Adventures in used car buying
January 2, 2012 3:51 PM   Subscribe

Carfax -- how accurate are their reports? An accident for my own car isnt't showing up.

I'm in the market for a new car, and bought a 5-pack of reports from Carpack. I used one on a used-car that I was interested in, and was glad to see nothing unusual reported.

Then, I tried it on my current car, which has a relatively minor incident (bodywork and wheel realignment only) that I filed a claim for to ICBC. The report came up empty. Minor as the incident was, the repairs cost over the $3000 reportable threshold.

So, can I trust Carfax? Are their reports any use?
posted by wutangclan to Work & Money (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
BTW, I live in and my car is registered in British Columbia, Canada. Carfax claims that they collect info from all relevant agencies in US and Canada.
posted by wutangclan at 3:52 PM on January 2, 2012

Carfax always struck me as eminently scammy, and it is shocking that they have achieved mainstream acceptability.

Their big "hook" is that they'll tell you if the car has ever had a salvage title or other event reportable to a government agency. That's an extremely high threshold; basically, unless the car has suffered a catastrophic event, Carfax is unlikely to have heard of it. It's rare to encounter such catastrophically damaged cars at a reputable dealer, and it is unlikely that a Carfax-reported event wouldn't also be obvious to a professional inspecting your car.

Spend the money to have your car inspected by a mechanic you trust, not on Carfax.
posted by Dimpy at 4:13 PM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I used Autocheck during my search and I found that it was more likely to list accident events than carfax. That said, Dimpy's advice is also good.
posted by selfnoise at 4:16 PM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

My previous car was in a two-car accident that involved both a police report and my car being reported as a total loss by the insurance company (even though I was able to drive it a few more years). When I finally got rid of it, I ran the Carfax report and it showed a clean bill of health.

Never trusted them after that experience.
posted by BurntHombre at 4:21 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

A clean carfax report means nothing. Only a bad carfax report means something. You can use a bad carfax to reject a car, but a good carfax is literally meaningless. At least that's what seemed to be the consensus about carfax on when I was shopping for my Elise.
posted by smcameron at 4:32 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

As others have noted, if Carfax has records of an accident those records are probably accurate.

However, the question then becomes "how complete are Carfax's records?". And it seems that they aren't very.

So... It's a piece of a puzzle when looking at a used car, but not the whole story.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 4:33 PM on January 2, 2012

A Carfax report will only show events that were reported to either the police or insurance. Mostly. It can be a very incomplete history. Any damage repaired out-of-pocket, for instance is not going to be on the Carfax. Or hidden damage left unrepaired and unreported. And, as noted by others, crap just falls through the cracks.

It's a handy thing to get, as far as it goes, but a Carfax report is not to be trusted completely.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:52 PM on January 2, 2012

Thanks all.
posted by wutangclan at 5:15 PM on January 2, 2012

$14000 damage. ($8000 + $6000 hidden) damage to my jeep when t-boned by a drunk driver with a state police report. It did not appear on car fax.

Side view mirror was knocked off in a parking lot. Police report. It was on carfax.

posted by sandra_s at 9:52 PM on January 2, 2012

Consumer Reports: Don’t rely on used-car-history reports.

We found that the reports were most likely to be incorrect for vehicles that had serious damage but for various reasons were not declared a total loss....

Despite the problems, we found the reports useful for what they might tell you.

posted by dhartung at 11:42 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I use CARFAX every day and, like what smcameron says, only a bad CARFAX report means something... mostly.

CARFAX does report some things that are very useful such as the in-service date so that you can figure out if the car is still under factory warranty. Sometimes, but not always, the report will give you an idea as to the past maintenance of the car and whether or not it was done at a dealership or independently--factors that can affect the desirability of a car.

Also, the provenance, where the car was originally sold and where it has been owned which is good if you worry about the potential of salt damage to an east-coast car and want to stick to west-coast cars. Also if you want to avoid Florida and Texas cars because those states allow much easier "title washing" than do other states which means that a rebuilder of a total can get that title re-created in such a way as to make the total or branded title clean again.

Ultimately CARFAX is only as good as the places from where they get their information--dealerships, auctions, Mannheim, insurers, licensing bureaus and the like--and I have seen faulty information appear in cases where I know the real story. I have also seen where they have inverted the information between two cars, swapping the mileage and histories between a trade-in vehicle and the vehicle purchased for which the trade was made.

As everyone else says, always get an inspection and, if possible, get the print-out (computerized history) from the franchise dealer for the make of car you are buying that shows their version of the car's service history,
posted by bz at 9:48 AM on January 3, 2012

Oh, another thing CARFAX can tell you is the number of prior owners and what type of ownership (fleet, corporate, personal). Another data point. If I were buying a used car, I'd tend to want a personally-owned, one-owner car that has been locally owned since new and purchased at a dealership that is still in business and that has a decent reputation for maintenance and repair.

And I'd want it to be 2-doors, low to the ground and fast.
posted by bz at 10:25 AM on January 3, 2012

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