Tips and advice

What is an HPI check?

HPI checks are a useful tool to investigate a car’s history – we cover everything you need to know

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When buying a used car, there’s always a risk that it may carry hidden legal complications, but verifying its history with an HPI check is a reliable way to protect yourself from future headaches.

The terms ‘HPI’ and ‘HPI clear’ are often used in used car advertisements, but what do they mean? 

HPI stands for ‘Hire Purchase Investigation’ – the name of one of the first companies to offer the service. Today, the name is used across the industry by various providers to refer to the same background checking service, much like how we use the brand name ‘Hoover’ in place of ‘vacuum cleaner’.

It’s normally standard procedure for dealers to carry out HPI checks before accepting cars into stock, and most will include the findings of the check within the sale – often quoted as ‘HPI clear’. However, if that hasn’t been done, or you’re buying from a private seller or individual, then you’re at much greater risk if you don’t invest in an HPI check to investigate a car’s history before buying it. 

What’s covered by an HPI check?

Unlike a car inspection, an HPI check won’t tell you much, if anything, about the condition of the car. Instead, HPI checks look at the car’s history and provenance. They will usually tell you if the car is:

  • Recorded by insurers as being scrapped
  • Recorded by insurers as being written-off
  • Recorded by the police as stolen
  • Whether it’s the subject of an existing loan (called ‘outstanding finance’)

It’ll also tell you:

  • Whether the logbook has been stolen
  • Any previous changes of number plate
  • An inconsistent mileage history
  • The number of previous owners

These checks are usually included in the standard price of an HPI check – often around £20, although some providers may charge extra for some additional checks.

Alternatively, HPI check providers sometimes offer a more basic history check service at a reduced price – around £10. These checks usually cover whether the car has been stolen, written off, imported or exported and if it has any outstanding finance. They also go without the compensation cover that is offered on some full HPI checks. As with the full checks, make sure you know what’s included in a basic car history check before you buy one.

There are some other services separate from HPI checks, like the DVLA’s free online tool to check on a vehicle’s MoT history. This service is still worth using, providing you with valuable information on the car’s MoT record and mileage at each test. However, it does not give you detailed information about the car’s legal history, so cannot be used as a substitute for an HPI check.

Why should I get an HPI check?

An HPI check is well worth the small upfront cost in order to avoid any legal headaches, and big bills, further down the line. 

For example, you might, without realising it, be buying a stolen car. Your ignorance will be no defence when the police take it off you, and you’re unlikely to receive any financial compensation.

The check may reveal whether a car has been cloned; that is, when it’s been given the registration and VIN numbers of another car to disguise the fact that it’s stolen. You’ll soon know when you compare the information from the HPI check with the vehicle you’re looking to buy and the details on its logbook.

If you buy a car that has finance owing on it, the finance company, which owns the car until it has been paid what it’s owed, will come to you for the money. 

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A car that looks okay may in fact have been scrapped (a car doesn’t have to look like a wreck to be scrapped). Since a scrapped car shouldn’t officially exist, you won’t be able to insure it and the car will be illegal to drive on the road. It may be an insurance write-off, making it difficult to insure. Also, because you didn’t tell the insurer what the car’s status was, it may not pay out if you go on to make a claim.

Some sellers ‘clock’ or wind back cars’ odometers (also called mileometers). This is because they can get more money for a low-mileage car than a high-mileage one. If it’s been clocked, you won’t know if it has missed important work such as a change of cambelt. Data from the National Mileage Register and from MoT records will help establish the car’s true mileage.

Carrying out an HPI check prior to purchasing the car will flag up any of these issues, giving you plenty of reason to walk away.

Who does the HPI check?

HPI remains one of the oldest and largest providers, but familiar names such as the RAC and AA provide similar services under the same ‘HPI check’ name. All HPI check providers use information provided by databases from the DVLA, so the information about your vehicle should be the same no matter who carries out the check. 

HPI and its rivals offer up to £30,000 in compensation to customers if they provide information that proves to be inaccurate.

How do I do an HPI check?

Simply search Google for an HPI check provider – you’ll find equivalent services offered by HPI, the RAC, the AA, Green Flag etc.

In most cases, you will only need the registration number for the car but it can help to have the make and model, as well as the VIN or chassis number, to hand. You will be able to compare these to the results from the HPI check to make sure everything adds up. 

A full HPI check will typically cost around £20. In many cases, you’ll be able to pay for multiple checks (usually between three and five, depending on the company) at a discounted rate versus buying them individually. This is handy if you are at a car auction, or you want to whittle down your shortlist before deciding which car to buy.

Once you’ve paid and provided the registration number, most vehicle check companies will send you the results by email or text while you’re with the car, giving you the information you need there and then.

Can I do an HPI check for free?

No, HPI checks are not free – you’ll either need to pay for the full check, or a bit less for the basic one. Some sellers will include a HPI check and call it a “free” perk, but they are likely to recoup the cost of the check in the amount you are paying to buy the car from them.

Some companies do offer a so-called free history check, but the information they show will be very limited. Usually, it’s just details on a car’s mileage and MoT history, which you can find for free on the Government’s website if you have the car’s registration number.

What doesn’t an HPI check tell you?

A history check can only tell you what is on records relating to the vehicle. If information hasn’t been shared with the DVLA, an HPI check won’t help you.

HPI checks also won’t tell you who’s owned the car or whether it’s been serviced and when. Details on the car’s previous keeper will be on the registration document, and you’ll need to read through the service booklet and any receipts or invoices for evidence of service history.

For imported cars, an HPI check will show the car’s history from when it was first registered in the UK. However, in some cases it may be difficult or even impossible to trace the car’s history before it arrived in the country, so bear this in mind before you commit to buying an imported car.

To be sure the car is mechanically sound and to establish what work it may require, have it inspected by a qualified engineer – something we always recommend. We also recommend taking any car for a test drive before purchasing – read our comprehensive guide here.

An HPI check is always worth paying for, and if it throws up any problems, politely tell the seller you are no longer interested in the car.

For more used car buying advice, read our in-depth guide for what to look for when buying a used car

Car finance made simple

Andy is Carbuyer's managing editor, with more than a decade of experience helping consumers find their perfect car. He has an MA in automotive journalism and has tested hundreds of vehicles.

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