The #1 Rule of Buying a Used Car

If you’re trying to spend less on driving, the thought of buying a vehicle can be a little overwhelming; buying a car can be a huge expense. According to a recent Kelley Blue Book report, the average price of a new car increased to $37,577 from 2017 to 2018. Yikes! And while used cars can certainly cost a pretty penny too, they at least offer a much more affordable alternative…if you know what to look for. 
There’s one major to-do that far too many drivers fail to check off their list before forking over the cash for a used car, and it’s surprisingly simple: run a vehicle history report.

What is a vehicle history report?

Every used car — no matter if it’s in pristine condition — has a past. By reviewing the vehicle history report, you get direct insight into that past. and are the two most popular sources for reports, but there are other sources out there as well. They all dig up important information about your potential new car using its vehicle identification number (VIN). While the report can’t tell you exactly what’s happening under the hood of a car, it can offer a wealth of knowledge that reduces the risk around determining the car’s current state. 
Here’s what you’ll typically find in a vehicle history report:

  • Accidents. You can’t expect every minor fender bender to go on a vehicle’s permanent record, but any major accidents have usually been reported to an insurance company. Those accidents will wind up here. 
  • Number of owners/type of uses: Knowing how many people have owned the car and how they might have used it can make a big difference in your decision to buy. Was the car mostly kept in the garage by one occasional driver, or was it put to work as a rideshare vehicle? Knowing the facts — and whether it may have been passed down along a long chain of family or friends — may influence your buying mindset. 
  • Maintenance records: Service visits aren’t always listed on the report, but if the previous owner took the car in to the dealership, you’ll find out about it. 
  • Odometer tampering: One major advantage of the report is its insight into odometer rollbacks. Less-than-reputable lots might tamper with the car’s distance measurement to sell older cars at higher prices. If this ever happened to a vehicle, it will go on its history report.  
  • Salvage title: Even if a vehicle endures a “total loss” (meaning the insurance company declared the cost of repairs would exceed the cash value of the car), it could still very well be drivable. But you’d probably want to know about it, right? Luckily, insurance companies issue something called a “salvage title” that notifies future buyers of the incident. This goes on a vehicle history report, too. 

Bottom Line

Ordering a vehicle history report typically costs between $25 and $40 — sometimes less if you’re checking multiple reports at once — or you may be able to snag a report on the dealer’s or lender’s dime. It’s a good idea to stay informed; you’ll be less likely to be blind-sided by any serious issues, and can save money on maintenance down the road.
And of course, a safer car can mean lower insurance rates (whether you buy that insurance by the mile or through a traditional insurer). The one-two punch of a vehicle history report and great car insurance can help you stay safe before and after you’re in the driver’s seat.
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Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist, UC Berkeley alumna, and Metromile customer.