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Unlocking the Secrets of Your Car's Past

November 28, 2001|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If cars could talk, what secrets would they tell?

Were they abused by careless owners who forced them to live with filthy oil as they rolled helplessly past garages offering cheap oil changes? Were they the subjects of terrible teens who forced their tires to squeal at every stop? Were they ever used in the commission of a crime?

A lot of used-car shoppers wonder what they could discover if they only knew something about a vehicle's previous owners. Private services have sprung up in recent years to sell vehicle histories, but the information provided is limited.

Some prospective buyers want the information to avoid getting stuck with a defective or stolen vehicle; others are simply curious about the previous owners.

The information is of particular interest to collectors of classic and antique cars, a subject raised by a Your Wheels reader who owns a 1957 Chevy and would like to know how to trace the ownership.

The only people who know the full, unwashed history of a vehicle are the friendly bureaucrats at the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The DMV is willing to provide some of that information for a small fee. Though the search will take some time, the results are more complete than what you can find on the Internet, and possibly cheaper.

With the vehicle identification number and a $5 payment, the DMV will provide a list of names of previous owners of any car registered in California--but it is prohibited by law to disclose the owners' home addresses.

Since 1990, California has forbidden the DMV to release addresses, a law resulting from the stabbing death of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was stalked by a man who had obtained her home address from the department. Law enforcement agencies are exempt and still can obtain such information from the DMV.

Nevertheless, if you would like to contact a previous owner, the DMV will try to help without violating the law. The agency will forward a message with your telephone number or address and indicate you want to obtain information about the car in question.

"If these people don't want to be contacted, that's their decision. We can't force them to respond," said Bill Branch, a DMV spokesman in Sacramento.

To obtain a DMV printout of a vehicle history, you must submit Form INF 1070-R. Amazingly, the DMV still uses a carbon form in this case, so you cannot get it off the Internet. You can pick up the form at any of the department's field offices or by writing to DMV, Public Operations, CS, G199, P.O. Box 944247, Sacramento, CA 94244-2470. By telephone: (916) 657-8098.

Because the DMV is no slouch when it comes to record-keeping, its data go back decades. But old records were never computerized, meaning the agency has to search manually through paper documents. That will cost you $16 an hour for staff time; the DMV also will charge $20 for every year manually searched. So if the search goes back 10 years, you would owe $200, plus that hourly labor fee.

That could be a costly quest for our '57 Chevy owner.

If you don't need the names of the previous owners, a quicker route may be through an online service such as Carfax.

The company, at http://www.http://carfaxhttp://.com , will provide a report that lists the mileage each time a car has been titled and whether it has a salvage title, was ever reported stolen, was repurchased by the dealer as a buyback "lemon" or was ever titled as a rental car. For $19.99, Carfax will provide reports on an unlimited number of vehicles for two months.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write toYour Wheels, Business Section,Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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