What Does Carfax Tell You?

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.

nice old car for sale

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.

How Does Carfax Work?

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?

Big Lebowski car impoundThe 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:

  • Fire departments
  • Manufacturers
  • Law enforcement agencies U.S. motor vehicle agencies
  • Canadian provincial motor vehicle agencies
  • Auto auctions and salvage auctions
  • Collision repair facilities
  • Service/maintenance facilities
  • Insurance companies
  • Automotive recyclers
  • Rental/fleet vehicle companies
  • State inspection stations
  • Extended warranty companies
  • Car dealerships Import/export companies

How much does Carfax cost?

Carfax's Carfox
Carfox: easily our favorite mascot in the car space

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
  • Shift: Free. Zip. Zilch.

At the end of the day, the Carfax report is one of the most important pieces of documentation you can get on a used car, so be sure to get one when you go shopping.