Avoid a Lemon by Checking the Federal Vehicle Database First

That 2004 Toyota Avalon is loaded to the gills with leather, premium sound system, and just the right amount of room to transport your family of five. And the price is right too: you checked the going rate for an Avalon with under 50,000 miles on the odometer and you are confident that you paid hundreds of dollars less than what you could have been charged.

But there is one thing that you should do before going ahead with the deal: check the US Justice Department’s new vehicle database website (link at usdoj.gov/) to find out your vehicle’s history. Beginning in January 2009, the federal government has opened up a website that features the vehicle history of millions of cars, trucks, vans, sporty/utility vehicles, etc. in its database. It isn’t complete yet, but what it may offer to you is important information about your particular vehicle.

According to published reports, the new vehicle database contains information from 27 states with another 10 states in the process of adding their information. By January 2010, all states must participate and insurers and salvage yards must begin sharing their information beginning on March 31st.

Though not currently complete, the database could help you learn if your car has been in an accident, damaged by a flood or has a clean vehicle history. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 destroyed hundreds of thousands of cars, but many of those vehicles were cleaned up and put back on the road months later to unsuspecting buyers. By retitling damaged vehicles and selling them in states (as well as in Canada) well after the fact, buyers ended up with a car that could rust out early, have transmission, engine or some other serious engineering problem, or simply begin to stink over time.

Right now, the Justice Department says that 73% of all vehicles are listed in the database. You’ll have to pay a fee to enter a vehicle’s identification number (VIN) tag which will reveal information about that car. Only one VIN can be checked at a time and, as mentioned, not every vehicle is included yet. In addition, updates are completed monthly so when the system is fully operational in 2010, some lemons could still slip through.

Naturally, the database isn’t perfect and there is huge room for improvement. The law to create the database dates back to 1992, but it wasn’t enforced until recently. Now, consumers, insurers, lenders, and other interested parties will be able to check VIN tags which should reveal accurate information about a car before a purchase decision is made.

Clearly, the federal vehicle database is step in the right direction. Once full compliance has been reached, the database has the potential to save buyers a lot of grief when purchasing a used vehicle.