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How to Learn a Car's Story
Secrets to finding out the truth!

Published 9/1/2005

One of the fundamental keys to making a successful 'long-distance' purchase of a car is to learn the car's 'story'. The 'story' I am referring to is the one that tells us where the car has spent most of its life, which part of the country, which state, if it's been in the city or the country, in the snow or the sun. If it traveled from coast to coast, how many owners it's had, and how has it been cared for. Things like if it was garaged or parked outside, was it serviced regularly, sporadically or not at all. Was this maintenance done professionally at a garage, or privately by the owner? You see the more we can find out about the use and abuse the car has had the in it's past life the better we are able to forecast how the car will perform if the future when you own it.

"Ah, this is all very well," I hear you saying, "but how do we actually find out this information - especially on a car that's fifty years old?

Well the good news is there are ways. Certainly with newer cars our job is made a lot easier. Vehicles produced after 1981 had their Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) recorded buy the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) almost from the moment they first set a tire on a public highway. Every time the car has any modifications made to the title, its recorded buy the DMV. That includes, emissions and safety inspections as well as change of owners and addresses. Carfax is one of the biggest companies that supply these reports for a fee, however we find that many people misunderstand the information and take the 'Clean Title Guarantee' as the last word. Well I'm here to tell you it's not, there are plenty of cases where a car can appear to apparently have a clean title, even though it does not. I have a car sitting outside my house right now that is a case in point. The insurance company has totaled the car and I've been paid for it, but I have the car and a clean 'original' title in my desk drawer, and I've done nothing dishonest to obtain it. So let me reiterate that the system is NOT infallible, and its still 'buyers beware'!

So what else can be done? Well one of the simplest things is one that is often overlooked and that is, to ask the seller to fax you a copy of the title. Firstly, I believe this is good practice anyway as you will be getting some kind of proof that the seller is indeed most likely the legal owner of the vehicle you are about to purchase, but secondly often times the name of the prior owner can be found on this document. Sometimes this is because the current owner has never transferred the vehicle to their name, and other times, it's just because it's the way a particular states does things. Either way, if you are lucky a quick search through directory enquires will get you a phone number and another chunk of the cars 'story' will reveal itself to you. I have known some clients manage to trace back two and three decades of a cars history simply by asking this prior owner what they can tell you about the person they brought the car from - then doing a trace on that owner and carrying on down the line. You won't believe how gratifying it is to find out all this buried information about a car you are about to own! That being said, of course there are times when the news you uncover is not what you want to hear - like the guy who tells you he wrecked the car years ago and last saw it on the back of a flat-bed truck on it's way to a wrecking yard! But in the big picture when you think about it, it's all good news.

Depending on how much time you have to work with you can in fact write to the DMV in the state in which the vehicles last title was recorded and ask them to do a title history search. There is of course a special form you have to use to make the request (which can be downloaded off the internet) and a fee, usually not more than about $15 for the full search.

If the title turns out to be a dead end, the next step is to use the services of a professional inspection company, such as Automobile Inspections, LLC they offer a comprehensive check of the vehicle from top to bottom. Once again here you will want to not just read the obvious from the report, but read between the lines, try to learn what the condition tells you about how the car has lived and been cared for. (If you have problems with this, the above company has consultants who can help you to decipher things)

Other ways to learn about the cars past come in the form of receipts for parts and service records. Don't think that because a car has been fully restored this stuff isn't important, it is and maybe even more so. How else will you be able to tell how well a restoration job was done unless you see the receipts and cancelled checks for the parts and labor? Again, with these receipts, pay attention to the quality of the parts used (look for name brands), as well as the size of the bills for labor - if possible call the body shop who did the paint job or bodywork on the car and ask them how the car looked when they first got it in, and how long it took them to get things looking the way it does today.

Finally as a last resort try finding out what you can about the current owner/seller. What you can establish about their integrity is a very important part of the 'success formula'. Start of by interviewing them about the car, ask how long they've owned it for, what repairs they have had to make to the car during their ownership, and if they were going to keep the car what is the next repair they would want to take care of. All the time covertly try to find out things like what they do for a living, want kind of house/neighborhood they live in (look in the background of the photos they may have sent you of the car) are you looking at a nice house with a well kept yard, or a front yard that's indecipherable from a wrecking yard! Is this the kind of person, who takes care of problems quickly and correctly when they arise, or someone who procrastinates and bodges things out of desperation? This is a good indication of how they likely maintained their car.

Of course no matter what you do when buying a car long distance, there is always some risk involved. The objective in finding a cars 'story' is to try to minimize that risk as much as possible. This is something that can be achieved if you do your homework and use 'due diligence' before writing that check!

Jeff Webster
Buyer Services International LLC

Originally released 9/6/2001

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