Is Carfax Reliable?

Category: Auto

If you've shopped for a used car in the past 20 years, you've probably heard of Carfax, Autocheck, and similar vehicle history reporting services. They purport to give you a reliable, independent look at a car’s major service records, title history, and other factors to help you gauge a car’s value. But where does this data come from, and how complete is it? Here's the scoop...

Used Car Buying: Doing Your Homework

If you're in the market for a used car, it's wise to learn all you can about a car before making a buying decision. But is it enough to ask the dealer "Show me the CARFAX"? Unfortunately, the answer is "maybe" and here's why...

Title histories are drawn from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, which is maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice. A title history answers important questions, starting with “Does the seller legally own this car?”

Various “brand” titles flag cars that have been flooded, declared total losses, salvaged, or sold as junk. Odometer readings taken at each title transfer can reveal whether an odometer has been rolled back.

You should be aware that not all U.S. states participate fully in the NMVTIS.
So it's possible that some of a car’s title history may be missing. The NMVTIS website also mentions that you can inquire with a state's Department of Motor Vehicles to request a State Vehicle Record.
Carfax Auto History

Vehicle history reports also draw data from other sources, including insurance companies, auto repair service shops, and police traffic accident reports. But not all relevant data is captured. If a car is repaired without resorting (or reporting) to insurance, whoever repaired it may not report to Carfax or its competitors. Repairs may never have been made at all, yet remain hidden from easy detection.

Getting Full Disclosure

Many used car dealers provide reports from Carfax, Autocheck, or both. The reports lend credibility to their sales pitches. But buyers should not rely on a report from a single vendor. Just as one anti-malware program may miss an infection that another catches, Carfax may reveal red flags that Autocheck doesn’t, and vice versa. If a dealer won’t provide reports from both leading services, take the one offered and run your own report on the other. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive.

All you need is a car’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). Punch it in at Carfax.com or Autocheck.com and you’ll get a teasing summary of the car’s history. Pay a fee to download the complete report, which includes vehicle registration and title information, odometer readings, recall, accident and airbag deployment history, service and repair information, and vehicle usage (taxi, rental, lease, etc.) Both services offer package deals for shoppers who plan to check out several vehicles.

A single Carfax report costs $39.95; up to 5 reports within 30 days cost $49.99, while unlimited reports within 30 days cost $54.99. Carfax does offer a few free services such as Lemon Check and Recall Check, which you can find linked at the bottom of their home page.

One Autocheck report costs $29.95; unlimited reports within 30 days costs $44.99. The price differences do not indicate which service is better. Carfax is strictly in the vehicle history business, while Autocheck is a subsidiary of credit reporting agency Experian. Autocheck may well be a subsidized lead-generator for other Experian products.

I'm certainly not saying that Carfax and similar services are dishonest or worthless. Just don't let a “clean” vehicle history report lull you into a false sense of security. The best protection against buying an expensive headache or paying too much is a hands-on inspection by an auto mechanic you trust. Vehicle history reports are just an intermediate step between a test drive and a mechanic’s inspection. You can find more car buying tips in my related article Online Car Buying Tips.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome! Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Is Carfax Reliable?"

Posted by:

SamG
14 Apr 2014

Touchy subject, controversial, here. Were you just buying a vehicle? Awhile back on 20-20 or Dateline they discussed this and claimed Carfax was not trustworthy. Good article, Bob. Reminds me of shops welding two halves of a car together.


Posted by:

Ernie
14 Apr 2014

Long story. Bought new BMW 330. Had Hail damage to hood and roof. Repaired. Traded 2 yrs later for Lexus. After deal done, Lexus dealer called me and tried to get me to pay an additional $4000 because carfax report showed front end accident. B.S. I owned since new. Carfax refused to change their report. They had hail damage as front end damage. I wouldn't do business with them if they were the only one.


Posted by:

Carole
14 Apr 2014

There are some limitations to these car reporting agencies. If a car has been in an accident and the amount of damages exceed a certain dollar amount, it is suppose to be reported to the Dept of Motor Vehicles. That is not always the case. When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, there were a lot of cars damaged by water. Here again, this information was not always reported. I wouldn't totally trust the information of Carfax & Autocheck. They can only report what they know.


Posted by:

Sharon H
14 Apr 2014

Your points regarding these services are excellent. I myself prefer AutoCheck, simply because they have better access to auction and accident records.

Carfax has hired a very proactive ad agency and it has been successful due in large part to this agency's fine work. Everyone wants to see the Carfax, and who doesn't know about the CarFox? Nice, but...commercials are expensive. That money might be better spent widening their circle of contacts. Obviously it is a huge tool for dealers, who tout it in their ads. It has been written that Carfax is for sellers, AutoCheck is for buyers. And no, I don't work for any of these companies!

AutoCheck uses more of its finances to create, research and maintain relationships with both state sources and police records. IMO it shows whenever I get to compare two reports on the same vehicle.

That said, any report is only as good as the info that has been filed with entities that are involved in the auto record areas. If Joe Six Pack has an accident and doesn't want to report it to the police and/or insurance company (often because Joe didn't buy any insurance), he takes it to his mechanic buddy Mike, who repairs the car and reports this to no one.

I would not purchase a car without consulting one or both reports, but it is just one of several tools a consumer should resort to when buying a purchase so important as a vehicle. The wrong one could result in bad accidents where the end result is injury or even worse. Nothing replaces an inspection by a trusted and knowledgeable mechanic.

P.S. I've looked up many cars using AutoCheck and so far see no pushing of any of Experian's products, just as an FYI.


Posted by:

Jason
14 Apr 2014

Probably the most important thing to remember with these services is that they have no way of knowing about any non-professional repair work. If a person does their own repairs, or has a mechanic friend whose willing to help them out, it won't show up on any report. Now, there is nothing wrong with that, but you should keep it mind when looking into a car's history.


Posted by:

Steve P.
14 Apr 2014

In my experience, the free Carfax reports from the dealership usually are an abbreviated version & not as detailed as the ones you can purchase from them.


Posted by:

Linda
14 Apr 2014

Bought a used Lexus, which I still love, but the
CarFax report neglected to mention that it had been in an accident. they were non-committal when
contacted...Basically, "buyer beware"! So much for faith in their reports


Posted by:

RandiO
16 Apr 2014

I chanced upon this following site a few weeks ago, when GM recalls were in the news.
http://www.safercar.gov/
From that site, you can easily jump around to NHTSA site for recalls on any car. Since the recalls page also provides Technical Service Bulletins (TSB) and consumer Complaints on the specific car you dialed in, it can assist in finding any defective trends that are neither a recall candidate nor a TSB but problem area in a specific car model/year.
This information will not only assist in used car purchases but also provide a general idea of current year models predictive reliability behavior as long as the model is not an entirely brand new vehicle.


Posted by:

Gina
25 Apr 2014

Guess things have changed a lot since I used CarFax. At one time, if you were the title holder of the vehicle you could add maintenance records with details, ie Who, What, When and Where on your vehicle's history report.

Guess as always it's still - Buyer Beware.


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