Key takeaways

  • The onus is on you to find out if there’s a recall on a used car you want to buy — no law says the seller has to find out or disclose that info to you.
  • You can look up recall information on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database.
  • If it’s a safety recall, the car’s manufacturer should cover the cost of the necessary repair.

If you’re considering buying a used car, you’ll want to determine if there’s an open recall on the 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. While buying a used car can help you save money, it could cost more if a recall is in play. Unrepaired recalls could lead to a car fire or collision. Even if no one gets hurt, that could mean a jump in your 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. Here’s how to find out if there’s a recall on a preowned car and what to do if there is.

How to find out if there’s a recall on a preowned car

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, usually found on the lower-left part of a car’s windshield, or the make, model and year if you don’t have the VIN.

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

If the recall issue has already been repaired for the specific VIN you look up, that recall won’t show up. Ultimately, though, since you care about the recall on a used car you might buy to keep yourself safe, this gives you the info you need. Note that the NHTSA database doesn’t have any data on international vehicles, and it doesn’t include customer service recalls.

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Check defect investigations

If you don’t find any recalls, you’re off to a good start. But your potential future car might have a known issue that just hasn’t reached the official recall stage yet. A recall often starts as an investigation. To be aware of those issues, you can review the NHTSA’s monthly investigation reports, which provide information about active defect investigations.

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 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 safety recall fixes. Let’s walk through the steps to navigate your used car recall.

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 that specific car is part of the recall. Some manufacturer websites also note if the car has been repaired.

Get the car repaired

The seller may handle the repair for the used car recall for you. Recall laws vary by state, which means dealerships in your area may be legally required to make repairs before selling you a vehicle.

That said, independent sellers are not required to repair used cars with an open recall under federal law. But don’t worry. The fix won’t come out of your pocket. Manufacturers are required to repair vehicles under a safety recall for free.

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 with a used car inspection.

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 the best place to determine whether a recall has impacted a car you want to buy. If you discover an open recall on a used car you want, don’t let it deter you. Just make sure you take it to a dealership to get the issue fixed.

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