3 ways to get a free VIN check before buying a used car

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VIN check
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There are more ways than ever to get a free VIN check on a car you’re thinking about buying. You can even get one on your current ride if you’re just curious about vehicle history before you owned it.

Free VIN checks typically list any accidents where an insurance claim has been made, in addition to the registrations by state and the type of title the car has.

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Here’s where to get a VIN check for free!

The next time you’re buying a used car, there are a variety of services you can use for a free VIN (vehicle identification number) check. Getting a VIN check is especially important if you’re buying a car through Craigslist or eBay and there’s no dealership to provide free access to a CARFAX, Autocheck or autoDNA.com, all of which are pay sites.

But there are a number of other competitors out there in the world of free vehicle history reports. Have you heard of the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), VehicleHistory.com or iSeeCars.com/VIN?

Just pop in your car’s digits and these sites will do the VIN lookup and give you info on the vehicle.

How to do a VIN search for free: Table of contents

NICB

The National Insurance Crime Bureau keeps it simple with their VIN check search tool at NICB.org. They’ll highlight if your vehicle has been reported as lost or stolen; if it’s been salvaged; or if it’s been declared a total loss by insurers after an accident.

This is the most basic of free VIN checks you can do.

Note that you can only do a maximum of five searches within a 24-hour period per IP address with NICB.

NICB VIN check
NICB VIN check

VehicleHistory

For a more complete VIN lookup, VehicleHistory is one free option that will provide other data like fuel economy, cost to own, price analysis, selling history and predictions about the best time to buy that particular make and model, among other things.

You can also get current recall info and a detailed list of the expiration of manufacturer warranties, which is helpful to know.

vehicle history VIN report 2
VehicleHistory.com VIN report

iSeeCars

iSeeCars offers another robust free VIN check experience. Culling 200 data points, your free car history report from iSeeCars includes price analysis, price history, projected depreciation and the best times to buy and sell, among other things.

iseecars vin report
iSeeCars VIN report

How to decode your VIN

VINs come in two flavors — in lengths of either 17 characters or 11 characters. Every motor vehicle that’s on the road today has a unique VIN associated with it.

While a VIN may seem like a meaningless string of numbers, there are a few keys to understanding the method behind the madness.

  • The first character of your VIN indicates country of origin.
  • The second and third characters tell you manufacturer and division.
  • The fourth through eighth characters indicate vehicle description, safety and engine.
  • The ninth character is the manufacturer security code.
  • The 10th character in a VIN tells you model year.
  • The 11th character is the assembly plant identifier.
  • Characters 12 through 17 are the plant sequential number/vehicle serial number.

Free VIN report

Clark’s key rules of used-car buying

If you’re searching for a free VIN report, chances are you’re looking to buy a used car. Buying used can be a smart move for your wallet, but it does comes with some possible pitfalls you’ve got to watch out for.

Here’s what you need to know after you pull a free vehicle history report but before you go ahead and buy that used automobile…

Have a mechanic check the vehicle before purchase

Auto repair shop

It is possible that a VIN report — whether you pay for one or get one free off the Internet — could come back clean with no accidents, yet the car has clearly had major repairs.

This would be likely if a repair was self-paid, rather than having been run through insurance. Thus the takeaway is use these services as a tool, but don’t rely on the information to be 100% accurate.

For real peace of mind when you’re buying a used vehicle, you’ve got to hire an independent mechanic to take a look at the vehicle before you agree to buy it.

The reality is that all used cars are sold “as is,” whether by a private seller or a licensed dealer — unless they come with a written warranty. Worse yet, the seller is not required by law to be honest about the condition of the vehicle. Whatever representations they make about the car can be false.

So one of money expert Clark Howard’s key rules of used car buying is have the car inspected by a certified diagnostic mechanic of your choosing as a condition of purchase. You can leave a deposit if you wish, but specify in writing that the money must be returned to you if the car doesn’t check out. You’ll eliminate nine out of 10 used car buying disasters this way.

When looking for an independent mechanic, you want to see ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certification. Garages that participate in what’s called the Blue Seal program typically feature the most highly trained ASE-certified mechanics. Visit ASE.com to find one near you.

Watch out for hidden flood damage

flood car

In the aftermath of any major hurricane or widespread flooding, you have to worry about flood cars entering the used car market. Following Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of thousands of vehicles were rebuilt and had their titles “washed.”

That’s when dishonest people take flooded vehicles into certain states where they can easily wash the titles. That action removes any evidence that the vehicle was ever in a flood. Cars with washed titles can then be sold to any dealership across the country that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that they’re buying a flood vehicle.

These cars often end up in the hands of “curb stoners,” which are illegal dealers who run ads in the paper. They pretend they’re selling their sister’s car or their mother’s car and they hope you don’t know what they know. About 20% of these cars go to unsuspecting people overseas. The other 80% stay right here at home.

To the naked eye, there’s no telling that anything is amiss with these cars. But you’ll know you’ve got a flood car when you encounter failed electrical systems throughout the vehicle.

Again, it all comes back to the need for a good diagnostic mechanic to thoroughly look the car over before you buy it!

Final thought

Getting a free VIN check from the sites listed here is a great first step to take when you’re thinking about buying a used vehicle. In fact, you may want to run the VIN through all three and see what comes back.

All the data you get back on your free VIN report should match up across provider. If it doesn’t, that’s a potential sign that you could be about to buy a vehicle that’s undergone VIN forgery and should give you pause before moving ahead with the purchase.

See what additional steps you must take to protect yourself here.

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Theo Thimou About the author:
Theo has co-written several books with Clark Howard, including the New York Times #1 bestseller Living Large in Lean Times. As a single widowed parent of two young children, he strives to bring unique savings tips to men and women like him who must face life without their spouses. He can be reached at [email protected]
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