By: Gov Auctions | 5 March 2015

How Should You Check a VIN before You Buy a Car at an Auction?

Auctions are a good way of buying a used car for less. Depending on the auction, you can save as much as 50% to even 90% of its book value price. Moreover, if the vehicle is in great condition, then its resale value is very high.

However, even if you’ve obtained the car from a government auction, where most vehicles are in great condition, it is still your responsibility to ensure that it has a clean title and there are no other attached problems to possible purchase. For that, you need to check its VIN.

VIN stands for vehicle identification number. It is like a regular ID number that is unique in every vehicle. Thus, even if they’re selling Lexus or BMWs, each of the cars is still considerably different from one another.

A VIN is assigned to the car before it goes out of the market. It is composed of 17 characters, a combination of letters and numbers, and they are not changed all throughout the life of the vehicle.

The VIN is often considered the “DNA” of the vehicle since it can be used to give you a more comprehensive picture about the vehicle, especially on things that you cannot see during inspections. These include but are not limited to:

  • Reported car accidents
  • If the vehicle has been registered to several states
  • Previous owners
  • If there are any technical issues with the vehicle
  • Whether it’s a lemon
  • Specific attributes to the car such as the year it was made or even the original color of the vehicle
  • If the vehicle has a salvage title

These types of qualitative information are very important because:

  • You want to get your money’s worth, especially if you’re planning to trade in or sell this vehicle in the future.
  • You like to know why the vehicle is sold very cheaply. For example, salvage-title vehicles are sold for as much as 10% off their market price since they are deemed a total loss by the insurance company that has a claim on them. This doesn’t mean the vehicle can no longer be used, but then you may have a problem insuring it, and that’s a huge risk that you need to take.
  • You don’t want to be lied to. Mind you, dealers and auctioneers will do whatever it takes to sell the vehicles, and some may resort to vehicle tampering just to boost the bid. Moreover, others may hide certain information from you to avoid discouraging you from bidding.

How to Search for VIN

  1. 1. If you’re attending a live auction, then look for the usual places where they can be found. These are near the door jamb of the driver’s side or the firewall of the engine. If it’s an online auction, search for VIN reports in websites such as Carfax, AutoCheck and NMVTIS (National Motor Vehicle Title Information System). They can generate different types of reports, so go read reviews for each one of them.
  2. 2. Run the VIN online (using the suggested websites above).
  3. 3. Download the report and use it as your reference.