Before you buy a car, it’s good practice to pull up a report on that vehicle with a VIN lookup. This will help you find out history on the car, such as accidents or thefts reported to the police and sometimes even repairs done to the vehicle at a repair facility. CarFax is usually the go-to source for vehicle history reports, but at around $40 per VIN lookup, the cost adds up pretty fast. They do offer deals on buying multiple reports at once, but five reports for $100 is still a large chunk of change.

Follow along below and we’ll not only help you make a decision on whether it’s worth pulling a report in the first place, but also showing you some alternative services that offer the same product, but for a whole lot less money!

Editor’s Note: This is an update (August 2017) to this article, providing a more comprehensive analysis on the value of vehicle history reports instead of “just” recommending alternatives to CarFax.

Is it worth pulling a vehicle history report?

It’s not always worth paying a service to get a vehicle history report. Sure, sometimes the report will tell you some valuable information — accidents, thefts and sometimes repairs that happened to the vehicle in question. However, it’s pretty much a shot in the dark. A CarFax report might not tell you all the accidents, whereas pulling another report from, say, AutoCheck might divulge more information. It really is a shot in the dark because of the lack of consistency between VIN lookup services.

Another thing is that VIN lookup services only, really, have information that is reported to the Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). That said, if a vehicle theft or accident happened and the police weren’t involved in the situation, that information will never show up on a vehicle history report.

For example, two people might get in an accident, but it’s fairly minor and both have state minimum insurance. So, they decide it’s not even worth getting authorities involved for insurance purposes and go their separate ways. Since it wasn’t reported to the police, electronically, it’s as if the accident never happened.

There are also plenty of people out there, who if in a collision with a tree or some other object, will just call up their friends or a service and have the vehicle towed out of there without notifying authorities. VIN lookup services just have no access to this type of information since authorities were not involved, and therefore it wasn’t reported to the NMVTIS. That said, you could be missing out on a huge part of the story on a vehicle history report if nothing was ever reported to authorities.

So, pulling a vehicle history report really is a shot in the dark. Sometimes they’ll save you from a horrible purchasing decision, but sometimes they won’t. Vehicle history reports also cannot tell you when the car is going to need a major repair. That’s why taking the vehicle to a mechanic before buying it is your best decision — they can tell you if it might need a timing belt soon (often a $1000 or more repair), a transmission, if the engine sounds like it was ragged on pretty hard, any front end work it might need, etc. A mechanic will be able to tell you these things, therefore making taking the vehicle to a mechanic far more valuable than a vehicle history report. They might even be able to tell you if it’s been in an accident before, too.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you. You have to decide if a vehicle history report is valuable to you. Here at PCMech, we’d just recommend taking your vehicle to a mechanic instead of pulling what can be an expensive report that’s missing a lot of information.

A word on NMVTIS

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System is what authorities report to in the event of a collision. The Department of Justice offers this information to a few different VIN lookup providers (see approved providers here), but again, many providers don’t divulge the full story. Information can be different from report to report (e.g. CarFax offers more information than VINAudit or VinAudit offers more information than ClearVIN; however, they all pull from the same NMVITIS database). If you’re going to pick up a report, it’s in your best interest to compare reports from at least two providers (which does mean buying two VIN lookups, one from each company) to get the most accurate story on the vehicle in question.

It’s also worth noting that, yes, the Department of Justice has approved providers for NMVTIS information; however, it’s not often that they’re very detailed. They’re a whole lot cheaper than CarFax, and as such, you get what you pay for. So, while NMVTIS approved providers might be useful for looking up, say, title assignments, it may not necessarily be useful for getting information on collisions or other information. You’re paying a cheaper price, but, generally, for less information. Paying a premium to, say, CarFax is worth it, as you’ll generally get a whole lot more information. You really do get what you pay for.

CarFax

This article is, of course, about CarFax alternatives; however, even though CarFax is rather pricey, it’s worth it as it’s one of the few vehicle history report providers where you’ll — most of the time — get the full story on the vehicle in question. It’s really a get-what-you-pay-for situation. CarFax still messes up here and there — just like everyone else — but it seems to be the provider where you have the highest chance of getting the full story. Even still, it’s always a good practice to pick up a second report from someone else to compare the two. The downside — CarFax cannot offer consumers NMVTIS history reports, as they provide this information exclusively to car dealerships.

However, CarFax makes things easy for the consumer. Accidents, title changes, ownership changes and all of that are very clearly laid out for the consumer to look through. If a vehicle was taken to a repair facility that shares information with CarFax, consumers can easily see repair records on the report, too. It’s all very detailed and can be worth the price if you’re looking for a quality vehicle report.

Buy it now: CarFax

AutoCheck

AutoCheck is a great alternative to CarFax. It’s cheaper — just one report will cost you $25, whereas a single CarFax report will cost you $40. AutoCheck is also owned by Experian, so it has a fairly reputable company backing it. It’ll pretty much give you the same information CarFax will, but for just a tad bit cheaper. Like we said, just a single report will set you back $25. But, if you’re wanting to check up on multiple vehicles, paying $50 can get you 25 reports you can use over 21 days. In contrast, just three reports will cost you $80 over at CarFax.

AutoCheck is a little different than CarFax in that they score a vehicle (they don’t score vehicles on a traditional 0 to 100 scale). They’ll offer you essentially the same information as CarFax, but they’ll then compile that information and give the vehicle a score. For example, they might give a 2006 Nissan Xterra a score of 75. Xterra’s in good condition might have a range of 82 to 88, putting the Xterra they gave a score of 75 seven points below the average Xterra in “good” condition, indicating that wouldn’t be a good buy.

Going with AutoCheck will definitely save you some cash in the long run and also has an intriguing scoring system to help you make a better buying decision.

Buy it now: AutoCheck

ClearVIN

ClearVIN is a decent choice as well. It’s cheaper than the rest of the choices on the list and offers detailed information on the vehicle. You can see what a sample report might look like here. You should be able to find about the same information that would show up on CarFax or AutoCheck; however, ClearVIN does clearly state that it won’t be able to show accidents or repairs on a vehicle that is considered a “total loss” by an insurance agency. Visiting their FAQ will give you some addition insight into what information they do offer as well as an explanation of terms and meanings.

Buy it now: ClearVIN

Save your money and avoid vehicle history reports

Ultimately, you should save your money and avoid vehicle history reports. Like we mentioned earlier, they can’t show if there’s something wrong with the vehicle. Even though CarFax may show a vehicle as all clear, that doesn’t mean it’s a good buy — it isn’t showing you if the transmission is slipping, if there’s oil leaking somewhere, if there’s a knock in the engine, an extreme loss of power or even if the steering linkage is in good condition.

Instead of buying a vehicle history report, take the vehicle you’re most serious about buying to a mechanic. You’ll have to pay the mechanic around an hours worth of time (anywhere from $60-$120), but he’ll be able to show you if there’s something major wrong with the vehicle and even compile a list of repairs that need to be done. He’ll even be able to identify cracks in the frame of the vehicle, all information a vehicle history report can’t give you.

Sure, a mechanic is a little more expensive, but he’ll end up saving you thousands of more dollars down the road than what a vehicle history report will.