What to do if your car is recalled

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says that about 72 percent of recalled vehicles are ultimately repaired. That means nearly one-third of owners of eligible vehicles never bother to respond to a recall notice, even when it's a potentially serious safety concern and the repair won't cost the owner a dime.

In case your auto is recalled, here's a look at the process and how you can get it repaired with the least amount of hassle.

When an automotive company launches a recall, it buys a list of registered owners from each state's department of motor vehicles and mails out the notices. Notices relating to safety concerns say so clearly in big black letters. Problems that are not safety related, such as lousy radios or paint that peels, are sometimes the subject of recalls, as well, but the notice won't mention safety.

When you get the notice, take your eligible vehicle to any dealership selling your brand. It doesn't have to be the dealership where you bought the car, truck or motorcycle. Dealerships are required by law and by their contracts with automakers to make the recall repairs at no charge to owners. Recall notices don't expire as long as the vehicle is less than 10 years old.

The manufacturer pays dealers for making the repairs. The manufacturer can refuse to reimburse a local garage, so stick with dealerships. If you take your vehicle to a dealership and its management refuses to make the repair or wants to tack on an additional fee, contact the manufacturer making the recall and complain. You'll find contact information on the notice. Also, get a second opinion on costly repairs that the dealer suggests in concert with the recall repair; these repairs aren't covered.

If you had the repair made up to a year before the recall, the automaker is required to reimburse you as long as a dealership made the repair. Automakers can deny the claim if the repair was made at a local garage or if you made the repair yourself. This is a good reason to save all repair receipts. Down the road, any repair might be part of a recall and you'll need the receipt to claim your refund.

Before a dealership sells a used car, truck or motorcycle, it is required to make any unmade recall repairs. If you buy a used vehicle from a private owner, check yourself to see if there are recall repairs that should have been made on the car. You can do that by searching NHTSA's database for recalls on your model. If the repairs were made, there should be a sticker on the inside frame of the door. If there's nothing there, chances are they weren't.

NHTSA identifies problems and initiates recalls as a result of consumer complaints (as well as reports from manufacturers). If you own a car that has a problem you think should be evaluated as a potential recall issue, you can call NHTSA's toll-free hotline at 1-888-327-4236 or fill out a vehicle owner's questionnaire by downloading it from the agency's Web site (select "Complaint Form" from the index). You also can search the consumer-complaint database to see if there are other owners who have had the same problem.

Jennie L. Phipps is a contributing editor based in Michigan.

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