What is an HPI check?

An HPI check is recommended when you're paying big money to buy a used car. But what exactly is it?

If you’re buying a used car, then it’s likely that you will have heard of an HPI vehicle history check. This is a valuable service for used car buyers who want to find out more about a car that’s for sale, before they go any further with its purchase.

An HPI Check is known as such because the company HPI was one of the first to provide vehicle checks for car buyers. These checks are designed to provide information about a car and whether it has outstanding finance against it, if the car has been declared an insurance write-off, checks that it has a valid mileage and more.

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This service has been around for a number of years – the company HPI was founded in 1938 – while HPI’s information was made available to the public in 1993, and the online HPI Check service arrived in 2001. Today, the HPI Check is the industry standard for vehicle history checks, with over 80 points of information gathered, although other companies such as the AA, RAC and Auto Trader also provide vehicle information checks.

But what’s the point of a vehicle check? Well, this service – which costs around £20 when done via HPI Check – is money well spent if it turns out that a car has outstanding finance on it. If you do buy a car that still has finance outstanding on it, not only is it illegal for the vendor to sell the car, but the finance company (which technically owns the car while the finance is being repaid) can repossess the vehicle, irrespective of the fact you’ve bought it. That means you’ll be out of pocket and without a car, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. If you’re paying £10k for a used car, then an extra £20 just to double check a car’s status is worth paying for that peace of mind.

The HPI check: what’s included?

The company HPI has been in the business of vehicle checks since 1938 – half a century or so before the dawn of computerised databases. It was introduced to counter the scam of cars being refinanced and sold on by unscrupulous owners, which left unsuspecting purchasers out of pocket and holding the keys to a car that actually still belonged to a finance company.

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HPI added stolen car information from the police to its search just after World War II, and extended its reach further in the 1980s by adding crash history data supplied by insurance companies.

These days, with so much information stored online, HPI claims that its check accesses 80 different data points to help make sure a car comes with no hidden surprises. When you pay for a vehicle history report, it will provide information in the following areas:

HPI vehicle history check checklist

  • Outstanding finance and/or logbook loans – have all the debts against the car, or debts in which the car was used as security, been paid off? If not, it still belongs to a finance company.
  • Write-offs – has the car previously been classed as an A, B, C, D write-off, or the newer S or N write-off categories by an insurer?
  • Theft – has the car been recorded as stolen on the Police National Computer?
  • Mileage – HPI’s own mileage register holds 200+ million speedometer readings.
  • Previous owners – HPI can tell you how many previous owners a car’s had, courtesy of the DVLA database.
  • Number plate changes – again harvested from the DVLA records.
  • VIN/Chassis numbers – allows you to check recorded engine and chassis numbers against those on the car itself.
  • Scrapped vehicles – as with Cat A and B insurance write-offs, you don’t want a car that shouldn’t even be on the road.
  • Imported/exported vehicles – cars built for foreign markets can be harder to insure or repair, while cars registered as exported shouldn’t be for sale here at all.
  • MoT status – is that MoT certificate you’ve been shown genuine?
  • Road tax/Fuel costs – useful for cars that use the older emissions-based road tax system, plus you’ll get an estimated cost of fuel over 12,000 miles.

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What doesn’t the HPI Check tell you?

While the check will confirm how many previous owners a car has, it won’t tell you who those owners were – so in that sense it won’t help you research extra details of the car’s history, for example revealing if a car has previously been owned by a car hire company.

The HPI Check doesn’t provide details of any previous accidents or its service history either. So unless you are buying a car that has been given a Category A, B, C, D, S or N write-off classification by an insurer, you’ll need to rely on a seller – or your visual inspection – to tell you that.

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Our advice on car history checks

With all this information at your fingertips, and because it’s provided at a relatively low price, it really is a false economy not to pay for a car history check – especially if you’re handing over a significant amount of cash for your new purchase. Of course, if you are buying privately from somebody with a car you already know well, then an HPI Check isn’t quite as critical. And if you’re buying from a used car dealer, you can reasonably demand they provide a free HPI Check for you – and besides, some companies use the HPI Check facility to encourage buyers through the door.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that HPI checks are far from foolproof. An Auto Express investigation found that some cars that have been written off are being repaired and listed for sale to unsuspecting buyers, with HPI checks failing to show any indication of the fact these cars have been in a major accident. 

Have you ever bought a car and wished later that you’d done an HPI check? Tell us about it in the comments…

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