Imagine this: You’ve been saving up to buy a new car for months. You finally find the perfect vehicle and drive it home, only to get a call a few days later.
The car was stolen, and you now need to deal with a police investigation.
Obviously, this scenario is extreme, but it’s not unheard of for consumers to have issues purchasing new or used cars. One way to cut down on potential problems when purchasing a car is to run a VIN report to check out the vehicle’s history before you buy it.
In this article, I’ll explain what a VIN number is, why it’s important, and how to run a free VIN check through the National Insurance Crime Bureau. I’ll also review other options for free VIN reports and discuss whether or not you should pay money for a more detailed VIN report when purchasing a car.
What’s a VIN Number?
A VIN number is an identifying code that’s associated with a specific automobile.
A VIN number is made up of 17 characters (numbers and letters) that act as the vehicle’s fingerprint. No two automobiles have the same VIN number, so you can use a VIN number to track a specific vehicle’s history, registrations, and more.
You can find a car’s VIN number by looking on the driver’s side of the vehicle, either at the corner of the vehicle where the windshield meets the dashboard or on the doorpost of the driver’s side front door. You can also find a VIN number on a vehicle’s insurance card, title, and registration.
Why Should I Check the VIN Number When Buying a Car?
If you’re planning to buy a car (new or used), it’s important to run at least a free VIN report on the car’s VIN number to get a better understanding of its history.
Running a free VIN check on the car will pull up its basic history, including information on previous claims of theft and/or accidents. You’ll want to run a VIN check when purchasing a car to make sure that the car is legally available for purchase and that it’s in good enough condition to drive.
A VIN check will pull up any significant claims that have been made about the car. These include information about if the car was ever stolen and if it was ever subject to serious damage, such as flood, fire, or accident damage.
Reputable car dealerships will often provide you with a copy of the VIN report for the car you’re looking to purchase, free of charge. Your salesman will likely review the report with you, noting the number of owners, any accidents or claims reported on the car, and any other issues of note, such as recalls or leftover warranties.
If you’re buying a car from a dealership that doesn’t offer a free VIN check, or purchasing from a private party, you’ll want to run a free VIN report on your own to check for theft records and major accidents. Depending on the circumstances, you may also want to pay for a more detailed VIN report. I’ll discuss when to purchase a detailed VIN report in a later section.
How to Use the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s Free VIN Check
The National Insurance Crime Bureau is a great resource for running a free VIN lookup search to check for theft and total loss records. In this section, I’ll talk you through how to use the NICB as a resource to check the history of an automobile.
The first thing you need to run a free VIN lookup at NCIB is the VIN number of the vehicle you’re looking up. As I mentioned earlier, you can find a vehicle’s VIN number on the driver’s side of the car, either where the dashboard meets the window, or in the driver’s side door.
After you have the VIN number in question, go to the NICB VinCheck page and enter the VIN number where it says “Step 1.”
Check the box to agree to the terms and conditions of use in “Step 2.”
Enter the verification code that appears in the box for “Step 3,” then hit “search.” You’ll be taken to a page that displays the results of your free VIN lookup.
You’ll receive information about the vehicle’s theft and total loss records. A theft record indicates that the car has been marked as stolen at some point in its history, while a total loss record means that the car has been damaged and marked as a loss in an accident, flood, or fire.
If your VIN number shows that the vehicle has not been identified, as shown in the above screenshot, that means that the vehicle has never been stolen or had any significant damage that would signify a total loss, e.g., the car's been declared totaled. The vehicle will only be listed in this database if theft or loss records have been generated.
If your vehicle shows that there’s a record for either theft or total loss, you’ll want to do more research to find out the exact details of the situation to determine if the vehicle is suitable for purchase.
Other Free VIN Check Options
You can get a free VIN check from a number of other sites as well. In general, these sites offer more detailed VIN reports than that of the National Insurance Crime Bureau. You can also pay at each of these sites to upgrade your VIN check and receive more information about the car you're purchasing.
CarFax is known as a leader in provided detailed VIN reports to consumers. In fact, many car dealerships will show you the CarFax report for the vehicle you’re looking to purchase. While the most detailed CarFax reports cost money, you can get a basic VIN report on used cars listed on CarFax’s website for free. These reports show accidents reported, owner history, usage information, and service history.
Research.com provides the most comprehensive free VIN report, offering extensive details about the vehicle’s inspection and performance records, safety ratings, warranty, and more. It will also tell you when and where the vehicle has been listed for sale, as well as its sale price.
#3: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers a VIN lookup that gives you information about the car’s make and model, so you can know if it’s under any recall orders. Knowing about recall orders will help you decide if the car is safe to drive and if it’s facing any lengthy or costly repairs.
Should You Pay for a More Detailed VIN Report?
When should you pay for a more detailed VIN report? Well, a lot of it depends on how much detail you want to know about your car’s history.
In general, it’s a good idea to purchase a detailed VIN report if you’re buying a used car and you can’t get one for free from the dealership or individual you’re working with. More detailed VIN reports are fairly cheap - $39.99 to check a single VIN number on CarFax, or $59.99 if you want to check a bundle of five different VIN numbers.
Detailed VIN reports go into much more depth about the overall condition of the vehicle. For instance, CarFax’s detailed VIN reports offer comprehensive information about recalls, repairs, dates and times of servicing, and an overall evaluation of the vehicle’s condition.
Knowing the vehicle’s condition is important for two reasons. First, it helps ensure that you’re purchasing a car that’ll actually run for you. Second, it lets you know if you’re paying a fair price for the car.
Learning about a previous owner’s service records is important as well, as it shows that the car has been properly maintained. Likewise, learning about recalls and warranty information can save you money on repairs and routine service in the long run.
If you’re purchasing a new car, you probably don’t need a detailed VIN report, as it won’t tell you much information about the car, since a new car won’t have any ownership or accident records.
Review: How to Check a VIN Number for Free
A VIN number is like a car’s fingerprint—you can look it up to learn about the car’s history.
When purchasing a car, it’s important to run at least a free VIN check to lookup the car’s history and ensure that it doesn’t have any open theft or total loss records.
You can also pay for more detailed VIN reports that offer information on a car’s service and ownership history, as well as detailed information about the car’s value.
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Hayley Milliman is a former teacher turned writer who blogs about education, history, and technology. When she was a teacher, Hayley's students regularly scored in the 99th percentile thanks to her passion for making topics digestible and accessible. In addition to her work for PrepScholar, Hayley is the author of Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females.