"You should physically examine a vehicle yourself if possible and always have a mechanic inspect it. However, this doesn't always tell you everything there is to know about that vehicle," says Len Sims, vice president of operations for NADA Appraisal Guides. "If you buy a used car without a vehicle history report, you could be buying a vehicle with safety issues or other serious issues, in which you could end up in a spider web of declining value."
If you're still unsure of the value of a vehicle history report, consider these facts:
* Many dealers use vehicle history reports to check their used vehicles before they are sold to make sure they are safe and reliable. A significant number of dealers also offer, at no cost, vehicle history reports on the cars they sell.
* Many used vehicles in the United States are bought and sold at wholesale auctions before arriving on dealers' lots and the dealers use vehicle history reports as a determining factor when deciding which autos to buy at auction.
* Many auto dealers and online marketplaces offer free reports on listed vehicles. Some even encourage you to purchase and review a report on the vehicle you're seriously considering, even if they are not the ones selling it.
Once you've made a vehicle history report part of your used-car research, the next step is to understand all the information in the report. While much of the information in a vehicle history report is straightforward, there may be terms and items you aren't familiar with.
A good vehicle report will help explain all the terms and events in a vehicle's history and give you more information on whether the events in that history might ultimately affect the safety and reliability of your vehicle. When reviewing a vehicle history report, look for the following:
* A summary that gives you a brief overview of the information contained on the report, including identifying vehicle information, number of owners, number of reported accidents and information on the title, odometer and vehicle events.
* A vehicle history score. To date, only Experian's AutoCheck provides this. Known as the AutoCheck Score, this number works like a credit score and boils down the vehicle's history into an easy-to-understand number. The AutoCheck Score also provides a number range representing a comparison against vehicles of a similar age and class. This allows you to quickly and easily evaluate a vehicle's history using a more relevant, apples-to-apples comparison. And the score was developed by Experian, a company with a long history of expertise in making complicated information easier to understand.
* Title check. A title check alerts you of whether the title has been branded. States assign title brands to specific vehicles to alert potential customers of past problems. Examples of such problems include an accident that results in a total loss declaration or a vehicle that qualifies as a lemon under that state's lemon laws.
This section will also help you discern if a title may have been "washed," a process that happens when a title is branded in one state and then declared as clean in another state. For example, a vehicle that has a salvage title in one state can sometimes be purchased, repaired, taken to another state, and re-titled there without the salvage designation.
* Problem check. This section will tell you if the vehicle was reported to have been announced as frame damaged at a wholesale auction, sold at salvage auction or seen at a recycling facility.
* Odometer check. Reports collect odometer reading information from many data sources, including state titles, auctions and dealerships. This information can alert you if the vehicle has had its odometer rolled back.
* Use and event check. If the vehicle was used as a company, rental or fleet car, or as a taxi or police car, that information will appear here. This section will also summarize any accidents reported on the vehicle.
* Full history. The complete reported history of the vehicle is listed in chronological order so you can see when accidents, maintenance events, title transfers and other events were reported.
More than one company offers vehicle history reports, so it's important to use a report that puts the important information you need into an easy-to-understand format. Visit www.AutoCheck.com to learn more.
"In this economy, buying a good used vehicle can be a very wise way to get a great car for a lot less money," says Sims. "A vehicle history report with easy-to-understand information can help you purchase a vehicle that will serve you well for years to come."