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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 whether the car has been part of any recalls — and, if so, whether it has been repaired. 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, possibly harming the occupants or causing a jump in car insurance rates. 

Car sellers, however, are not required to get any recalled parts repaired before selling the vehicle. Nor do they have to notify buyers of recalls. What’s more, they may not even be aware that there is a recall. The onus will be on you as the prospective buyer to research the history of the car. 

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 (NHTSA) database online. This database is searchable using a car’s vehicle identification number (VIN), which can be found on the lower left of a car’s windshield, or the make, model and year if you don’t have the VIN.  

The NHTSA database provides information about unrepaired vehicles that have been affected by vehicle safety recalls within the past 15 calendar years. The information provided 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 previously issued 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. Often, a recall starts as an investigation, which then leads to an actual recall. You may find that the car you want to buy is under investigation. If it is, be sure to 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 

There are various steps you can take if a car you want to buy has been impacted by a recall including asking the seller to have the vehicle repaired before you buy it. The repairs shouldn’t cost the seller any money because recall fixes are covered by the manufacturer. 

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 applicable manufacturer’s website. With the VIN, you will be able to determine if the exact car is part of the recall. Some manufacturer websites also note if the car has been repaired.  

If the vehicle has not been repaired, you may choose to bring it to the manufacturer yourself to have the work completed. Bear in mind that getting the vehicle fixed may not be a quick process and dealers are not required to repair used vehicles.  

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. 

Ask the owner for receipts 

If the car you are buying has already been repaired, ask the owner for documentation that the repair is completed in response to a recall and review that documentation thoroughly. Only dealers who carry that brand of car are authorized to perform recall repairs. However, it is possible for an independent mechanic to complete some car recall repairs at the owner’s expense.  

If the repairs were not completed by a dealer, you may want to check with a dealer to verify the work was done properly and thoroughly.  

The bottom line  

Before purchasing a used car it’s important to do your research and determine whether the vehicle has been part of any safety recalls and whether the necessary repairs were made. Failing to take this step can expose you and any other occupants of the vehicle to safety hazards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is often the best place to start to find out whether a car you’d like to buy has been impacted by a recall.