You probably havenât thought a lot about a carâs VIN (vehicle identification number). Usually, we just think of VINs when we register our car at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or we need to get our vehicle serviced or insured. But itâs critical to understand what exactly a VIN is, why itâs important, and why you should always get a VIN check before buying a used car.
Just as your fingerprint is unique to you, a VIN is unique to your vehicle. No two vehicles can have the same VIN. This all-important grouping of identifiers is made up of both numbers and capital letters (usually 17 characters in all; cars made before 1981 may have fewer digits) and it displays everything that is unique about a vehicleâ its features, specifications, who it was made by and where it was manufactured. Itâs usually located on the driverâs side interior dash, door jamb or on a plate inside the engine bay.
The simplest way to find the VIN is to position yourself outside of the car on the driverâs side. Peek at the corner spot where the dash meets the windshield. It may also be located on the vehicleâs engine or under the hood near the firewall. As a third option, you may locate it on your insurance card/or on your insurance documentation, and on the title and registration of your vehicle.
Passenger vehicles, multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs), motorcycles/scooters, trucks, buses, low-speed vehicles (LSVs) and trailers also have VIN numbers.
A vehicle identification number serves a variety of purposes: it can be used to monitor recalls, indicate a carâs registration status, warranty claims, and insurance coverage.
The VIN is made up of six main sections or parts:
A VIN check is, simply, a check of the carâs history. It is also called a Vehicle History Check or Report and itâs critical to do a VIN check before purchasing a used car, because you want to get as much information as you can about a vehicleâs past. Was it ever in an accident? Have any parts been recalled? These are the types of questions a VIN check can answer.
Obtaining a vehicle history report is a very important part of the used car purchasing process. Youâll want to secure one of these reports before you purchase a used car. A VIN check or vehicle history report will show things like:
In addition to the potential problems the car has, the VIN will also show you the more mundane (but still important) details that we mentioned above. Automotive repair shops and service technicians also rely on VINs to identify the carâs parts such as the engine, transmission and brake systems.
VIN checks can tell you a lot of things about a used car, but it doesnât tell you everything. According to Matt Jones, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds, you should not believe everything you find on a Vehicle Inspection Report.
Why? Jones said itâs pretty easy to avoid putting an accident on Carfax or Autocheck.
âJust because a car says it has a completely clear history, does not mean that itâs true.â Jones explained thatâs because Carfax only knows whatâs reported: if an insurance claim wasnât filed, Carfax wonât know it occurred.
In some cases, he added, dealerships or body shops may also report work done, so all a customer would have to do is avoid the Carfax mention of an accident would be to pay for the repair out of pocket (which sometimes happens on minor accidents so the at- fault driver doesnât get an insurance ding from reporting properly) or selecting a repair shop that does not report work to Carfax.
It is worth nothing, though, that major accidents generally are paid through insurance because of high repair costs.
âOn the flip side, just because the VIN report says it has had an accident, doesnât mean that it was a real accident,â Jones said. He gave MagnifyMoney an example from his own experience: his son, who was 6 years old at the time, lost control of the bicycle he was riding, hit the neighborâs car door, and put a dent in it. When it was fixed through insurance, Carfax said an accident had been reported.
âSo I guess, yeah, an accident did happen, but it was a 6-year old riding a bike into a door.â
Jones advised buyers to use the VIN check as a guide and to have the vehicle checked out by a certified mechanic and inspection specialist to be doubly sure if you have concerns.
If you type in âfree VIN checkâ into your favorite search engine, youâll get countless suggestions of websites to peruse. A VIN check can cost anywhere from $3.50 on CheckThatVin for basic information such as odometer readings, collision history and if itâs been salvaged or junked, to more comprehensive reports for $39.99 on Carfax. (Autocheck reports are a little cheaper at $24.99). And while there are free options such as VinCheck, these services usually only cover the basics like mileage readings, when the vehicle was titled, and if insurance companies ever reported a total loss or salvage of the car. Other places to get a free VIN check include the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), VehicleHistory.com and iSeeCars.com/VIN.
If you opt to pay for a VIN check, youâre getting much more information about a vehicle from potentially thousands of sources. This is absolutely key in knowing the history of your selected vehicle. The information will come from data centers at state and local DMVs, auction sites for autos including salvage auctions, collision repair facilities and body shops, service shops, insurance providers, car recyclers, state inspection agencies, companies that offer extended warranties, manufacturers, car dealerships and law enforcement agencies.
Running a VIN check before you buy a used car can be valuable to your bottom line. A used car is a big investment, so you want to make sure the vehicle youâve chosen doesnât have too much of a troubled history. Knowing if itâs been in accidents, had numerous parts recalled, or been stolen may help you make the decision as to whether or not you should buy it.
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