Knowing the history of a used car before you buy it is key to ensuring that you don’t end up wasting more money down the road. If you are considering purchasing a used car you should use a VIN decoder to verify its identity and get an idea of the history of the car.
A VIN number tells you things about the car that you may not be able to see just by looking at it. Here is what we will cover in this article:
- What is a VIN Number?
- What does the VIN number mean?
- Where is the VIN number on a car?
- How to decode a VIN number (all cars).
- Why use a VIN decoder to verify the identity of a used car?
- Using a VIN decoder to pull a vehicle history report.
- Why is CARFAX not enough?
- How to get a window sticker from a VIN number.
- Other Uses for a VIN number.
A VIN or Vehicle Identification Number is like the social security number, a serial number, or a UPC code for a car. Consider it a tracking number for your car. A VIN number is given to a car by its manufacturer and no two VIN numbers are the same. The VIN is a unique string of 17 numbers that help identify a variety of things about a car including:
- Where the car was built
- The manufacturer
- The brand, engine size, trim, and type
- A Vehicle Security code (meaning the car has been verified by the manufacturer)
- Where the vehicle was put together
- The serial number of the vehicle
Using a VIN decoder to run a VIN check can tell many things, including:
- Whether or not the vehicle has been involved in any accidents and had major repairs.
- If it’s been stolen
- If it’s been in a flood
- If it has a salvage title
- If it’s been recalled
- A wide variety of other information
VIN numbers can also tell you things like what kind of airbags are present in the car, what kind of restraint system it has (think seatbelts) and even the year of the vehicle. The VIN offers a quick way to tell the details of a car.
VIN numbers have been required since 1954, but began to appear regularly in 1981 when NHTSA or the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration began requiring all vehicles to have a VIN number that followed the specific 17-number pattern we see today.
The VIN number has a set pattern that tells you a whole bunch of things about the car you are looking at. See Figure 1 below.
The first three characters make up what is called the world manufacturer identifier or WMI.
- The first number or letter identifies the country of origin or where the car is made. Cars made in the U.S., for example, get the number 1, while cars made in Germany get the letter W. You can find a list of the codes over at Wikipedia.
- The second number or letter is part of the code that identifies the manufacturer. Sometimes this is the first letter of the name of the company, but not always. The third letter will help narrow down the manufacturer.
- The third slot helps identify the vehicles type or manufacturing division. When reading the VIN you take this third spot into consideration to narrow down the details of the car.
The next six numbers help identify the vehicle further.
- The numbers in positions four through eight tell you about the model, body type, transmission, engine, and restraint systems in the car.
- The number in the ninth position is a special digit that has been generated by a specific formula that was created by the U.S. Department of Transportation. This number helps identify whether or not a VIN is authentic.
The last seven numbers are the car’s special serial number for that particular car.
- The letter or number in the tenth spot will tell you the model year with the letters B through Y representing the years 1981 to 2000. They don’t use the letters I, O, Q, U or Z, however. From 2001 through 2009 the numbers one through nine were used and the alphabet started over in 2010. So a car from 2018 would get the letter J in the tenth spot to identify that year.
- The letter or number in the 11th spot is for the code associated with the manufacturing plant where the car was built.
- The six digits following are unique serial numbers that the car gets from the manufacturer as they roll off the line.
This unique VIN is then associated with a database of information about the history of ownership, accidents, and title information of a car and can tell you a ton of things about what the car has been through.
The VIN number is usually found on a variety of places around the vehicle. These include:
- Stamped on a metal plate that attached to the dashboard near the windshield
- Stamped on the driver’s side door jamb
- Inside the engine bay stamped on the firewall
- On the engine
- On the driver’s side door just under the latch
- On the car’s chassis
You can also find a VIN on any ownership paperwork like the title, registration, and insurance paperwork.
Decoding a VIN number is relatively easy. Do a quick search for a VIN decoder online and you’ll find a variety of options. Plug in the VIN and the system will show you a bunch of information.
As the team over at Edmunds noticed when they ran the VINs of some long-term cars they had, some VINs throw up interesting pieces of information that may be totally wrong. When they ran the details of their 2011 Chevrolet Volt, they found that VIN indicated that the car could take E85 gasoline, when in fact, the Volt cannot take that Flex Fuel option and never has been able to. It turns out that the manufacturer had intended to make that happen but it never did. The number, however, was already set so the VIN still reveals this.
It’s best to use VIN decoders as a jumping off point to find out about a car, and its ownership and accident history. VIN decoders and vehicle history reports should be combined with an inspection from a certified mechanic to make sure that you are getting a good used car. Never rely on the vehicle history report alone to determine whether or not you should purchase a specific used car. There can be errors and omissions that could cause problems. Read on below to find out more.
Using a VIN decoder is a good place to start to find out the history and verify the identity of a used vehicle you are looking at purchasing. It does more than just look under the hood and gives you a more complete idea about the actual condition of the car and it’s previous ownership, title status, and any major repairs. While it won’t guarantee that you are getting a perfect used car, it will give you more information to make an informed decision.
You should pull a vehicle history report before buying any used car. Usually, those come at a cost of anywhere from $40 for one report to $100 for multiple. The most well-known reports come from CARFAX but they are also the most expensive.
Other companies like AutoCheck (owned by Experian) also offer vehicle history reports.
There is an ongoing battle for top-dog in the VIN check world between CARFAX and Autocheck and each one has their drawbacks. Check out our story about the ten things to do before buying a used car to find out more about which VIN report you should pull.
You should also run the VIN through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. This system is free and run by the Federal Department of Justice. All salvage yards, insurance providers, junkyards, and auto recyclers, are required, by law, to report details to them regular basis. For $10 you can get a basic report that shows if the car has any branded titles on it. A branded title is issued when a car has been in a major accident or been the subject of some other major damage.
CARFAX has become synonymous with vehicle history reports and yet getting a CARFAX report may not be enough to see if a car has been stolen or had other issues in its past. This is because auto reports can contain false or incorrect information. It may not include things like:
- Salvage titles
- Flood damage
- Odometer rollbacks
- Other serious damage
- Whether a car has been stolen
In fact, Consumer Reports found that CARFAX often didn’t show significant damage that may not have resulted in a salvage title but seriously compromised the car in other ways.
These errors happen for a variety of reasons including:
- The car didn’t have insurance at the time it was damaged
- The vehicle was part of a rental fleet or corporate fleet and was self-insured
- The damage to the vehicle wasn’t so bad that it met the threshold for total loss
The best ways to ensure that you are getting the most accurate information is to pull reports from multiple places, compare the results, and get the used car you are looking to buy inspected by a certified mechanic.
There are a number of services out there that offer VIN decoders and VIN checks and by comparing the reports across the services you may be able to spot anything that could be a problem. Follow it up with a trip to a certified mechanic and you can be sure that you are getting a good used car.
You can pull the details of a window sticker (the kind you find on cars at a dealer’s lot) by using the VIN. To do this, visit Monroneylabels.com and put in the make and model of the vehicle and then put in the VIN number. A Monroney offers details like:
- Engine and transmission type
- Warranty information
- Optional equipment and pricing
- Fuel economy
You can use a VIN number for other uses including:
- Vehicle recalls: Use the VIN number to see if the car you are inspecting is subject to any recalls.
- Finding window sticker information
- Service and repair information: If a vehicle has been serviced at a manufacturer’s service center it’s likely that you can get a look at the service records for that car at that location.
- Vehicle usage: A VIN can tell you if a vehicle was used as a taxi or livery car, or if it was part of a rental fleet.
These are all good things to look into when using a VIN decoder or pulling a vehicle history report. The more information you have about a used car you are looking to purchase the better off you are and a VIN decoder is a great place to start.