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How to Check a Car's Accident History

by Fraser Sherman

A smart, dishonest car seller can cover up signs of damage, at least until after you've paid for the car. In the Internet age, you don't have to trust the seller's word that the car has been well-cared for. With a little research, you can look up the car's history for yourself.

VIN Number

All cars made since 1981 have a vehicle identification number. The VIN distinguishes each car from all others. If you want to check the car's history, find and record the 17-digit VIN. The most common locations for the metal VIN strip are the driver-side doorjamb, beneath the windshield or on the firewall in the engine bay.

Auto History

Several websites provide vehicle history reports for a few dollars. The federal National Motor Vehicle Title Identification System provides links to more than half-dozen approved search services. Choose a service, enter the VIN, pay the fee and you get back the details of the car's repair history, mileage records and accident reports. The report also should alert you if a car has been covered by a manufacturer's recall or a state lemon law.

Branded Title

A branded title identifies the car as having sustained major damage. In New York, for example, if the car has been rebuilt for more than 75 percent of its value, state law requires the owner disclose the damage to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The title certificate is marked -- branded -- to show the car is a salvage vehicle. This alerts you that your car has suffered a serious accident. Not all states use branded titles, however, or apply the same standard for when a title needs branding.

Second Opinions

The car's VIN history may not go into detail about how bad the damage or the accident was. If you really like the car, getting a mechanic's opinion may be worthwhile. A mechanic you trust can go over the car thoroughly and see if it shows any lingering damage from the accident. A good mechanic also can look at the repairs and see how well the car came back from the accident.

About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

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