What Is a VIN Check and How Can I Get One?
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A simple, free VIN check could prevent you from buying a junk car, saving you a lot of grief. Think of a Vehicle Identification Number as something of a secret code for your car containing information like accident history, safety recalls and whether those safety deficiencies have been repaired. We’ll tell you where to find a car’s VIN and how to use it to run a free VIN check.
A 17-digit VIN is stamped on every vehicle sold in the U.S. with no two cars having identical numbers. Much like a Social Security number, the VIN tells you a lot about a car such as manufacturer, model year and where it was made. It’s a way for the manufacturer and the government to keep track of vehicles.
Tracking vehicles serves many purposes. Safety recalls can be given to the right owners, stolen vehicles can be returned, proper tax amounts can be charged and an individual vehicle’s history can be recorded for VIN checks.
A VIN check is a report on a specific car. It’s a broad term often used to describe everything from an in-depth vehicle history report (VHR) to a simple confirmation that two people are talking about the same car. Usually, if someone tells you to do a VIN check, they usually mean get a “quick and light” version of a vehicle history report.
- The lightest VIN check you can do is to make sure the VIN on the car matches the VIN on its paperwork.
- “Decoding a VIN” is the second lightest VIN check. This is where you input all or part of the VIN into a search engine, such as the free VIN decoder provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to see if the car registered under the VIN is the car you’re looking at. For example, if you put in the VIN of a Lexus and the decoder says the car should be a Jeep, that’s a bad sign.
- A basic VIN check can tell you the same things as a decoder, plus more, depending on which site you use. This NHTSA site can reveal the make, model and whether there are any safety recalls on the car. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) can reveal the make and model, and if the car you’re looking at was stolen or has a salvage title.
- A vehicle history report (VHR) is a more thorough VIN check and can tell you when the owner did oil changes (and how many miles the car had), whether it was stolen or if it was in an accident and if so, the severity and location of any damage. If a car is considered “salvage,” it is extremely devalued and may not be safe to drive.
Car buyers need to know if a seller is trying to pass off a car that’s worth only $300 as a safe, reliable vehicle for five times the price. You don’t want to unknowingly buy an unsafe car.
In addition to the free resources we mentioned earlier, which provide a basic VIN check, car shoppers could ask the seller for a copy of the more thorough vehicle history report. Otherwise, you might have to pay for a VHR yourself. Two popular sites offering VHRs are CarFax and AutoCheck, both of which charge a fee. Dealerships usually provide one for free. Some online car selling companies, such as Carvana, also provide them for free and you can just click to download one. And some online car shopping sites summarize the vehicle history report on their web pages for free, although they might charge if you want to download a more detailed report.
The cost for a report from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System can range from about $3 to $13 and a single CarFax report costs $40 or you could get three CarFax reports on separate cars for a total of $80.
To find it, look at the driver’s side of the windshield from the outside of the car, on the bottom. It could be printed on the dashboard so you can see it through the windshield, or it might be printed vertically along the edge of the windshield. The VIN should also be printed on the car’s registration card.
Another place to find it is on the driver’s door. Open the door and look at the threshold of the car and the width of the car door — the part you can’t see from the outside or the inside if the door is closed. There will be an engraving or a sticker that will say “VIN,” then the number.
Once you have a VIN check in hand, look to see what it says about the car’s title condition. If it is listed as total loss, salvage or junk, you may want to find a different car. You also might want to walk away if it had major damage that could impact its ability to withstand another car accident and keep you safe. If it shows the vehicle was damaged in a way that doesn’t deter you from buying it, you could point to the vehicle’s history as a reason the seller should lower the price.
The bottom line
You can get a free VIN check online directly from a national organization, which will headline the most important information. You might be able to get a free vehicle history report from the seller of the car. Both reports can save you from pouring money and time into a junk car.