How to Investigate the History of Your Car
When you buy a used car, you rarely have very much information about the car’s history. There are tools like Carfax that can be helpful, but the Carfax database is not complete. Carfax can miss significant problems, for example, wreck damage not severe enough for the car to be declared a salvage vehicle, or mechanical problems not severe enough for the car to be subject to the lemon law. Even with its limitations, Carfax is a useful service and one of the few tools that you can access in the typical time frame for buying a car. I recommend that you pull a Carfax report for any used car you are considering. Many dealers will do this for you at no charge.
There are other more complete sources of information about used cars. The first and easiest to access is the car’s official title history. More difficult to obtain are the reports generated by insurance industry clearinghouses that track claims data.
Your Starting Point-The Official Title History
In Texas, title records are maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation. A complete title history includes every legal document relating to the vehicle going back the manufacturer’s certificate of origin, including copies of each title issued for the vehicle, copies of each application for a title, and copies of sales tax receipts.
In the title history you will find the name and address of every owner of the car. You will find the tax receipt that shows the price of the car each time it was sold to a consumer (There is no sales tax on sales to dealers, so you won’t be able to find out how much your dealer paid for the car). You will find out if the car was repurchased by the manufacturer under the lemon law. You will see a record of the mileage on the vehicle each time it was transferred. If the vehicle came from another state, you will see a copy of the last title issued by that other state. If you suspect that your car was previously wrecked or that it’s odometer has been tampered with, the title history is the place to start your investigation.
The official title history of a car will not contain information about wreck damage unless it is severe enough for the car to be declared a salvage vehicle or an insurance company declares the car totalled. Salvage vehicles are issued a special salvage title that will appear in the title history. There is no special notation for totalled vehicles, but if an insurance company appears as an owner in the chain of title, you can bet that was because it totalled out the car or paid a theft claim.
A certified title history is easy to get. Just fill out this form from the Department of Transportation and send them a check for $6.75 (There is a $5.75 option for an uncertified title, but the extra dollar is always worth it, because only the certified version is admissible in court). In my experience it generally takes at least 2 weeks for the Department to produce one of these reports.
If you find that your car came from another state, you’ll have to repeat this process with the other state’s motor vehicle department. The Texas title history will contain the last title issued by the other state. The information on that title should be all you need to request the full title history from that state. You can find listings of state motor vehicle departments here, here, and here.
Finding Wreck Damage-Insurance Claims Histories
For wreck damage that doesn’t appear in the title history, there are private databases of insurance claims histories that you can try to access. These are used by the insurance industry for a variety of purposes. The two largest such databases are ISO ClaimSearch, and Choicepoint Claims Verification (formerly C.L.U.E. Reports). These databases can generate a report based on a vehicle identification number that will show the date and type of each insurance claim made in connection with a car as well as the amount paid on the claim. These companies will readily provide you with a history of all claims made on the car while you owned it, but generally do not provide claims histories of previous owners to the general public. Your insurance agent may be able to access one of these databases and provide you with information about your car’s claims history.
Be aware that even these reports may not be complete. If the car was owned by a government agency or company that was self-insuring, there will be no insurance claims reported. This is a particular problem with former rental cars, as rental car agencies tend to be self-insuring and also tend to skimp on repairs.