How to Do a Car Title Search for Your Vehicle

by Scott Krohn
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Performing a title search prior to buying a car can either provide the assurance that the title is clean, or alert you to past problems that may continue to affect the vehicle. This process starts with getting the vehicle identification number, which can then be used by a variety of services to search the car's history.

Start with the VIN

All title searches start with the VIN, the 17 digit code that identifies a specific vehicle in a similar way that a Social Security number identifies an individual. To ensure you are doing a title search on the right vehicle, find the VIN on the car and copy it yourself. This will prevent the seller from using a VIN from a similar car with a clean title to sell a car that may have been salvaged or heavily damaged at some point in the past. On most cars, the VIN can be found on the dashboard on the driver’s side or the driver's door jamb.

Free Title Searches

The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free title search service with information provided by approximately 150 partners, most of which are insurance companies. The service provides two types of information; whether a vehicle has been reported as stolen but not recovered, or designated with a salvage title by one of its partners. An NICB title search is a good start that may identify some title issues, but its partners can select the information that they provide, meaning that an absence of problems doesn’t guarantee a clean title.

Low Cost Title Searches

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System can be accessed through most states’ DMV portals. This service focuses its title searches on five specific areas, including the last state of title, the presence of title brands, odometer rollbacks, total loss history, and salvage history. NMVTIS makes these reports available through its affiliates and provides links to them on its website. The limitation of title information to five areas in an NMVTIS report may result in a clean title history, but may not include comprehensive details available in VHRs compiled by private title search services.

Use a Title Search Company

Title search companies aggregate information from a wide range of sources and usually will provide the greatest amount of detail in a title search. Areas covered, beyond those in the VHRs provided by NMVTIS, include lemon returns, airbag deployment, frame damage, manufacturers’ recalls and vehicle usage. By detailing the complete history of used cars that you are considering for purchase, these reports can facilitate comprehensive comparisons that lead to informed buying decisions.

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