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10 Red Flags To Look Out For In a Used Car's CarFax History

Graphic. Red flag phrases in CarFax reports: Insurance loss, salvage, rebuilt, water damage, fleet, rental vehicle.

The biggest concern on everyone’s mind when purchasing a used car is reliability - you want to be sure that the car you’re purchasing has been well-cared for and free of mechanical issues.

The best way to know a used car’s history is a maintenance & damage history report. History reports like CarFax can tell you a lot about a car, including previous accidents, maintenance history, info about previous owners, and more.

But with all of this information at hand, what red flags should you look out for in a used car’s CarFax report?

List of CarFax features to check when purchasing a used car: Repairs, previous owners, maintenance history, and damage.

Many repairs or a recent major repair

This one might seem obvious, but it bears repeating. If a car has a long history of repairs listed, it means that it’s likely to need more repairs in the future.

A long list of repairs often means there is an even longer list of items just waiting to be fixed beneath the hood. The owner of the car or the dealership in question could be cutting their losses by selling the car rather than laying down the money it would take to fix the car’s lingering issues.

Pay special attention to the most recent repairs - if you see a massive repair right before the vehicle is sold, you’ll definitely want to get a thorough inspection of the repaired components from an independent mechanic.

Young car with many previous owners

A big red flag on any CarFax report is a history of having many previous owners, or of being sold quickly after purchase. This is likely indicative that the owners found a problem quickly after purchase and decided to cut their losses.

If a vehicle has more than one owner every couple years, there’s a good chance that the car has problems, (as owners look to be keen to get rid of it).

If it’s a relatively young car (under five years old) with more than two owners, you should be particularly wary. You don’t want to be one more person in a long line of suckers who got roped into buying a lemon.

Additionally, multiple owners make it more difficult to track maintenance records, so keep that in mind.


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Missing annual registrations or tax renewals

If the car wasn’t registered for a period of time, the car was most likely off the road for a while. This might indicate that the car wasn’t running or road-legal for a period of time.

Even if it was in perfect running condition when it was parked, cars deteriorate when allowed to sit without driving for long periods of time.

Before purchasing, make sure you’ve clarified with the seller why the car was unregistered. You’ll also want to inspect the car thoroughly for any ‘stationary damage’, like clogged fuel lines or deteriorating rubber components.

Graphic: Missing registration years in CarFax report indicate car was off the road for a long period, the presence of unreported damage, and that an inspection is needed.

Before buying any vehicle with a registration lapse, you need to get it inspected.

Failed emission inspection

If the car failed its emission inspection, there could be a significant engine or mechanical problem that has the potential to cost you thousands of dollars.

This issue is very serious - in many states, if your vehicle fails its state emissions test it might be taken off the road completely until the problem can be fixed.

If you see a failed emissions test on a vehicle’s CarFax report, demand that the seller provides proof of a passed emissions test before you agree to buy.

Listed as a fleet or rental vehicle

Make sure to check and see if the car you’re looking at has a history as a rental car before going on the market.

Rental cars can be a mixed bag - while they’re almost always kept up-to-date on their scheduled maintenance, they’re also rented out to a large number of people, which tends to wear vehicles out more quickly.

While you can often get a great deal on a former rental car, you should always have them inspected by an independent mechanic first.

The vehicle title is not in the seller’s name

This is a huge red flag - If the car’s current title isn’t in the seller’s name, they’re not legally allowed to sell you the car.

That’s why title history is an important part of any vehicle history report. Be aware of unlicensed vehicle dealers and individuals who flip cars for profit.

Especially if doing a local cash deal, make sure to see the seller’s ID and ensure that it matches the name on the title. If it doesn’t match, walk away.


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Lack of repair or maintenance history

Too many repairs is a red flag, but so are no repairs at all, especially for older vehicles.

If a vehicle is only a year or two old it might not have needed any repairs yet, but if you see three year or older vehicles without a single repair, make sure to ask why. It might be that the owner simply lived with the problems that needed repair, or that the repairs weren’t reported to CarFax.

If it’s not on the CarFax, ask the seller what mechanic they’ve used in the past. You should be able to access a vehicle’s records by calling or emailing the location where it was previously serviced.

If the seller cannot produce a vehicle repair or maintenance history, it may signal that the vehicle’s maintenance was neglected or the owner didn’t have the car for a long period of time.

CarFax report contains the phrases ‘Insurance Loss’, ‘Salvage’, or ‘Rebuilt’

The term “insurance loss” means that the car was totaled at some point. That’s something that should give you pause before signing any paperwork.

If a car is totalled, it can still be rebuilt and sold. These vehicles are typically labelled “Insurance loss”, “Salvage”, or “Rebuilt”. If you see this language anywhere in the CarFax, such as the vehicle having a “salvage title”, be aware that you’re buying a vehicle that likely suffered major damage at some point.

Graphic: Red flags to look out for in a CarFax report. Insurance loss, salvage title, rebuilt title, water damage, previous fleet or rental vehicle

While you can typically get better deals on salvage and rebuilt titles, it’s not always worth it. It’s like breaking a plate. You can glue it back together, but it won’t be the same as it used to be. In any case, be absolutely sure to get a thorough pre-purchase inspection.

Water damage

Water damage can have a long lasting impact on almost every component in a car, and can result in rusting metal, damaged electronics, and much more. If the CarFax report shows any signs of water damage, there’s a good chance you’ll run into issues down the road.

The most common water-damage related issues are electrical problems, since moisture getting into electronics quickly ruins them. If you see water damage on a car’s title, make sure to test out all of the electrical components of the vehicle, and inspect it thoroughly for visible signs of rust.

Outstanding recalls

If the car has outstanding recalls, it means that a vehicle, part, or accessory has been recalled due to a severe safety problem. That’s something that you have to take into careful consideration for the sake of your safety.

If the owner hasn’t taken the time to return the car and get it fixed by the manufacturer, that’s something you will have to do. While most manufacturer recalls are done at no cost to the vehicle owner, you’ll need to factor in the time and inconvenience of dropping it off at a dealership.


Factory recalls are issued when a vehicle fails to meet safety or quality standards. If you’re shopping for a used car, see if any factory recalls have been issued before buying.

Find the most reliable used vehicles with CoPilot

You have to do your homework before you purchase a car. A huge part of that comes from reading and understanding vehicle history reports.

You’re going to want to look out for all of these items. If you find one, either walk away or bring it up as part of the negotiation.

Be sure to check on the vehicles you’re interested in before you arrive at the dealership. With the CoPilot car shopping app, you can find vehicles in your area and check out their history reports before you ever set foot on the dealership floor.