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Updated on Monday, June 10, 2019
You probably haven’t thought a lot about a car’s VIN (vehicle identification number). Usually, we just think of VINs when we register our car at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or we need to get our vehicle serviced or insured. But it’s critical to understand what exactly a VIN is, why it’s important, and why you should always get a VIN check before buying a used car.
What is a VIN number and where do you find it?
Just as your fingerprint is unique to you, a VIN is unique to your vehicle. No two vehicles can have the same VIN. This all-important grouping of identifiers is made up of both numbers and capital letters (usually 17 characters in all; cars made before 1981 may have fewer digits) and it displays everything that is unique about a vehicle— its features, specifications, who it was made by and where it was manufactured. It’s usually located on the driver’s side interior dash, door jamb or on a plate inside the engine bay.
The simplest way to find the VIN is to position yourself outside of the car on the driver’s side. Peek at the corner spot where the dash meets the windshield. It may also be located on the vehicle’s engine or under the hood near the firewall. As a third option, you may locate it on your insurance card/or on your insurance documentation, and on the title and registration of your vehicle.
Passenger vehicles, multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs), motorcycles/scooters, trucks, buses, low-speed vehicles (LSVs) and trailers also have VIN numbers.
A vehicle identification number serves a variety of purposes: it can be used to monitor recalls, indicate a car’s registration status, warranty claims, and insurance coverage.
The VIN is made up of six main sections or parts:
- World Manufacturer Index (WMI) — The first number indicates where the vehicle was built and the next two numbers indicate the manufacturer.
- Manufacturer Specification Data — The fourth through the eighth character display the car’s model series, engine and body type. These numbers also might indicate what kind of basic safety equipment the vehicle has.
- Check Digit — The ninth digit in the VIN is a special number that has been created by the U.S. Department of Transportation. This number verifies that the VIN is authentic.
- Model Year — The tenth number shows the model year of the vehicle.
- Plant Location — The 11th character indicates where the vehicle was built or assembled.
- Vehicle Unique Number — The last six characters are the vehicle’s serial number.
What is a VIN check?
A VIN check is, simply, a check of the car’s history. It is also called a Vehicle History Check or Report and it’s critical to do a VIN check before purchasing a used car, because you want to get as much information as you can about a vehicle’s past. Was it ever in an accident? Have any parts been recalled? These are the types of questions a VIN check can answer.
Obtaining a vehicle history report is a very important part of the used car purchasing process. You’ll want to secure one of these reports before you purchase a used car. A VIN check or vehicle history report will show things like:
- Odometer rollbacks: If the reading on the vehicle history report doesn’t match the reading on the odometer, the odometer may have been rolled back. This could mean that the odometer reading is unreliable.
- Flood damage: When a car is flooded and totaled, it’s VIN is recorded. Sometimes flooded cars are cleaned up and sold hundreds or thousands of miles from where the damage occurred. The VIN check will tell you if the car has suffered any flood damage.
- Collisions and accidents: When a collision or accident happens and it is put through insurance claims, or when the police get involved, the VIN number is recorded. Car history report providers collect data from insurance companies, law enforcement, collision repair shops, and DMVs to paint a picture of what the car has been through. If the airbags have been deployed or there was serious structural damage to the vehicle, you’ll be able to tell by running a VIN check.
- Frame or structural damage: If the car was in a wreck and sustained frame or structural damage it will show up on the VIN report.
- Airbag safety: Millions of cars have recalled airbags. By checking the car’s VIN, you can check to see if one exists on the vehicle you’re considering buying (if it does, a dealership should repair it for free). Defective airbags can be incredibly dangerous if deployed in a crash.
- Service and repair information: While not all services are recorded with the VIN number, many major ones are. By pulling the vehicle history report you can see what kinds of major repairs and services the car has had before you buy it.
- Vehicle usage: Was the vehicle used as a taxi? As a leased car? When a car is used as a livery vehicle or leased its VIN is registered with the DMV. Some livery cars have had a hard life (lots of miles, stop and go traffic, the potential for accidents) so it pays to pull the vehicle history report.
- Recall details: Are there any recalls on the vehicle and have they been repaired? The VIN number can help you find out.
- Title information, including salvaged or junked titles: If a title is salvaged or junked it means that the vehicle you are considering has a branded title. A salvaged title indicates that the vehicle has been in an accident and declared a total loss by an insurance company. Someone then came along and repaired the car to be drivable on the road and got a salvage title in order to register it. A junked title means that the car has been deemed unsafe to operate on U.S. roads. Each state Department of Motor Vehicles has different terms for junk titles so be sure to check with your local office to find out what exactly the term junk means in your state.
In addition to the potential problems the car has, the VIN will also show you the more mundane (but still important) details that we mentioned above. Automotive repair shops and service technicians also rely on VINs to identify the car’s parts such as the engine, transmission and brake systems.
A VIN check is important, but….
VIN checks can tell you a lot of things about a used car, but it doesn’t tell you everything. According to Matt Jones, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds, you should not believe everything you find on a Vehicle Inspection Report.
Why? Jones said it’s pretty easy to avoid putting an accident on Carfax or Autocheck.
“Just because a car says it has a completely clear history, does not mean that it’s true.” Jones explained that’s because Carfax only knows what’s reported: if an insurance claim wasn’t filed, Carfax won’t know it occurred.
In some cases, he added, dealerships or body shops may also report work done, so all a customer would have to do is avoid the Carfax mention of an accident would be to pay for the repair out of pocket (which sometimes happens on minor accidents so the at- fault driver doesn’t get an insurance ding from reporting properly) or selecting a repair shop that does not report work to Carfax.
It is worth nothing, though, that major accidents generally are paid through insurance because of high repair costs.
“On the flip side, just because the VIN report says it has had an accident, doesn’t mean that it was a real accident,” Jones said. He gave MagnifyMoney an example from his own experience: his son, who was 6 years old at the time, lost control of the bicycle he was riding, hit the neighbor’s car door, and put a dent in it. When it was fixed through insurance, Carfax said an accident had been reported.
“So I guess, yeah, an accident did happen, but it was a 6-year old riding a bike into a door.”
Jones advised buyers to use the VIN check as a guide and to have the vehicle checked out by a certified mechanic and inspection specialist to be doubly sure if you have concerns.
How to get a free VIN check
If you type in “free VIN check” into your favorite search engine, you’ll get countless suggestions of websites to peruse. A VIN check can cost anywhere from $3.50 on CheckThatVin for basic information such as odometer readings, collision history and if it’s been salvaged or junked, to more comprehensive reports for $39.99 on Carfax. (Autocheck reports are a little cheaper at $24.99). And while there are free options such as VinCheck, these services usually only cover the basics like mileage readings, when the vehicle was titled, and if insurance companies ever reported a total loss or salvage of the car. Other places to get a free VIN check include the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), VehicleHistory.com and iSeeCars.com/VIN.
If you opt to pay for a VIN check, you’re getting much more information about a vehicle from potentially thousands of sources. This is absolutely key in knowing the history of your selected vehicle. The information will come from data centers at state and local DMVs, auction sites for autos including salvage auctions, collision repair facilities and body shops, service shops, insurance providers, car recyclers, state inspection agencies, companies that offer extended warranties, manufacturers, car dealerships and law enforcement agencies.
Run a VIN check, among other things…
Running a VIN check before you buy a used car can be valuable to your bottom line. A used car is a big investment, so you want to make sure the vehicle you’ve chosen doesn’t have too much of a troubled history. Knowing if it’s been in accidents, had numerous parts recalled, or been stolen may help you make the decision as to whether or not you should buy it.