Thursday, May 9, 2013

Carfax, Used Cars, and Accidents. Is Carfax Outfoxing You?

     There once was a nebulous and dark land, where fear and dishonesty reigned king.  This frightful land was occupied by an endless population of used cars, from the lowly Ford Pintos to the majestic Maseratis.  There were stories of brave souls, who would venture into the shadowy landscape, with hopes of finding the perfect used automobile.  Their quest was not without obstacles. In their path stood greedy used car salesman, prices too good to be true, and mere promises of cars with accident free pasts.  These brave buyers, with all of their good intentions and hope, were left to fend for themselves. Until the arrival of the all-knowing ever powerful Lord Carfax that is, serving wary buyers like a beacon of light and clarity, forever vanquishing the dishonesty and confusion in the used car world for all of eternity!!!

     Just in case you couldn't tell, you just read the Carfax fairytale.  Surprisingly enough, the general public consensus of what Carfax actually provides, is not that far off from the mythical story above. You can credit their marketing director, or perhaps that clever sweater clad fox. However, it is entirely necessary that you understand what Carfax actually provides, before purchasing a vehicle solely based upon a "Clean Carfax Report." As a disclaimer, I am not attempting to tarnish the Carfax name, I only seek to illuminate some of its shortcomings.
Carfax cost accurate damage history vehicle      

1. Carfax Provides Many Services, Accurate Damage History is Not One of Them.

     Carfax reports in many cases provide odometer readings, number of previous owners and registrations, status of vehicle title, occasional maintenance information, and limited vehicle damage reporting.  The majority of Carfax reports are gathered from public information sources, such as DMV records and police reports.  Meaning that most information is readily available to the public for free, although it may take some digging.  Almost all vehicle damage history is obtained from police reports, meaning that there is very little detail and accuracy in the final report presented.  While the police perform a valuable service, they are by no means professional damage appraisers, nor should they be treated as such.  Also, keep in mind that less than 50% of accidents are ever reported to the police.

2. Errors and Limited Information Included in Reports

      As previously stated, policemen are not formal damage experts, and only include information relating to reason for citation, and how a given incident occurred.  Carfax reports as a result are usually limited to the primary area of damage (Front, Left, Right, Rear), whether airbags deployed, whether frame/structural damage was evident, and whether damage exceeded $1,000. From a collision repair perspective, even some of the hardest impacts end up with no structural/frame damage. The only way to actually ascertain whether or not it did, is to remove damage parts, so that underlying damage can be found.  It can not, and should not, be determined at the scene of an accident, unless it is done by a professional appraiser.
     There have been multiple lawsuits filed against Carfax and other related services for the inclusion of inaccurate data (for example reporting deployed airbags when in fact no deployment occurred). Also, there are others who purchased a car based upon a clean Carfax, only to find that the car had experienced significant damage in its past.  To make matters more complicated, the only other indicator of the total extent of damages is if expected damages exceed $1,000.  Let me tell you first hand, whether a Kia or a Porsche, you cannot properly replace a front bumper for less than this amount.
      On to the airbags.  Many people believe that the deployment of any of the airbag restraint systems automatically serves as a deal breaker.  Vice versa, if a car had an accident and the airbags did not deploy, it must have been a fairly minor accident right?  WRONG! Airbag deployment systems are built upon advanced physics calculations, that far exceed the understanding of the common man.  Cars can experience high speed impacts where significant damage is sustained, but no airbags are blown because of the angle or physics of the force distribution.  While on the other hand, other vehicles may be traveling less than 10mph when impact occurs, experiencing comparatively minor damage, where multiple airbags will deploy.  In other words, when accounting for errors in reporting, limited detail in damage specifics, and low rates of accident reporting to police authorities, the damage component of Carfax becomes quite unreliable.

3. Is Carfax Outfoxing You?

     Carfax does provide important information relating to the title status, ownership changes, lemon law status, and possibly maintenance on a given vehicle.  While some of these things hold importance to some people, what most people are looking for when they purchase a Carfax or similar report, is whether or not a vehicle has been in an accident.  Sadly enough, this is the one thing that these reports do not adequately represent.  So, should you buy a Carfax, or Experian Autocheck, or any other related report?  That choice is obviously up to you, and I would not advise against it if it gives you a sense of comfort or reassurance.  However, I strongly advise that you do not rely solely upon these reports as the green light, or the red light, when buying a used vehicle.  There are other steps you can take to learn about past accidents and collision repairs on a vehicle listed below.
-First and foremost, understand that just because a vehicle has been wrecked, does not mean it will forever be tainted.  What is more important, is whether or not the given car has been repaired properly.  Meaning paintwork that is color matched by factory paint code, continuity of texture and color between panels, very minor bondo or filler used, and replacement parts that are preferably factory OEM manufactured.  If aftermarket parts were used, make sure that they are CAPA certified (Certified Automotive Parts Association).
-If a given vehicle has been wrecked, ask the owner or dealer where the car was repaired.  Then place a call into a trusted local dealership of the particular car, and ask which bodyshops/mechanics they recommend, so that you can ensure the car was repaired at a reputable facility.  Almost everyone will say it was repaired at the best body shop in a given city. So no harm in finding out for yourself right?
-Take the vehicle to one of the recommended repair facilities to have them take a look at the car.  You would be absolutely amazed at the minor imperfections a trained eye can catch.  Often times an estimator can tell if a car has ever been painted, repaired, or wrecked just by looking over the car for a few minutes.  This extra step can go a long way.
-Finally, if you do not have the time or the access to any of these options, take a close look at the car for yourself.  Does it have flaking or bubbling paint at all? This could be evidence of rusting, or excessive filler used, meaning that the car was likely improperly repaired.  Do the body lines match up on the bumpers, the doors, the hood, the headlights, the trunk/hatchback, etc.? Body lines should be similar on both sides of the panel, and excessive gaps are another sign of improper repair, non CAPA certified parts, or possibly remaining frame damage.  Taking a closer look can go a very long way.
-At the end of the day, you should look at buying a car as an investment.  You want to ensure that you get the most bang for your buck, and that you are not buying a car under false pretenses.  It is far better to buy a car that has been wrecked and repaired properly, then it is to buy a car with a clean Carfax, as we both know now how dirty a clean report can actually be.