How to Check a Vehicle Title in California

by Scott Krohn
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When someone is considering buying a used car, one of the most important pieces of information about the vehicle’s history is whether the title is clean or has been branded due to major damage. Doing a title search can help buyers in California and elsewhere avoid the purchase of used cars that are illegal to drive due to being tagged with a salvage title and then rebuilt to become street legal again.

Options to Run a California Title Check

The process of purchasing a used car in California should always include a check of the certificate of title to mitigate one of the biggest risks in this type of transaction -- buying a vehicle that has a hidden history of major problems. Running a title check can identify a vehicle that has been written off by an insurer due to substantial damage caused by an accident, a theft or flooding. Any of these problems can affect a car’s performance as well as its value for the rest of its days on the road. If you want to check a vehicle title in California, there are a few ways to do so.

National Motor Vehicle Title Information System

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System was created in 1992 as part of the Anti Car Theft Act for the purpose of preventing vehicular title fraud that results after a vehicle has been stolen. To track vehicle histories, the service has assembled a database of continuously updated information from insurance companies, junk yards and car recyclers to stay current on the status of automobile titles. Used car buyers can access title information by contacting an NMVTIS affiliate, either through the California DMV or the NMVTIS website. As of the first quarter of 2015, the service costs $4.95 and requires the vehicle identification number for each title search.

Buy a Carfax Vehicle History Report

Carfax provides title search reports with four primary data points: the vehicle's total loss information, a salvage designation, state title information, and mileage. Additional details in Carfax Vehicle History Reports include the history of ownership, a return of the vehicle under Lemon Law regulations, the accident history of the vehicle, airbag deployment, and damage caused by fire or flooding. As of 2015, Carfax offers single reports for $39.99, five reports for $49.99 and unlimited searches for $54.99. Visit the Carfax website to find out how to obtain reports.

Buy an AutoCheck Vehicle History Report

AutoCheck Vehicle History reports contain much of the same data points as Carfax reports, but go one step further by disclosing the details of the sales of used cars at auction. This information is procured through an exclusive agreement with two of the largest vehicle auction houses in the country. This can be extremely valuable information as a high percentage of salvage-titled cars from insurers are sold at auction. A single report from AutoCheck costs $19.99 as of 2015, while an unlimited number of title searches can be purchased for $44.99

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