How To Use Carfax To Shop For a Car
When one hears Carfax, the first though that usually springs to mind is, "Oh, that’s the vehicle report I can request at a dealership to check the history of a car I intend to buy." True. However that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how good of a resource Carfax really is. This is yet another one of those instances where the power of the internet is truly an amazing resource.
Carfax originally had no web presence at all, especially considering the company was originally founded in 1984. However as the internet has progressed, so has Carfax. It was also true in the past you had to pay even to get the most basic vehicle report information. But these days most of the information you would need is free and instantly accessible.
A quick how-to on using Carfax to find a car
- Go to www.carfax.com
- Click "Find a car" at the top.
- Specify year range, make and model, your postal code, and search.
Things to note:
- The year range can start as far back as 1981. Yes this does mean there are Carfax reports for 29-year-old cars out there. Maybe they won’t be descriptive as newer ones, but at least they’re available.
- Selection is usually extensive. The selection of vehicles to choose from is quite good.
- Vehicles shown usually show up on Carfax before the dealer’s own web site. When you see vehicles that were posted "minutes ago", that’s literally true. If you wanted a way to see what’s available before others do, there you go.
- Prices are usually not listed on Carfax. Unless there’s a specific dealer listing that shows the price of the car, most of the time Carfax is informational-only. However, there are links available on each listing to go direct to the dealer site to get the price of the car.
Good info you get from free Carfax searches
"Was this car ever a rental?"
There are many dealerships that try to sell cars that were once rental vehicles. Have you ever heard the saying "Don’t be gentle, it’s a rental"? Believe me, there’s a reason for it.
On each vehicle report, the vast majority of the time one of the first comments you’ll see is "Registered as personal vehicle" or "Registered as a lease vehicle", like this:
If the car was a rental, it’s first registration will be listed as "Registered as a rental" because companies who rent fleet vehicles almost never buy used.
Given the fact few people would ever want to buy a former rental car, the dealer obviously will never tell you this information. This is why you look up a Carfax report on your own, at your home, on your computer and not "the dealer’s copy".
"Has this car ever been serviced for typical issues for that particular vehicle?"
Let’s say you’re a super-smart car used car shopper and head over to CarSurvey first to read what real owners had to say about the make/model of car you want to buy. You notice in some reviews that there are several reviewers that say the brake rotors wear out at around 90,000 miles.
If you see this in the Carfax report:
…you know the work has been performed, so it’s one less thing to worry about.
It should be noted that you should not take maintenance records in a Carfax report as gospel unless the former owner serviced the car at the dealership every time something needed to be done – and I mean everything. From oil changes to tire rotations to coolant flush/fill or anything in between, it is up to the shop to report this stuff to Carfax. When the car is serviced at the dealership it was bought from new, typically everything is reported.
You should also be aware that you have no idea whether the service performed was done correctly or not – but – you at least know it was performed; this is better than not knowing at all.
"Where has this car been?"
In Florida where PCMech is based, Floridians typically prefer to buy cars that have lived their entire lives in Florida. Why? Because we’re relatively sure the car has never seen snow.
Carfax reports list where every registration took place. If it was bought in New York and ended up in Florida, that information is present.
In addition, you’ll know which motor vehicle department by town the car was originally registered in. This information is valuable to some.
For example, maybe you would prefer to buy a car that that lived its life in a rural part of your state instead of city, because you have relative assurance most of its driving wasn’t city stop-and-go style (meaning it probably wasn’t driven as hard as it would have been in the city).
"How many owners have owned this car?"
In the report, you’ll know exactly how many owners of the car there was up to the point of sale – dealerships included. You’ll see how many miles were put on the car per each transaction as well.
It’s typically true that for cars that switch owners quickly usually means there’s something wrong with it. If for example Owner 1 bought the car new and traded it in at 15,000 miles, then Owner 2 traded it in at 25,000 miles, Owner 3 traded it in at 33,000 miles and so on – that’s a strong indication something’s wrong under the hood, else the car wouldn’t have been switched owners so often.
"How many accidents has the car been in?"
This is probably the most prominent information in any Carfax vehicle report. For any car that has had any sort of damage done to it, a rather large yellow exclamation point icon is shown.
What happened as far as vehicle damage is concerned is usually listed on the report – but not always. And what you get is usually vague. It will look something like this:
Okay, so the guy appeared to back into somebody. We don’t know where it happened, how fast the hit was (did it deploy the airbags?) or what was damaged – but something did get broken. Tail light lens? Bumper? Paint scratches? Dents? Dings? We have no idea.
A very important thing to bear in mind is that only reported accidents appear on a Carfax report. If the former owner bumped someone in the parking lot, damaged the car, drove away without getting caught, then had the car fixed at a shop that didn’t report the repair, it will never show up on the Carfax report.
Getting a report on your car or a car not listed
This is where the free stuff ends concerning Carfax. If you want a report on your car or another not listed from a search, you’ll have to pay up $35 for a single vehicle report or $45 for five individual reports.
Is it worth it? Yes. This is especially true if you’re buying a vehicle privately, as in not from a dealer.
Also, if you plan on selling your own car, you can use a Carfax report as a selling point. The $35 you spend on a report to list within your car ad gives potential buyers much more confidence because they know exactly what they’re getting. On sites like Craigslist and eBay, if you put the word "Carfax" in the title of the ad, this does get you more clicks and more interest in the car you’re selling. Yes, it’s that big of a deal.