Check a Car's History

Buying a used car is a big investment, so you need to know everything about the car that you can. As well as looking over the car carefully and giving it a test drive, you can check the history of the car to find any issues that may not be immediately apparent. Whether you’re buying privately or through a second-hand dealership, there’s an easy way to get a vehicle history report (VHR).


Running a Private Check

  1. Locate the Vehicle Identification Number of the car you want to purchase. The Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, is a unique code for each car that can help easily identify it in the case of repairs, accidents, or theft. Look on the dashboard, in the driver’s side door, on the engine block, or behind the rear wheels to try and find it. The VIN should also be noted in the car’s manual.
    • Make sure the VIN plate hasn’t been tampered with or adjusted in any way. There should be no scratch marks or any damage around the VIN. For extra safety, double check that the VIN on the car and in the manual are the same.
    • If the owner of the car doesn’t provide you with the VIN, or makes it difficult for you to acquire it, it may be because they don’t want you to check the car’s history. This is a big red flag, and you should consider walking away from the sale.
    • If you can’t find the VIN on the car, consult the manual or call the manufacturer to find out where it’s located.
  2. Choose a vehicle history report service. There are several online services that offer vehicle history reports in each country around the world. Do some research and find the best service in your local area.[1] Here are a few popular options in different countries:
    • If you’re in America, look into CarFax or AutoCheck, which are the most commonly used VHR services.
    • In the United Kingdom, the government offers services to check the history of a car and its status with the Ministry of Transport. You can do so here:
    • The Insurance Bureau of Canada offers a service for checking the history of a car with the VIN.
  3. Run a free report for some basic information. Many services, such as AutoDNA or CarFax, will offer a free check of the car’s history. This won’t provide specific information about the car but can give you more information about the make and model. This will help you make sure you have the correct VIN for the car before paying for a full check, as well as letting you see any red flags.[2]
    • The free check will usually provide information on the make and model of the car. Make sure this matches up with the make and model of the car you are wanting to buy. If it does not, it’s likely something fraudulent is going on and is a good sign you should walk away from the sale.
    • In some cases, the free check will also report on vehicles that have been recalled or that have other serious issues. Be aware of these if you want to continue on with the sale, especially if the seller did not mention them up front.
  4. Upgrade to a full report to learn about the specific car. Most services in the United States will require you to pay for a full report in order to see information about the specific car you are interested in. These will normally cost around $40 but can save a lot more money in the long run by helping you identify any significant problems.[3] Here’s some of the information that may be included:
    • Ownership history of the car
    • Ownership verification
    • Periodic odometer readings
    • Maintenance records
    • History of rental or lease
    • Accident repair history
    • Flood repair history
  5. Check for any potential issues. Once you have a full vehicle history report, you need to know what to look for to help in your decision making. Any major issues with the car or any significant accidents that you didn’t know about should throw up red flags about the trustworthiness of the sale.[4] Here are a few other things to look out for.
    • Check to see how often the owner of the car changes. If previous owners have sold the car very quickly, it may be a sign that something is wrong with it.
    • Look for any particularly expensive repairs, as these can be a sign that the car will be expensive to maintain.
    • Check that the valuation for the car lines up with how much you are expecting to pay for it.
    • Look for discrepancies in the odometer reading, which can be a sign that the car was tampered with.

Checking Vehicle History in a Dealership

  1. Establish a budget and important features when looking to buy a used car. Before you go onto a dealership lot, it’s important to know how much you want to spend and what you want from a new car. You should be looking to pay attention to only 1 or 2 cars, so make sure you set some limits. This will help you negotiate with the dealer to get a vehicle history report.[5]
    • It can help to do some research ahead of time and find the exact car you want to purchase. Look for someone selling the car you want, rather than looking to buy whatever car is available at your local dealership.
  2. Show interest in 1 car that you want. Before asking the dealer for a vehicle history report, you need them to know that you’re a serious customer. Show interest in 1 or 2 specific cars rather than walking around the whole lot, talk to the dealer about those cars, and ask to take the one you’re interested in for a test drive.[6]
    • When you take the car for a test drive, keep an eye out for any issues such as strange noises, or the car pulling to one side. Make sure these issues are recorded or explained in the vehicle history report before purchasing the car.
  3. Ask the dealership for a VHR. As you are getting ready to purchase the car, you should ask the dealership for a vehicle history report. Most reputable dealers will have subscriptions or quick access to reputable VHR services and should be able to provide one for you easily.[7]
    • If your dealer is hesitant about providing a VHR for the car, it’s a sign that there’s something on the report that they don’t want you to know about.
    • It might help to indicate that the dealer’s willingness to provide a VHR would help ease your concerns about purchasing the car. This can be a good bargaining chip to drive home the sale.
  4. Look for any potential red flags or issues. Once you have the vehicle history report, look over it to make sure that any issues with the car are noted, and that there’s nothing there that is unexpected.[8] Here are a few things to look out for:
    • Make sure that the VHR isn’t outdated, as this is a big red flag that there is something recent the dealer doesn’t want you to know about. Ask for a more recent VHR before proceeding.
    • If the dealer refuses to provide a VHR, you should proceed with caution or walk away from the sale.
    • Make sure that any issues you noted in the test drive are listed on the VHR.
    • If you’re unsatisfied but are still interesting in buying the car, you can run your own VHR check with the VIN number. This will ensure your check is up-to-date and complete.


  • Remember that car history records do not obtain all history of the vehicle. Research each one to determine which areas they cover.
  • Pay close attention when test-driving a new car. Things like a musty smell could indicate that the car was involved in some type of flooding. Low mileage with a lot of wear on the inside may indicate that the odometer has been tampered with.
  • Always try to examine a car in the daylight, especially when buying from an individual. In bad weather such as rain, dents and scratches can be easily overlooked.


  • Never buy a vehicle if the owner does not have title to the vehicle. This could indicate that it is stolen.
  • Never purchase a used car without checking its history.


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