Buying a new-to-you vehicle -- whether it's new or used -- is a major purchase and one you want to do correctly. While there are many benefits to buying used, doing so also means you'll want to take a peek into the vehicle's background as part of your research before making a decision. After all, even a cheap used car is still a big purchase that's worth pursuing carefully.
There are two primary companies that provide information about used cars: AutoCheck and Carfax.
Both are subscription services and they both deliver a thorough look into the history of a vehicle's service records, potential accidents and emissions records. A vehicle history report will also show salvage titles and other red flags for used vehicles, such as branded titles (sometimes also called salvage titles).
Both services draw information from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), which is run by the federal Department of Justice. This agency collects its title information from state motor vehicle registries. It's the only publicly-available system in the U.S. that all insurance carriers, auto recyclers, junk yards and salvage yards must report to regularly.
In other words, both Carfax and Autocheck let you analyze the vehicle's past so you can make an informed purchase. They're very similar services, but there are some key differences you should understand before selecting one.
Top Things to Know
While both Carfax and AutoCheck are useful services, they're only as good as the documentation they're provided. If a body shop makes repairs and fails to update the vehicle's history, that incident won't show up in your report. Likewise, if someone has had a fender-bender and fixes their vehicle themselves or privately without telling the insurance company, you won't see that on the report either.
Unfortunately, this means that a vehicle could theoretically have prior damage without it showing up in the report. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to obtain a vehicle history report prior to buying a used car.
Reports from AutoCheck and Carfax do cost money, particularly if you're buying a used vehicle privately since there won't be a dealer involved who often offers a report from one of these services as part of the sale.
If you're at the dealership and want to know the history of a given car, request the report. Dealers usually have subscriptions to AutoCheck or Carfax and will run a free report for seriously interested buyers. It should be considered a red flag if any seller -- dealer or private party -- refuses to run a report or provide you with an outdated report.
Here's a look at Carfax versus AutoCheck:
Carfax is more well-known than Autocheck and is so named because the company was founded in 1984, before the Internet, when it faxed reports to customers. Both Carfax and Autocheck reports are available on used vehicles and light trucks manufactured in 1981 and beyond.
Carfax offers features that Autocheck doesn’t, such as their guaranteed buyback program and information on open recalls. With the guaranteed buyback program, if they made a mistake on your vehicle history report, they will buy the vehicle back from you. For many used car buyers, that kind of reassurance is well-worth the higher cost of admission.
A Bit More Costly
Carfax is the more expensive option: As of this writing, a single Carfax report (for a single vehicle) cost $39.99, three costs $59.99 and six is $99.99. For comparison, AutoCheck charges $24.99 for one or $49.99 for 25 reports in 21 days.
With those prices in mind, if you plan on casting a wide net and comparing many similar vehicles, Autocheck is clearly the more frugal option. However, if you just want to learn in-depth details about one specific vehicle, it may be worth spending a little extra for Carfax's extra features and data.
Although they cost more, Carfax reports tend to be highly detailed yet easier to understand, making them more user-friendly. Data such as mileage and the number of owners a vehicle has had are clearly labeled and neatly organized into sections.
Includes Service & Maintenance Records
Furthermore, Carfax is also the only report to show records such as maintenance dates, provided that the vehicle was serviced in a facility that shares this type of data, like the service department for a franchised dealership. This lets you see how well previous owners cared for the car, as well as any issues it may have had.
Carfax receives data from over 100,000 sources, including every United States and Canadian provincial motor vehicle agency. Carfax also receives data from less common sources too, including auto auctions, police and fire departments, and collision repair shops. In North America alone, the Carfax database contains over 17.5 billion records.
Of course, when it comes to vehicle data, quality matters too. Carfax reports provide a wide range of information, including information that you may not find on Autocheck reports.
Example Data You'll Find on Carfax
Here are some examples of the type of data you'll find on a Carfax report:
You can discover if the car has a junk, flood, branded title or salvage title, or if it's ever been used as part of a commercial fleet. This provides insight into how the vehicle was used (and possibly abused), which helps to shed light on what you can expect from it in the future. After all, even if there's no structural damage, it's wise to learn about any wear and tear that may have taken its toll on the vehicle's many components.
Carfax also provides TIMA (Truth in Mileage Act)-certified odometer readings. This information lets you proceed with confidence, knowing that the odometer hasn't been fraudulently adjusted.
Lemons and Buybacks
In the United States, Carfax reports also show lemon titles and manufacturer buybacks, helping you to avoid vehicles that have been problematic in the past. They also show where the vehicle was originally registered and used, giving you a better idea of the kind of conditions it has been exposed to.
Transfers of Ownership
Carfax reports also detail any transfers of ownership. After all, if the vehicle has had many owners, there's probably a reason. If the vehicle has a lien against it, your Carfax report will acknowledge it so you don't accidentally purchase property that technically doesn't belong to the seller due to outstanding debt. Carfax also lets you know if the vehicle is or has been stolen.
Inspections and Repairs
You can also find information on when and where a car was inspected, including whether it passed or failed safety and emissions inspections. You can also learn about any maintenance records, repairs or other service history. If the vehicle has a consistent history of needing repairs, it may be prudent to look elsewhere. Carfax also lets you know if a vehicle has been recalled so you can make sure that any repairs or exchanges have already been completed.
Additionally, Carfax is guaranteed to have information about severe accidents, and Carfax offers the largest publicly accessible database of smaller accident reports that may not be reported elsewhere. That said, smaller accidents aren't guaranteed to show up on Carfax reports. Some accidents simply aren't reported, and others may be reported to agencies that don't provide Carfax with data.
AutoCheck is owned by Experian and it has relationships with industry leaders including CarMax (different than Carfax), eBay Motors, Edmunds.com, NADAguides.com, and Kelley Blue Book. This company assigns each vehicle a numerical score (similar to a credit score for cars) within a range for similar examples of the same vehicle, age and mileage.
The score is intended to demonstrate how well the vehicle stacks up against other available cars in its class. This allows you to quickly weed out any vehicles with issues, which can be as benign as high mileage and repossessions or as serious as damage from one or more reported accidents. It will also let you know whether the car was ever used by police or taxi services.
These scores pay close attention to collision data, giving potential buyers a thorough look at what's happened (if anything) in the vehicle's past that might warrant concern.
Unfortunately, the scale can be a little confusing, and how AutoCheck determines those numbers isn't particularly obvious. Those who prefer a highly detailed report may want to spend a little extra on Carfax reports. However, those who aren't as technically savvy may find that a simple numerical score streamlines the process and makes the information more easily digestible. It's largely a matter of preference.
Unique to AutoCheck: Auction Data
One of AutoCheck's key advantages over Carfax is that it has exclusive access to auction data from the two largest United States auctions, giving prospective buyers a more comprehensive look at a vehicle's history (this is why their reports have a better reputation with used car dealers).
Furthermore, AutoCheck lets their subscribers run up to 300 reports using VIN numbers (Vehicle Identification Number) from a desktop or tablet computer – or even a smartphone. As of this writing, Carfax did not offer any similar service.
Autocheck provides much of the same information as Carfax, however its database is not as large. That said, some data available from Autocheck may not be available on Carfax too, so you may want to consider getting reports from both platforms just to be thorough.
Example Data You'll Find on AutoCheck:
Autocheck provides registration and title data from all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia. The platform also delivers collision records from police reports and other sources, as well as event data from insurance companies and salvage yards.
Frequent Problem Area Checks
Autocheck checks for records of the vehicle being abandoned, damaged, junked or scrapped. Any major incidents reported to relevant databases are acknowledged. The platform also reports any documented fire, hail or water damage, as well as any frame or structural damage or odometer damage.
The platform also delivers any relevant records pertaining to the vehicle's relation with the grey market, recycling facilities or insurance loss or probable total loss. Autocheck delivers records of manufacturer buybacks or lemons, as well as reports on whether the vehicle is rebuilt or rebuildable.
Autocheck also provides any relevant NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) records that may be associated with the car, like branded title data. That way you can buy with confidence, knowing that your vehicle has passed safety standards.
As we mentioned, AutoCheck is cheaper than Carfax; a current single report is $24.99, 25 reports over 21 days is $49.99 and the 300-limit plan is $99.99. That's why many dealers use Autocheck. It's undoubtedly the more frugal option, however, the reports aren't as robust.
Which to Choose
First of all, you may not need to decide. If you're buying through a dealer, broker or online service, it's likely that they will offer a report from one or both of these services. For example, Autolist often lists cars that come with free Carfax reports included.
While Carfax reports are more expensive, we believe that potential buyers have the right to as much information as possible. Carfax reports simply offer more information, and when it comes to buying a used car, knowledge is power.
Both data sources do offer similar benefits, however. So, if you simply want to make sure that the car isn't stolen, for example, you may find choosing the cheaper option: Autocheck.
What Are Your Goals?
To determine the best course of action, start by reviewing your goals. Do you want a highly detailed overview of the vehicle, or do you simply want to check to make sure the sale is legitimate?
Are you spending a significant amount of money on a long-term daily driver, or are you simply getting the cheapest possible beater to get you from point A to B? Are you seeking a particular vehicle, or are you willing to take whatever fits your budget?
Those who are making a serious investment would be wise to use Carfax or both platforms. The extra cost of Carfax gives you priceless peace of mind, knowing that you've used the most comprehensive option. Even if you're not actively seeking specific information, you may be surprised when new details show up that you didn't expect.
At the same time, Autocheck is still a very handy tool that may accomplish everything you need and more -- especially if you want a numerical Autocheck score that sums up the information for you. Just make sure that the information you're seeking is, in fact, covered by Autocheck's database.
Finally, if you're browsing many different cars, it may make more sense to use Autocheck's 25 or 300-limit plan. That way you have the freedom to generate reports on any vehicle that sparks your interest, without having to dwell on the cost. After all, if you're spending some time finding that perfect ride, the cost of paying for each individual report adds up fast.
Both Reports Aren't Perfect
While there's no denying that both Carfax and Autocheck reports are extremely useful, it's important to remember that both reports are limited to their databases, meaning that even the most detailed reports could be missing certain information.
Carfax receives data from more organizations, so if there's an undisclosed issue with the vehicle, you're more likely to find it there. Additionally, Carfax does state that if there's a mistake on your vehicle history report, they will buy the vehicle back from you.
However, even using both Carfax and Autocheck doesn't guarantee that you're going to discover every existing or potential issue. Some issues may have never been reported, or Carfax or Autocheck may not have access to certain information.
There's always going to be a certain amount of risk involved in buying used vehicles. The trick is to use tools like these to mitigate the risk. The odds are in your favor. After all, between both platforms, you have access to a tremendous amount of information. Just try not to depend on them as your only source of information.
When it comes to learning about a car's history, it's wise to shop at reputable car lots and online platforms. You may be able to get a great deal buying through an independent seller, but there's more risk involved too.
If you do decide to buy from an independent dealer, communication is key. Spend some time researching the vehicle. Learn about common issues related to that specific model. Once you're armed with knowledge, you can ask the seller questions.
Of course, there's no guarantee that a seller is going to be honest about the vehicle's history. At the same time, simply showing that you're an informed shopper is often enough to encourage sellers to be more transparent.
Start with Free Reports
In many cases you'll get one or both reports for free. For example, here at Autolist, our platform gives you access to thousands of new and used car listings, as well as detailed information such as how long the car has been for sale and how its price compares to similar cars. That way you can make an informed decision on how to proceed. In many cases dealers listing their vehicles on Autolist will provide a free Carfax report.
Free Carfax report example on Autolist:
If you're shopping elsewhere and the seller doesn't offer a report and you're serious about buying a specific vehicle from them -- ask them to provide you one for free. Many sellers will provide one gladly; just make sure that you're genuinely interested in the vehicle, as the seller may have to pay for the report out of pocket.
If you're buying privately or the seller declines to make a report available, it's up to you if you want to spend the money. However, if the seller isn't willing to pay for the report, you may want to look elsewhere.
After all, while there's nothing wrong with pinching pennies, a good seller recognizes a buyer's need for details. If they're not providing as many details as possible, there might be a reason.
If your dealer refuses to work with you to help you make an informed purchase, you may want to find a seller with a better reputation and a more buyer-friendly approach (especially if you're not well-versed int he automotive industry.
At the end of the day, it never hurts to have as much information as possible. After all, even a relatively cheap used car is still a major purchase.
When you look at the big picture, paying a little bit of extra money for these reports isn't going to make a big difference in your overall spending, and the information gained can go a long way in protecting your investment as a car buyer.
When it comes down to Carfax vs. Autocheck, both companies enjoy excellent reputations in the industry and can provide you with important information. It's up to you to determine if an Autocheck report is enough to meet your needs, or if you prefer a more robust detailing of the vehicle in question.
AutoCheck's 25 reports in 21 days plan can be an economical way to check the history of a variety of vehicles you're interested in. Autocheck vehicle history reports may not be as detailed, but if you only need basic information or a simple rating, often they're just fine.
CarFax, meanwhile, gives you a great look at the service history of a vehicle so you have a keen sense of what work a car has had done and what work you might need to be prepared for. If you're buying a more expensive vehicle, or if you're just highly detail-oriented, a Carfax report may be ideal for you.
A Small Investment
For around $65, you're buying comprehensive peace of mind, which is a bargain for any vehicle. Research the vehicle independently beforehand, and only buy reports for cars that you're genuinely considering purchasing.