Don't count on used car reports

June 2, 2009 4:22:42 PM PDT
New car sales may be lagging, but car dealers say used vehicle sales are still doing well. Before you buy a used car, you may be tempted to check out the car's history. But are you getting the best information available?

Many used-car buyers rely on vehicle history reports to see if a vehicle has been in a wreck. But a Consumer Reports investigation finds these services are far from foolproof.

Lezlie Simmons still has the Carfax report for the used car she bought last year. The Toyota Camry had a clean record. Under accidents, it stated "no issues reported." But a week after Lezlie bought the car she started having problems, then learned it had been in a wreck.

"The car had a suspension problem," she told us. "It was making noises. The front axel had to be replaced."

The repairs cost $4,000 and she says the car still needs work.

A Consumer Reports' investigation finds what Lezlie found. You can't count on a car-history report to tell if a car has been in an accident. Anthony Giorgianni located dozens of wrecked vehicles advertised online, most of which later came up with clean records.

"For example, here is a 2007 Acura MDX," Giorgianni said. "This vehicle has been dramatically damaged. Yet when we check on the Carfax report, it comes back as having no accident or damage."

None of the other car-history reports Consumer Reports checked revealed the accident either.

"The AutoCheck report says 'this vehicle checks out' and then it gives the vehicle a score of 89 out of 100," he said.

Despite these findings, Consumer Reports says checking car-history reports is still worth it for what they can tell you. And check several because one can miss what another picks up.

Besides Carfax and AutoCheck, consult the free or inexpensive services VinCheck and the National Motor Vehicle Title Information Systems.

But no matter what the reports say, Consumer Reports says nothing replaces having a used car inspected by an independent mechanic and checking it out thoroughly yourself.

Consumer Reports says one reason the services miss accidents is that they depend on the accident being reported to an insurance company. That doesn't always happen.

In light of Consumer Reports' investigation, Carfax says it will begin looking at online advertisements for wrecked vehicles to see if it is possible to include that information in its reports. We have free car history checks listed on my consumer blog.

Not all states are contributing to some of these registries, so they are not fool proof either, but a combination of two or three may help you develop a clear idea of your car's past.

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