CARFAX: The Indispensable Tool for Prospective Car Buyers

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Selling dud cars or “lemons” is one of the things (unfortunately) for which the used car industry is famous. The reputation of used car salesmen is such that their trade has become identified with unethical and dishonest practices. In the past, the lack of information about a specific vehicle left the consumer at the mercy of these unscrupulous dealers. Whatever they were told they had to accept as truth; there were no resources available to them for researching the history of the vehicle they were purchasing. There was no way for them to find out whether or not the purchase was a good idea, aside from a mechanical inspection. One particular type of car sales fraud was that of “spinning”, meaning physically rolling back an odometer to a lower mileage. A vehicle with a display that showed 10,000 miles less than it actually had on it could fetch hundreds of dollars more on the market. It was these kinds of problems that CARFAX was designed to solve. Now, whether you’re checking for the sake of safety, bargaining leverage or for optimal insurance rates with Geico, Pemco, Kanetix.ca or another company, CARFAX has become an essential ‘go-to’ resource for prospective buyers.

How CARFAX Got its Start

In 1984 a Missouri computer analyst named Edwin Barnett III came up with a way to get the history of vehicles from state inspection records. In the early days he would send out the mileage records of used vehicles by fax machine, hence the name “CARFAX.” He would eventually expand beyond Missouri and start selling records from all 50 states. Eventually, CARFAX would expand to the point where it offered records of more than ten billion vehicles. The records include those from every motor agency in Canada as well as from the US. Altogether, its sources of vehicle information number more than 34,000. These days the company is owned by RL Polk & Co. and makes its home in Centreville, Virginia, but its database is still located in Missouri.

With CARFAX, those seeking to purchase a used vehicle will get access to certain areas of a vehicle’s history, such as:

• Its history of flood damage
• The number of people who have owned it
• How it has been used
• The results of emissions inspections
• Its odometer readings

The Value of CARFAX

CARFAX has been effective enough that the US government used their services to record the VINs of the vehicles turned in during the 2009 Cash for Clunkers program. The use of CARFAX helped to ensure that none of the clunkers that were turned in were returned to the market for sale. Digital odometers have increased the need for CARFAX since they make the process of altering the mileage displayed easier than it is with mechanical odometers, contrary to what many consumers believe. With CARFAX, a consumer can simply pay for a CARFAX subscription and type in the vehicle’s VIN into a search box on the website. This will provide them with access to all of the recorded information for that vehicle. Another area in which the service is valuable does not require a CARFAX subscription at all. Simply requesting a report at a dealership can tell a consumer a lot; if the dealership refuses to provide a CARFAX report or provides one that is outdated, it could indicate that the vehicle has problems in its past.

While CARFAX has placed the vehicle’s history in the hands of the buyer, and therefore has increased transparency, having a vehicle inspected by a professional mechanic is still recommended. CARFAX has revolutionized the process of buying a vehicle but is most effective when paired with a thorough physical inspection of the vehicle being sold.

Written by Desmond Smirnoff is a freelance writer based in the city of Baton Rouge, LA. He enjoys blogging and writing about cars, car insurance, repair & maintenance issues, car gadgetry and so forth.


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