There was a time when nearly every customer asked, “Does it come with a clean Carfax history?” It came to a point where I would just routinely leave them on the driver’s seat so that the questioner could peruse what they thought was a complete ownership history. Then certain things happened in the marketplace.
Dealers began targeting vehicles that ‘did’ have frame damage, but were not mentioned on Carfax. Not every insurance company or state police agency agency had (or has) a relationship with Carfax… and some of the nastiest of damage came with the most expensive of vehicles. Carfax got blamed, threatened, sued, and dragged through the sensationalistic dreck we now find on network news. The price of Carfax subscriptions went up while this was happening, and as a result dealers and individuals began to seek alternatives. Autocheck became a de facto standard at the auto auctions, and now it is the leading competitor to Carfax. But is it better?
After going through thousands of different Carfax and Autocheck histories, I can vouch for the following… but first the disclaimer…
1) The best money any car buyer will ever spend is having their vehicle independently inspected.
Neither of the two central databases can tell you how a car was driven, whether the repairs were substandard, or if there are any major cost issues on the horizon.
The bang for the buck you get from having the vehicle looked at by an established independent garage is by far the best investment you can make. I feel so strongly about this that I wish both firms would begin their history reports for consumers with the following…
“WE ENCOURAGE AND RECOMMEND THAT YOU HAVE YOUR VEHICLE INSPECTED BY A PROFESSIONAL AUTO REPAIR FACILITY BEFORE BUYING IT.”
Disclaimer made. Now back to the comparo…
2) Carfax is far better when it comes to verifying mileage and whether a vehicle has been maintained by a fleet company or a dealership.
Registering vehicles does not require a mileage disclosure. You pay the tax, get back a sticker or a license plate, and that’s it. If you have avoided accidents, and don’t need to have emissions done, chances are your car will have no mileage history with any government agency. In my work I find that an awful lot of vehicles fall into this category. Autocheck and Carfax are both fairly comprehensive when it comes to government databases. But that has little bearing in many states.
However if the owner went to the dealership for maintenance, or an auto repair chain, the Carfax report will usually have those services recorded along with the mileage and a phone number to contact to verify the repairs. For those of you looking at a vehicle with some well known and expensive weaknesses (transmissions on certain minivans for instance), the information you get on a Carfax history could be worth thousands more than the Autocheck report.
3) Carfax and Autocheck do a fairly decent job when it comes to accident histories.
In the last couple of years I have seen a vast improvement in the recording of accident histories for both firms. In fact, it’s rare that I find any real differences between the two and when I do it’s only for ‘slight’ or ‘minor’ accidents.
People often look at these histories as a shangri-la when it comes to recording accidents. The histories do help… but it’s not the entire picture. A minor accident with some vehicles can result in major alignment and drivability issues. While moderate accidents may only require the replacement of a few body panels. Also, if an accident did not involve the police or an insurance claim, you won’t find it recorded. Sorry.
The only accidents I ever take seriously are the severe ones and even then, I look more at the quality of the repair than the type of accident. Related to this, an older car that was in a moderate or even minor accident may have been given a salvage title due to the fact that the value of the vehicle was so small. Is it an unsafe vehicle? Maybe. For these types of vehicles you definitely want to consider having it inspected by two repair shops.
If accident history is your big concern I would favor Autocheck. Autocheck offers a more comprehensive listing of vehicles with frame damage due to their relationship with dealer-only auto auctions. Levels of frame damage can also vary from an insignificant ding on one panel to two cars that have literally been Frankensteined together. If you consider any vehicle with an accident history make sure it’s inspected.
4) Carfax and Autocheck both do a very good job with emission histories. But emissions mean absolutely nothing unless they are recent.
I had a Camry for 12 years and 239k miles before selling it. The car ran like a top and had been an absolute ‘dealer queen’ since day one. It also flunked emissions at least a dozen times. Some cars are just privy towards emission issues… and in my experiences older Toyotas and Volvos often need a carbon remover such as ‘Guaranteed to Pass’ every few years.
Should you trust the mileage recordings from emission centers? On Carfax and Autocheck, the short answer is no. I see plenty of errant fingers on these databases that make a 22,000 mile vehicle a 222,000 mile vehicle. The fact that such a jump happened within a six month period should turn the lights on for certain enlightened people. But that doesn’t always happen. For dealers and individuals trying to sell their cars, errant emission readings can be a grade A headache.
For those of you who prefer to buy their vehicles from owners, please note, individuals ARE allowed to sell vehicles with non-current emissions in certain states. If you don’t verify the emissions are current, you may be looking at some serious repair costs in the near future. Carfax and Autocheck both do a good job with verifying this. But you can also find emissions information for free online as well.
Carfax and Autocheck are tied when it comes to the emission histories.
5) Carfax is usually better in showing how many owners a vehicle had.
There are certain vehicles that are quickly discounted at the auctions. Cars that came from title pawns and buy here pay here dealerships. Cars with cheap parts and cheap tires. Repos that have been trashed inside and out…. and most especially, vehicles that were owned by the owner for less than one year.
Chances are that if the owner unloaded the vehicle in such a short period of time, there is a reason why that took place. Mechanical issues and failed emissions tend to be the top two reasons. A reliable and fairly recent car simply is not unloaded unless the owner was dissatisfied with the vehicle in some way.
Carfax does a better job at distinguishing whether a vehicle has stayed with the owner in cases when they have moved to various states. You will see a notation within both Carfax and Autocheck for this. But Carfax usually tends to do a better job at showing whether the change in scenery also came with a change of ownership.
Does this really matter? I think it does. A car with only one or two owners will usually be in far better shape with one that had five to seven owners. Maintenance is usually better for cars that were owned by a ‘keeper’ and I frequently see higher quality parts used on these vehicles as well.
Overall I prefer Carfax over Autocheck. But I don’t believe either one is really a necessity when it comes to buying a used car. A long test drive with someone who knows cars and an independent inspection with an established repair shop, can tell you far more than the incomplete history you see on a piece of paper.
For certain types of auto purchases, a Carfax history is valuable. Finding a ‘dealer queen’. A car that perhaps may have a strike against it that is superficial. The Carfax report can help you decipher that vehicle.
But that’s not the total reality. I have also seen one owner vehicles with no accident histories that were absolute deathtraps due to rust, substandard repairs, and undercarriage damage. If you do decide to use these reports, get a professional. As Tom Cruise once said about Porsches, “There is no substitute.”