The last time we wrote about Carfax, we covered what it includes and why it’s a crucial part of making an informed purchase. Although Carfax reports are a great insight into vehicle history, they don’t tell us everything. So what does Carfax tell you, and what is it leaving out?
Does Carfax tell you about every accident?
Not necessarily. Let’s say two drivers get in a crash and there’s damage to the cars. Call the insurance company, right? Not always. For various reasons, some crashes are settled between the drivers themselves with DIY fixes or at smaller garages that may have fewer scruples about officially reporting the repair. When this happens, there’s a chance that Carfax is none the wiser about the incident at all.
Sometimes, people will try to sell a car right after an accident has occurred. That way, they get rid of it before it’s appeared on Carfax and the buyer might never know. This is more common when the damage isn’t obvious, such as undercarriage damage. At Shift, we perform a thorough 200-point inspection so that you’ll always be informed about hard-to-spot damage.
On that note, Carfax is only as accurate as its data sources, and not all DMVs and insurance companies contribute their data. Carfax has 92,000 or so sources of vehicle information, but it’s not omniscient.
For example, a history report may list a car as accident-free, but if a collision was fixed by an insurance company that doesn’t contribute data to Carfax, it won’t show up in the report. The same is true if the owner of the car never reported it to the insurance company. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. The good news is, the vast majority of what’s out there is indeed captured, so the chances of missing something aren’t very high.
Does Carfax tell you about “lemons” and buybacks?
Well… not always. Cars are complex pieces of machinery. Sometimes, something in the car’s mechanics just ain’t right and it’s constantly plagued with problems as a result. That’s a lemon. To protect car buyers from purchasing lemons, states have a set of laws called Lemon laws.
These laws make it possible for a buyer to return a non-performing car to the manufacturer. When this happens, that car is considered to be a “lemon law buyback”. In most states, this is required to be put on the title. In some states, however, there is a loophole to this rule. Instead of labeling a car a lemon law buyback, cars in those states are labeled “manufacturer vehicle, sold at auction.”
It’s a trade secret that’s well understood among sophisticated car buyers and dealerships know that you now also know: when a Carfax report labels a car “manufacturer vehicle, sold at auction,” it very well may be a lemon. The good news is, we’ll never list these cars, so you can browse Shift with confidence.
Be a diligent buyer
As Carfax themselves put it: Carfax should be seen as one tool in the buyer’s fact-finding toolkit, not the only one. Make sure you take a comprehensive test-drive and have the car checked out by a mechanic. If you’re looking for high-quality cars where the degree of mystery is minimized, browse our selection of Shift Certified cars near you.
When it comes to a car’s condition, people often mention the Carfax report. So just how does Carfax work? A Carfax report is your window into a car’s past. Like a private eye, it gleans data from insurance companies, DMVs, and even the police to tell you about a car’s background.
In the most extreme cases, it can save you from buying a lemon. That’s why we include a full free Carfax report for every car we list on Shift so customers know exactly what they’re getting (and what they’re not).
How does Carfax actually work?
A Carfax report is essentially a data snapshot of a number of different available data records. It gathers information from police departments, insurance companies, DMVs, and auction houses to piece together a history on nearly every car out there. Their data-gathering team in Virginia adds about 3.5 million records a day, with a compiled total of about 15 billion records.
How does Carfax help in buying a used car?
The records included in a Carfax report tell you things you wouldn’t know by just going for a test drive or having a mechanic inspect the car (things you should also do, by the way). A Carfax report is a little like a crystal ball that can give you a picture of a car’s past, such as:
Odometer readings and repair history
Number of past owners
Any accidents reported by DMVs, insurance companies, or police departments
Whether the car’s a lemon or been salvaged or junked
Whether a car was ever used as a fleet vehicle, autos used by businesses and often subject to lots of abuse
Lien and repossession history
Emission inspection statuses
Manufacturer recalls and buybacks
All of this info lets you avoid getting scammed and helps you make a more informed decision about the car you’re about to buy.
Where does all that data come from?
Carfax must have an army of data crawlers trolling the internet because the company culls data from about 92,000 sources—everything from motor vehicle agencies, to many police and fire departments, collision repair facilities, and auto auctions (Shift uploads all of our diagnostic and repair data to Carfax, too!)
Here’s their list of all of the sources:
Law enforcement agencies U.S. motor vehicle agencies
Canadian provincial motor vehicle agencies
Auto auctions and salvage auctions
Collision repair facilities
Rental/fleet vehicle companies
State inspection stations
Extended warranty companies
Car dealerships Import/export companies
How much does Carfax cost?
Carfax has a three-tiered pricing model. If you’re going to test drive more than one car, and you probably will, you might want to get the second option, which provides five reports.
MyCarfax: A free app that includes provides info on maintenance and recalls for vehicles , as well as estimate repair costs and help finding local repair services. Doesn’t include Vehicle History Reports.
1 Carfax Report: $39.99
5 Reports: $59.99 (valid for 60 days)
Unlimited Reports for 60 days: $69.99 gets you unlimited by searching by license plate
Most people will buy a used car at least once in their life. It can be an exciting, maddening, and intimidating experience. But if you do it right, it can mean the difference between a lemon and a cherry on top (see what we did there?). Luckily, we’ve learned a few things along the way that can help you make sense of it all. Here’s how to test drive a used car, in a nifty checklist.
Test Drive Pro Tip # 1. Do Your Homework
Before you head out to do the test drive, do some research. It’s easy to access a mound of information on pretty much any car via the (sometimes) trusty internet. Will you be looking at a Pontiac Aztek because you loved Breaking Bad? Chances are there’s a forum that specializes in Azteks where you can find a buyer’s guide. Go into the test drive knowing what to look for and what to ask about, such as common maintenance items and maladies. Speaking of asking good questions…
Test Drive Pro Tip #2: Ask All the Questions
Asking questions of the owner is absolutely critical and can be as elucidating as driving the car. You want to hit the owner with some great questions, not just “what’s she do in the quarter bro?” You want to buy a car from a person you trust, and you want to get a sense for what ownership is like, and why the owner would want to end their relationship with the vehicle. Some important questions:
Why are you selling the car?
How long have you owned it, and are you the first owner?
Has the car been in an accident?
What have you used it for? (If their answer is racing, pass)
Has it given you any trouble?
How often do you change the oil? (Every 3k miles is the best answer here.)
Do you have service records?
Where do you get it serviced? (A reputable shop is a good answer, and you can always call them and ask their opinion of the car.)
Do you have the title? Is it clean?
Where did you buy it?
Who did you buy it from?
Does it have any issues currently? Does it go through any oil/coolant?
Remember, nobody likes a jerk, so be nice about it; this isn’t Law and Order and you’re not Ice T. If the owner’s answers seem vague, sketchy, or don’t match up, use it as a sign that this car may not be for you.
Test Drive Pro Tip # 3: Look for clues
Bring your flashlight and look around, in, and under the car thoroughly with an eye for the following:
A. Bodywork and VINs: Work your way around the car looking for signs of repainting or overspray around each body panel. Overspray occurs when the body shop repaints a panel and accidentally gets paint spray on an adjacent panel or trim piece.
Does one panel look newer than the surrounding panels?
Does an area have more texture or undulations than others? Look from different angles and use your flashlight.
Look for VIN tags. If a car has had a panel replaced, it may not have the original tag with the VIN stamped onto it. Instead, it might say DOT, which means the panel has been replaced. If so, assume the car has been in an accident.
Look for different-sized gaps between the panels.
When the owner is not looking, whisper “tell me your secrets, car.”
An accident isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker if it was repaired properly. But if it wasn’t, you could be in for trouble.
B. Leaks: Specifically look for leaking fluids around the engine.
Is there oil, coolant, or other fluid dripping anywhere near the engine?
Is the engine relatively clean, and is any part of the engine wet with oil?
Look for fluid leaking from the shock absorbers.
C. Rust: If you see rust, you probably want to walk away. Like Neil Young said, rust never sleeps, and you don’t want it not sleeping in your car.
Look up in the wheel wells with your flashlight.
Look at the suspension and inside the quarter panels.
D. Mold and mildew: Mold and mildew inside the car can mean water is leaking into the car. Water: great in oceans, bad in cars.
Pull back trunk carpets, look under floor mats, look at the headliner for signs of water.
Look at the rubber seals around the doors to make sure they are not torn, brittle, and cracked.
Tires are perhaps the most important part of the car, and should not be overlooked, as they can tell you a surprising amount about the car.
Do they have decent tread left or are they bald as an eagle?
Is the wear even across the tire? If the tires are more worn on the inside than on the outside, the car needs an alignment.
Are all four tires equally worn?
Are they a brand you’ve heard of?
Tires are not something to be skimped on, and quality tires are a sign that the car has been well-maintained.
Test Drive Pro Tip #5. Check the Fluid
Oil, coolant, and other fluids are paramount to vehicle operation, so you want to make sure your potential next car has the fluids in the right place. Make sure you do this when the car is not hot.
Check the oil and the coolant. If the dipstick indicates that the oil is low, that’s bad. If it is dry, that’s really bad. You’d be surprised how many cars we’ve test driven with low oil. It’s direct evidence that the car hasn’t been well-maintained, which means expensive repairs are looming.
Test Drive Pro Tip #6. Fire it Up
Start the car with the hood open. Listen for funny sounds.
Does it idle well?
Does it sound smooth?
Does it sound like air is escaping?
Does smoke come off of the engine?
Walk around to the back; does smoke come out of the exhaust? Smoke that doesn’t dissipate shortly after the engine starts could mean the car is burning oil or coolant.
A lot goes into the inspection process, which is just one of the reasons we inspect every car sold on Shift for our customers. The findings from the 200-point inspection are compiled into a report that we give both buyers and sellers so that everyone is on the same page.
Test Drive Pro Tip #7. (Actually) Test Drive It
You want to drive the car in a way that is going to reveal any issues or maladies that may not be apparent if you were to drive it around the parking lot.
Go on the freeway and accelerate briskly up to speed.
Brake aggressively (just warn the passengers first) and pay attention to how the pedal feels and if the car pulls in either direction.
Does the suspension make a lot of crashing, thumping noises over bumps?
Is there a popping sound when your turn?
Does the transmission shift smoothly?
If it’s a manual, does the clutch engage in a smooth manner? Does it slip?
As you drive, pay attention to the sensations from the steering wheel, the pedals, the shifter, and the seat of your pants. You want to look for any signs of anything not working properly. Don’t be afraid to make notes and ask the owner why a vehicle does something odd. If their answer seems satisfactory, that’s a good sign. If not, you can have your mechanic take a closer look. More on that in a bit.
Does everything work? Windows, locks, stereo, lights, air conditioning?
After the drive, pop the hood again. Is there any smoke? Is there a sweet smell? If so, that’s not like your grandma’s cookies, that’s coolant, and it’s a bad thing.
This is critical. Run the VIN through Carfax. Does the history match what the owner stated? Are there any reported accidents? You may also want to check if any recalls have been issued. Look to make sure the title hasn’t been salvaged. If it has, this car is definitely not for you.
Test Drive Pro Tip #9: Pre-purchase inspection
At Shift, every car is pre-inspected and put through a 200-point examination. But, you might be buying in a car outside of the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and DC areas that Shift serves. If that’s the case, you might want to ask the owner if you can have your mechanic check it out.
A good mechanic will have the tools, skills, and knowledge to spot things that you can’t. Plus, if they find something amiss, you can use it as a way to negotiate a lower price. At Shift, the inspection is a standard part of the process for every car we help sell. Otherwise, the PPI will cost you $100-150, but it’s money well spent as you can know exactly what kind of car you’re buying.
That’s it! Remember, after you’ve gone through this used car test drive checklist, don’t be afraid to walk away from a car that doesn’t seem right. Finding a good used car takes time and patience. When you do find the right car, you’ll smile with satisfaction knowing you bought a ride you can trust.