By Lorraine Sommerfeld
Buying used can be a great way to get a terrific deal on a car. It can also be an excellent way to unwittingly take a problem off someone else’s hands. What you’re aiming for is harm reduction: how many leaks can I seal off and hope I got them all?
Whether you’re buying privately or through a licenced dealer, the best place to start is with a Carfax report on the car.
Virtually every vehicle from a dealer will offer one, and any smart private dealer will do the same thing. It costs $40 without a lien check, $55 with one. The report should be current, and if the car you’re considering doesn’t have one, you can get one yourself.
Until March of 2018, you obtained vehicle history reports from (usually) either CarProof or Carfax. CarProof was a Canadian data source, while Carfax was an American one. Now, they are under one banner: Carfax Canada. The Ministry of Transformation in Ontario (MTO) has a Used Vehicle Information Package (UVIP) for $20. You still need an independent mechanic to check over the vehicle before you buy. Why so many multiple layers? It’s sort of a take on the “Swiss cheese model” of risk management – you hope a risk that gets through a hole in one slice is covered by another.
There is a lot of information in a Carfax report. Accidents and damage, previous registrations, stolen status, U.S. history, recalls and service history, and how many owners and liens, if requested. It’s a tidy one-stop shopping resource, but be careful – it might not tell the complete story, and what isn’t there may be more important than what is.
That service history is really important, but it might not be complete. What it will do is show odometer readings, which will tell you if someone has rolled it back. Maybe oil changes were done more frequently than the report shows, but maybe not. Rentals typically are serviced to the manufacturer’s minimum requirements. Especially on an older car, frequent oil changes are vital.
This report, pulled from a dealer’s post on Kijiji, is a good example of the limits of available information. It’s an ex-rental with an American history. The service records are there, but it reveals a 62,000-km gap between services. Or not. You can’t know.
Most Canadian provinces require a registered dealer to reveal if a car was previously used as a daily rental vehicle, a cab, or a police vehicle. Because the law is always late to the party, it hasn’t caught up to programs like Lyft or Uber yet, so that information may not be in play. A private seller doesn’t have to tell you any of these things. It’s a reason I strongly discourage buying private unless it’s from a trusted source.
A Carfax report will tell you if it was a rental, but that information produces a dead end: rental companies don’t report damage to insurance companies, who in turn supply much of the information that goes into that report. You’re specifically looking to see if that car has been involved in a crash, what the damage was, and how much it cost to fix. Rental agencies don’t provide that. It doesn’t mean every rental has had repair work done, but you have no way of knowing whether it has or not.
Unless you get an independent technician to check it out for you. The Automobile Protection Association (APA) did a study funded by Industry Canada’s Office of Consumer Affairs in 2013 to ascertain just how complete those Vehicle History Reports (VHR) are. They brought in an expert tech to compare damage disclosed in readily available services versus the damage in the actual car. As we noted, CarProof and Carfax are now known as Carfax Canada. The APA inspected 133 cars.
The differences across the country were revealing. In Quebec at the time, “Desjardins had 25 per cent of the auto insurance market in Quebec; [they] do not report any collision information to third-party services,” says APA president George Iny. “At that time, another one of the top five Quebec auto insurers did not report collision information to CarProof and Carfax either.”
Instead, they use police reports, but with only two boxes to check – damage over $1,000 and damage over $2,000 – you have no way of knowing how far over $2,000 that damage was.
Things were far better in Vancouver, with the CarProof (again, now Carfax) picking up 90 per cent of collision damage. It even picked up some vandalism damage the tech missed, as well as replaced windows and some cars’ use as daily rentals. Ontario hit up the middle: the original CarProof report picked up 70 per cent of what the tech discovered. In Ontario, make use of information collated by agencies like the APA (naming and grading used-car sellers) and OMVIC and its “busted” list.
A Carfax report can offer up some surprises to the unwitting, however. You had a collision a couple of years ago, but you opted to skirt the insurance claim and just get it fixed. There is a chance that information will still get into the system. If you went to a collision reporting centre, if your body shop had the car in for a quote while you were deciding, if the other party had a police report carried out – all of these things can end up on your sheet.
Also, if you’ve purchased a vehicle without a report, then decided to sell it yourself later and previous damage now shows up, you’ll be stuck with a much more depreciated value than you anticipated.
Even if you’re buying from a dealer, and especially if you’re not, pay your mechanic an hour of shop time to look for collision repairs, paint thickness, overspray, rolled-back odometers and other lies. If the seller won’t allow you an hour to do this, don’t buy the car.
A Carfax report is your first line of protection and information. A good tech is your next. Remember: there are thousands and thousands of great cars out there. Listen to your gut, but trust the pros.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020