A vehicle history report can be an important tool when selecting a dependable used car, but the reports might not tell the whole story — like if it was buried in a blizzard. Do your homework, observe and ask the pros to get a complete story of the car. 

Ed Andrieski / The Associated Press 2013

Buying a new car is a daunting enough task, but when you decide to buy a used car, problems can surface — even if you check out vehicle history reports such as Carfax.

While a vehicle history report can be a good resource when buying a car, it is not an infallible one. Some people mistakenly believe that a report will show every accident that has occurred.

A vehicle history report can tell you valuable things. For example, you often can find out if the car had one owner, its service records, or if it has been reported accident-free. A report also can let you know whether a pre-owned car was a personal vehicle or in a fleet.

But it also could be incomplete. For example, if a car was in a wreck but it wasn’t reported to an insurance company, there’s usually not a record of the accident or repairs.

Of course, it still can’t hurt to ask the seller for a history report such as Carfax or AutoCheck. If the report isn’t recent or you suspect that it has missing or fabricated information, verify it with the service.

Also, be sure to read the disclosures, of which there are many. The reporting companies will explain the limits of the information and any guarantees they’re providing.

It also can’t hurt to get multiple reports, because one report might be clean but another might not.

National Motor Vehicle Title Information Systems reports, which cost a few dollars, should find vehicles sold through insurance salvage auctions, including clean-title wrecks.

In addition to obtaining a vehicle history report, AAA car buying experts recommends four tips when buying a used vehicle:

  • Have the vehicle inspected. Just because a report is clean, it doesn’t mean that the vehicle is problem-free. Have the vehicle checked over by a reputable repair shop.
  • Test drive the vehicle. Make note of unusual squeaks or rattles. If a car pulls to one side or tracks poorly, then that might hint at previous damage. Check the backs of body panels and doorjambs for paint overspray, a signal that the car might have had bodywork. The smell of mildew could indicate water damage.
  • Check the title. Inspect the title document. Look for any “brands” indicating that the vehicle had been wrecked, repurchased under a state “Lemon Law” program, flooded or had any other problem. Verify the odometer statement against the reading in the vehicle.
  • Register with the provider. To take advantage of the limited “buyback” guarantees that Carfax and AutoCheck provide, you must register the vehicle purchase with the service within 90 days.

Of course, you always have the option of enlisting the help of a professional. This is where car buying services come in handy. Not only can these services help you purchase a new vehicle, but it also many will buy your trade outright.

By doing your homework and enlisting the help of a professional, your used car purchase won’t leave you feeling “used.”

Valerie Vinyard is a public affairs specialist with AAA Arizona. Contact her at vvinyard@arizona.aaa.com or at 258-0518.