My wife and I were recently shopping for an RV. When you’re shopping for a used RV, many of the considerations are the same as when buying a car. Not all, of course. (RVs are VERY different from a car.)

But, when buying a used car, running a VIN number search is almost always a good idea.

If you’re not already familiar with it, a VIN number is a long string of letters and numbers that identify your vehicle. It is usually found on the dashboard, tucked up close to the base of the windshield. Each vehicle has a unique VIN.

vin-decode

When you look up your VIN, it can tell you a lot of useful information about the vehicle, including:

  • Title history
  • Accident history (if any)
  • Lease/rental history
  • Maintenance history (usually only available if dealer maintained, since most mechanics don’t report work done)

Carfax is the best known site for checking VIN numbers. Problem is, they also happen to be rather expensive. Carfax is very good and they have a lot of data sources, so perhaps it is worth the money for you. If you go with the monthly plan and car shop pretty intensively for the month, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth. But, if you just check one or two vehicles, it is expensive.

Now, let’s get one thing out of the way right now…

There really are NO free Carfax alternatives. The only thing that even gets close is the NICB database, but that will only tell you if there is any criminal history involving the vehicle (as in, reported as stolen.). You can VIN check there for free, but it isn’t going to tell you all the things you would want to know about a prospective vehicle.

Here are some Carfax alternatives to check out:

  • VinAudit – $9.99 for a vehicle history report
  • VinSmart – $9.95 for their report
  • CheckThatVIN – $2.95 for each lookup
  • InstaVIN – $6.99 for history report, with other options, too. They have a free mobile app you can use while car surfing.
  • AutoCheck – Thorough report, but it is $29.99 per report. They also have a monthly rate which is on par with Carfax. This is an Experian company, so don’t expect bargains.
  • ReverseVINCheck
  • VINAlert

One thing to keep in mind is that if you’re buying from a dealer, they will usually provide you a Carfax report for free. You simply need to ask for it.

But, if you’re buying from small-time dealers or from private parties, it is best to be a smart consumer and run a VIN check on anything that you’re serious about.