ownership costs down the road. The report will also show the number of previous owners, where the vehicle had been registered, the reported mileage, and title status.

The report should indicate the odometer reading throughout the vehicle’s history, which could show gaps in the record or if an odometer was rolled back. This would be a major red flag but is easy to spot in the report.

Many states have Lemon Laws for new cars that require automakers to buy back a defective vehicle. However, automakers can resell such vehicles, which could appear on the Carfax report. The report will show any irregularities like flood damage and if the car was a total loss in an accident.

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How Much Does a Carfax Report Cost?

A single Carfax report costs $39.99, but the company does offer discounts. You can buy three for $59.99 and six for $99.99. You can also buy a Carfax vehicle history report for your own vehicle. You can see what it says before listing your car for sale, or you can buy one if you’re just curious about what it says.

There is a cheaper Carfax alternative called Autocheck. It’s $24.99 for a single report. It’s less comprehensive than Carfax’s report, but it does offer a $49.99 tier that allows a car buyer to access 25 reports in 21 days. Autocheck is suitable for people who need to narrow down a wide selection of used cars. However, like Carfax, it doesn’t catch everything.

Most car sellers should be quite willing to provide a Carfax vehicle history report for the car they are selling. It’s becoming a standard part of the used car-buying process.

Get a Free Carfax Vehicle History Report

There are several ways to get a free Carfax Vehicle History Report. Carfax lists used cars on its website, and each car there comes with a free Carfax vehicle history report. Other online used car buying sites like AutoTrader might include a free Carfax report with their listings.

Most used-car dealers will also offer free Carfax reports. However, the Carfax report shouldn’t be relied upon to include every detail of a car’s history. If you buy from a private seller, you could ask them to provide the Carfax report. If they refuse, it could indicate that the vehicle might have something compromising its history report.

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What the Carfax Report Misses

Sadly, not every Carfax vehicle history report is comprehensive. According to Carfax’s support page, the company receives information from various sources. However, not everything is reported to those sources, and Carfax doesn’t receive data from every potential source. This makes it possible for gaps to appear in a car’s history report.

These gaps could hide things like an accident or missed service intervals, or they might not hide anything. Missing service records does not mean the owner missed performing them. Information can simply be missing from the report, and Carfax has no way to obtain it. However, one should not solely rely on the report when purchasing a used car.

If an accident didn’t get reported, then it could be easy for the owner to hide the accident damage and repair history from a potential buyer. This is why it’s important to request a vehicle inspection from a third-party mechanic you trust. A trained mechanic should have the skills necessary to identify if a car has been in an accident. There are tell-tale signs of a major collision, and the mechanic might be able to spot new parts installed on an old vehicle.

Red Flags to Watch Out For

Not every Carfax vehicle report will be a complete rundown of the car’s history and service. There will be things the report misses, but there are red flags to watch out for that indicate a troubled history. A relatively new car with numerous owners might indicate a car plagued with problems, while many recent services might indicate reliability issues.

Significant gaps in the history report could be another red flag, but remember the Carfax report doesn’t log everything. The car could have missed important service intervals, or Carfax just didn’t receive that information. The Carfax report should indicate whether the vehicle had been part of a rental fleet, and this could be yet another flag to reconsider as rental cars are often irregularly maintained under harsh driving conditions.

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Always Get an Inspection

While a Carfax vehicle history report can tell you a lot about a car, it won’t tell you everything you might want to know before buying a used car. Even if you’re happy with the Carfax report, it’s still important that you seek out an independent mechanic to inspect the vehicle. The inspection should help verify the car’s condition while identifying any issues not reported.

A thorough inspection should not cost more than a couple of hundred dollars, nor should it take very long to complete. The inspection should include checking the engine, transmission, chassis, suspension components, and other vital vehicle systems. A trained mechanic can also identify any future problems the car might experience.

Newer cars have more safety tech than ever before, meaning it’s vital to check the various safety systems in accordance with the automaker’s specifications. Newer cars have systems like blind-spot monitoring and reverse sensors that one should also check before buying.

A test drive is an important part of buying a used car. Listen for any unusual sounds when driving, and be sure to drive the vehicle over various types of roads, including bumpy road surfaces and up hills.

Common Sense Used Car Buying Tips

Buying a used car is a daunting process. It’s an expensive purchase that plays a vital role in people’s lives, and ensuring you’re buying a safe, reliable vehicle is an integral part of the car-buying process.

A good used car should meet several criteria before you purchase it. Two of the main factors to consider are: total mileage (with fewer miles often leading to a better car) and price. The used car market fluctuates a lot, so shopping around is important. A car that is priced significantly cheaper than other comparable makes and models should be a red flag that something might be wrong.

All this should be taken into consideration when buying a used car. A Carfax vehicle history report is one tool in a car buyer’s arsenal, but paired with an inspection and a test drive, it’s a good place to start.

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Main Photo Credit: CARFAX

About The Author


Tony James

Tony James has been writing about the automotive industry for more than a decade, writing for publications such as Car and Driver, Autoweek, Popular Mechanics, and many others.


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