How to Check a Used Car’s History for Free

Services That Reveal Previous Accidents, Fire or Flood Damage

By Keith Griffin

Car Mechanic at Work in Service Bay
Zero Creatives / Image Source / Getty Images

It’s easy (and free) to learn about a used car’s history. Several services offer a simple ​way to check if a car has been stolen, has sustained fire or flood damage or even it’s been in an accident. You’ll generally need to have the vehicle identification number. But if you do, save yourself the aggravation of buying a damaged car by doing a little simple research. 

Checking a Cars History

The National Insurance Crime Bureau operates a website called VINCheck, which provides information about insurance claims like flood damage and thefts.

NICB’s VINCheck will let you know if a vehicle has been reported as stolen, but not recovered, or has been reported as a previously declared total loss. The site does have its limitations though.

“This is a step in the right direction, but because the information is limited, we still need federal legislation that would expand total-loss disclosure. We would like all insurers and rental car companies to leverage existing technology, such as vehicle history reports, to keep dangerous, rebuilt cars and trucks off the road to truly protect consumers.” – Ivette Rivera, National Automobile Dealers Association’s executive director of legislative affairs, after VINcheck launched in 2008.

Other Options

You’re by no means limited to VINcheck to search a car’s history. The website VehicleHistory offers exactly the same service. “ is the most comprehensive resource for vehicle history reports,” the website notes. “We have simplified the process allowing you to compare automotive information using vehicle model and year or VIN lookup.” Well, not quite.

If you know the make, model, and year, you’ll certainly get a nice, general report on the vehicle, giving you information on gas mileage, comfort, engine size, and features as well as a helpful review, explaining the car’s pluses and minuses. But, as with VINcheck, if you want to get a report of a specific car’s history, you’ll still need the VIN number.

Punch in that number on the site’s home page, and in seconds you’ll get a very nice history report letting you know whether there are any accident, junk, salvage, and other insurance records on the car you want to buy. The report also lists the number of recalls associated with all cars of that make, model, and year, as well as where they are manufactured and even their body style.

The Best Report

Probably the most well-known source for finding a car’s history is CarFax. If you have VIN number, the website will check a car’s history for, among other things:

  • Major Accidents
  • Mileage Rollback
  • Multiple Owners
  • Structural Damage
  • Vehicle Service History

Additionally, CarFax can tell you if the car is a “total loss” (where the insurance company declares the car a total loss), whether the vehicle has been rebuilt, if it has sustained flood damage, and even if the airbag has ever deployed. But, CarFax reports are not free. So, why is the service listed in this article?

This is where you may be able to get a car dealership to provide you with a CarFax report for free — at least if you are seriously thinking of buying a car.

Get the Dealership to Help

“Car dealerships are in no way required to give you a Carfax report or any other vehicle history report, though most reputable car dealerships do,” explains Garden State Honda.

So, if you’re at a dealership, feel free to ask for a complimentary CarFax report. If the dealership balks, walk away. There are plenty of other dealers who will happily offer you a free report to try to gain your trust and business. And, when you get the report, the dealership suggests looking for:

  • Failed emissions tests;
  • Too many changes in ownership;
  • Where the car is from (wet/snowy areas can mean rust);
  • Missed maintenance milestones

“If you spot any of the above on the vehicle history report it’s a red flag for that car, and you should purchase with caution,” says Garden State Honda. That’s a telling statement coming from an auto dealership, which, after all, is in business to sell cars.

So, spare yourself the possibility of buying a damaged, used car. Use one of the above-listed free vehicle-history services yourself, or find a friendly dealer or two and let them pick up the cost.