The Facts About Carfax: The Truth? The Whole Truth? Nothing But The Truth?

April 16, 2010

Question: Carfax presents itself as invaluable, but a few years ago I paid $20 for a report that was worthless. The car's owner provided more about the car’s history than Carfax. Now my daughter needs a car. Should I give Carfax another try?

Answer: Carfax can be valuable, but it’s not "gospel." Carfax or AutoCheck may give you good reason to reject, or enhance buyer confidence in a vehicle. However Carfax and AutoCheck should only screen vehicles that you then pay a qualified repair shop to scrutinize.

Carfax and AutoCheck often provide negative historic information from police, insurance, manufacturers, etc. Finding out that a vehicle's been wrecked is common, but only one of many kinds of events that will disqualify a vehicle before you pay for an inspection.

These can also provide positive data, giving you confidence to pay the bucks for a pre-purchase inspection. Reports reveal "one owner" vehicles, consistent emission test passing, and even detailed service data revealing where, when and what repairs and services occurred.

I use both Carfax and AutoCheck together. Using only one risks obtaining inadequate or incomplete information, that may make a vehicle look better than it is or lead you to believe that there is a serious issue (when something that looks suspicious in one is clarified as benign in the other). Both Carfax and AutoCheck do occasionally miss or include significant stuff. Carfax recently raised no issues about a car that AutoCheck revealed was identified as "frame damaged" at an auction. Then there's a couple that almost rejected a great low mileage 1992 Honda Accord. Carfax and AutoCheck both identified it as "salvage", but only AutoCheck noted that it was stolen then recovered, but never wrecked. Since it was not a chop-shop multi-weld reconstruct that might bend, buckle or break apart in a collision, they had their mechanic scrutinize it and then gave it to their daughter attending UNC.

Carfax and AutoCheck both promise (and often deliver) reports identifying flooded cars, odometer roll-backs, and "lemons". Carfax once showed me that a very low mileage Lexus was once a bona fide lemon that Lexus bought back from the first owner, then later marketed it with a guarantee that all past ills were cured. That customer was spooked by this history, so he passed on it. Carfax also once revealed a barely used BMW was purchased new by an American automaker whose engineers pulled it apart to analyze BMW’s new technologies. Questioning how well GM engineers would put it back together, the customer rejected it.

Can't afford Carfax or AutoCheck? There's some free, but very limited, vehicle history information available through the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s Website, It’s not nearly as comprehensive as using both Carfax and AutoCheck but the free reports can successfully identify vehicles that were once stolen, not recovered, reported as a salvage, or that sustained flood damage. Carfax also offers a "Free CARFAX Lemon Check." This freebee taken together with NCIB’s free report might just give you all you need to reject a vehicle.

However, for my professional service, I require the most comprehensive information possible and therefore use both Carfax and AutoCheck for each vehicle.

Doug Ehrlich is the nation's first licensed and bonded automobile consumer’s Buyer’s Agent since 1986. After 24 years and over 15,000 car deals Doug's expertise and insight that have been tapped by numerous news reporters, served as an expert for NewsRadio 85KOA's consumer show in the 1990s, was the Automotive Writer for the Denver Business Journal. Email automotive questions to

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