Checking a car's history

Many of us love the freedom that comes with owning a car, and purchasing a car can be an exciting experience, whether new or secondhand. But, do you know how to check the history of the car you’re thinking about buying?

Checking the history of a secondhand car is important, as it can tell you a lot about the vehicle, from whether it has been in any major crashes, to whether it has any outstanding finance.

We recently conducted a survey of 888 respondents to find out just how many people knew how to check for various features pertaining to a car’s history. Below we have outlined a selection of important features to check regarding a car’s history, and how to do so, along with the results from the survey.

Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

The Vehicle Identification Number or Vin is a unique, 17-character code that belongs to each automobile. It is a legal requirement in Australia for all cars made since 1989 to have a VIN in order to be imported. Because it is exclusive to each car, it can be used to identify that vehicle, as well as important information about the car such as whether it has been involved in a major crash or needed major repairs, if it is a stolen vehicle, if it has any outstanding loans or finance, and if it has ever been issued a recall notice.
The VIN can be found on a vehicle’s registration certificate. It is also physically printed on the vehicle; however, its location varies depending on the car. Some common places for it to be located are inside the driver’s-side door closure area, along the bottom of the windscreen on the passenger side, in the engine bay, and on the front of the dashboard on the driver’s side.
Once you have located the VIN, you can conduct a search on many various websites for a small fee.

Identification (Compliance) Plate

An identification plate (which is also known as a compliance plate) is a metal plate that is attached to a vehicle, confirming it has passed the rigorous safety tests in order to be certified for Australian roads. Vehicles with an identification plate comply with the Australian Design Rules or ADRs.

A car’s identification plate can generally be found in one of a few places, these being the footwell, door pillar or engine bay. The compliance date is located on the plate, and signifies the year the vehicle was tested for and met the ADRs. This year can differ slightly from the actual year, as sometimes the previous year’s plates are still being fitted to cars for the first few months of the following year. Along with other points in this article, checking the compliance plate can help to determine when the car was tested or imported into Australia.

Make and Model Year

The make and model year refer to the company that makes the car, and the model year refers to the car’s model cycle. While the make of a car can be fairly easy to ascertain (by checking the logo on the front of the vehicle), the model year can be a little more confusing. While many people assume the manufacture date of the vehicle determines the model year of a car, this isn’t always the case.

To find the model year of a vehicle, locate the VIN and then count up to its 10th digit. This number or letter corresponds to a year (which can be searched online), revealing the model year of the car. Knowing the make and model year of a car can be handy as it can help you to work out its value. 


Determining when the car was built should be relatively simple. When manufactured, each automobile is fitted with a build plate that displays the month and year the car was made. This can differ from the model year and compliance plate, but its important to remember that the model year refers to the cycle during which the car was produced, and the compliance plate refers to when it passed its ADRs.

A car’s build plate can often be found on the firewall between the engine and passenger compartments. 

Other things to keep an eye on

Odometer fraud/odometer rollback

  • Check out the wear and tear of the car. A car with a low odometer reading will generally have less wear and tear than that of a high odometer vehicle. If you are inspecting a secondhand car with low kms but a large amount of wear and tear, it could be a sign that something’s amiss.
  • Have a look at the car’s log book to confirm the odometer readings throughout the life of the car. The odometer reading should have been noted down each time the car was serviced, as well as when it was previously bought and sold.
  • Book in with a third-party licensed vehicle repairer to have a look at the car. Bringing in an expert who deals with these issues regularly may be your best bet at discovering if a car’s odometer has been tampered with.Car registration and roadworthy certificate

Remember that once you purchase a car, you will need to transfer the registration to your name within a few days. If the car is purchased unregistered, states such as NSW and QLD allow you to drive the car from the place of purchase to a registry, using the most direct route. In some states it is illegal to drive an unregistered vehicle at all. In each state there are fines for driving an unregistered vehicle without a permit (except in the case of some states where driving directly to a registry is allowed).

Not all states require a car to be sold with a roadworthy certificate. In all states and territories except for QLD, ACT and Victoria, a roadworthy certificate is not needed when selling a secondhand car. In QLD it is required, in Victoria it is required when transferring the name on a vehicle, and in ACT it is required when transferring the name on a vehicle that is more than 6-years-old.