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How to navigate used car recalls

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If you are considering a used car purchase, it is critical to determine if there is an open recall on the used car — and, if so, whether it has been repaired.

Used car recalls are typically issued because of a problem or potential problem related to safety issues. Unrepaired recalls could lead to a car fire or collision, harming the occupants or causing a jump in car insurance rates.

Car sellers are only required to make repairs on new cars. In most states, dealers aren’t required to repair used vehicles or notify buyers of recalls. They may not even be aware that there is a recall. You are responsible for researching the car’s history.

How to find out if a used car is part of a recall 

To find out whether a car has been part of a recall, you can search the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database online. This database is searchable using a car’s vehicle identification number, found on a car’s windshield lower left, or the make, model and year if you don’t have the VIN.

The NHTSA database provides information about unrepaired vehicles affected by vehicle safety recalls within the past 15 calendar years. The database includes recalls issued by major automakers, motorcycle manufacturers and even some medium and heavy-duty truck makers.

While it is a valuable resource, the NHTSA database does not provide information on vehicles that have already been repaired in response to a safety recall. It also does not have any data on international vehicles.

Check defect investigations 

If you don’t find any recalls, you can also review the NHTSA’s monthly investigation reports, which provide information about active defect investigations. A recall often starts as an investigation.

You may find that the car you want to buy is under investigation. If it is, stay abreast of the investigation to be aware if a car recall is issued.

What to do if a used car you want is part of a recall 

If your desired used car is part of a recall, don’t give up on it. Repairs shouldn’t cost the seller or buyer any money because the manufacturer covers recall fixes.

Get the car’s VIN if you don’t already have it 

If you do find a recall for the car’s make, model and year number, get the car’s VIN from the seller. Enter it in the recall section of the  manufacturer’s website. With the VIN, you can determine if the car is part of the recall. Some manufacturer websites also note if the car has been repaired.

Get the car repaired

Manufacturers are required to repair vehicles under a safety recall for free. So while independent dealers are not required to repair used cars with an open recall under federal law, it should cost you nothing to repair the car.

Recall laws vary by state, which means dealerships in your area may be legally required to make repairs before selling you a vehicle.

You could also ask the seller to repair the car before you purchase it.

Ask the owner for receipts 

If the car you are buying has already been repaired, ask the owner for documentation and review it thoroughly. Only dealers who carry that car brand are authorized to perform recall repairs. However, independent mechanics can complete some car recall repairs at the owner’s expense.

If a dealer did not complete the repairs, you may want to have a dealer verify the work was done properly and thoroughly.

The bottom line  

Before purchasing a used car, research if the vehicle has been part of any safety recalls and whether the necessary repairs were made. The NHTSA is often the best place to determine whether a recall has impacted a car you’d like to buy.

To protect yourself after buying a used car, consider signing up for recall alerts issued by the NHTSA. You can opt to receive these alerts via email or download the NHTSA’s SaferCar app for your phone to receive recall notifications.