Clark Howard

How to get a free VIN report before buying a used car

The next time you're buying a used car, there are a variety of services you can use for a free vehicle identification (VIN) number search. This is especially important if you're buying a car through Craigslist or eBay and there's no dealership to provide free access to a CARFAX report.

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Get your free vehicle identification number search

There are more ways than ever to get a free VIN report on a car you’re thinking about buying — or even your current ride if you’re just curious about its history before you owned it. Free VIN reports typically list any accidents where an insurance claim has been made, in addition to the registrations by state and the type of title the car has.

You may know about pay sites like CARFAX and Autocheck. But have you heard of the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), and

Just pop your VIN in and these sites will spit back info on the vehicle.


NICB keeps it simple and only tells you if a vehicle has been reported as lost or stolen; if it's been salvaged; or if it's been declared a total loss by insurers after an accident.

VehicleHistory and iSeeCars

VehicleHistory and iSeeCars, meanwhile, will provide other data like fuel economy, cost to own, price analysis, selling history, and predictions about the best time to buy that particular make and model, among other things.

How to decode your VIN

Ever wonder what all those letters and numbers in VIN denote? Here’s a quick primer:

Clark’s key rule of used-car buying: Have a mechanic check the vehicle before purchase!

Now, one note of caution here: Neither the free sites nor the pay sites are perfect. This disclaimer from CARFAX says it all:

“CARFAX does not have the complete history of every vehicle. Use the CARFAX search as one important tool, along with a vehicle inspection and test drive, to make a better decision about your next used car.”

So it is possible that a report could show no accidents, but the car has clearly had major repairs. This would be likely if a repair was self-paid, rather than having been run through insurance. Thus the takeaway is use these services as a tool, but don’t rely on the information to be 100% accurate.

For real peace of mind when you’re buying a used vehicle, you’ve got to hire an independent mechanic to take a look at the vehicle before you agree to buy it.

The reality is that all used cars are sold “as is,” whether by a private seller or a licensed dealer — unless they come with a written warranty. Worse yet, the seller is not required by law to be honest about the condition of the vehicle. Whatever representations they make about the car can be false.

So one of money expert Clark Howard's key rules of used car buying is have the car inspected by a certified diagnostic mechanic of your choosing as a condition of purchase. You can leave a deposit if you wish, but specify in writing that the money must be returned to you if the car doesn't check out. You'll eliminate nine out of 10 used car buying disasters this way.

When looking for an independent mechanic, you want to see ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certification. Garages that participate in what's called the Blue Seal program typically feature the most highly trained ASE-certified mechanics. Visit to find one near you.

Watch out for hidden flood damage

In the aftermath of any major hurricane or widespread flooding, you have to worry about flood cars entering the used car market. Following Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of thousands of vehicles were rebuilt and had their titles “washed.”

That’s when dishonest people take flooded vehicles into certain states where they can easily wash the titles. That action removes any evidence that the vehicle was ever in a flood. Cars with washed titles can then be sold to any dealership across the country that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that they’re buying a flood vehicle.

These cars often end up in the hands of “curb stoners,” which are illegal dealers who run ads in the paper. They pretend they’re selling their sister’s car or their mother’s car and they hope you don’t know what they know. About 20% of these cars go to unsuspecting people overseas. The other 80% stay right here at home.

To the naked eye, there’s no telling that anything is amiss with these cars. But you’ll know you’ve got a flood car when you encounter failed electrical systems throughout the vehicle.

Again, it all comes back to the need for a good diagnostic mechanic to thoroughly look the car over before you buy it!