When you're buying a used car, a valuable tool can be a vehicle history report, which can give you important information about a car's past.

A vehicle history report will tell you whether the car has a clean title, whether it has been salvaged, flooded, crashed or reported stolen. It can also help you figure out how many owners it has had, where it was usually driven, whether regular maintenance was performed under warranty and approximately what the odometer should read. You may find out the vehicle was a rental car or was previously leased or that it was recalled. Or, hopefully, that it has an entirely clean bill of health.

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Vehicle history reports are becoming more popular. J.D. Power and Associates found that 34 percent of used-car buyers also bought a vehicle history last year, up from 29 percent two years ago.

So where do you get one? Carfax charges $20 for a single vehicle report or $25 for one month of unlimited reports. The clock doesn't begin to tick until you order your first report, which comes in handy if you're shopping around.

You will receive the report electronically by entering a Vehicle Identification Number, typically found on a car's dashboard, on the Web site. You can get a full refund if you're unhappy and haven't already ordered more than two reports.

In the J.D. Power survey, 90 percent of buyers who used vehicle history reports bought them from Carfax but you may wish to try Experian's Autocheck. It charges the same as Carfax.

Many used-car dealerships now include reports with their cars. So ask to see one or have the dealer pay for one before you buy.

A vehicle history report is one safeguard against buying a lemon, but it shouldn't be your only one. Consumer Reports recommends spending the money for a report but warns that some information — a crash never reported to police, for example — will not show up.

Take a good look at that used car. Kick the tires, play with the dials and buttons. Then, drive it over to an experienced and reliable mechanic for a diagnostic check and read any warranty agreements carefully. You'll be happy you did.

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