More people are unwittingly buying potentially unsafe used cars because the Federal Trade Commission allows dealers to market and sell used cars that have pending safety recalls. Carfax reports that 3% of the used vehicles sold annually have open recalls, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that up to 25% of all safety-related defects announced by auto manufacturers go unaddressed. If you are in the market for a used car and want to be safe, your pre-purchase checklist should include a review of the car’s accident and repair history, a thorough inspection by an independent mechanic, and a check for open recalls.
Federal laws restrict car dealerships from selling new cars with open recalls for a good reason. Cars with safety-related manufacturing defects are ticking time bombs. Safety defects such as bad brakes, faulty seatbelts and airbags, and sticking accelerator pedals can cause serious accident and injury. In some extreme cases, cars with open recalls have been reported to lose wheels, power steering, and braking, and catch fire. Many recalled cars have multiple defects that, left unaddressed, may cause accidents that can maim or kill their drivers, passengers, and other road users.
However, no law in the United States prevents used-car dealerships from selling vehicles with open recalls. Current regulations merely require dealers to make a general mention of open recalls in their advertising. Even so, dealers may mislead buyers about open recalls by burying the fact in small print or advertising used cars with open recalls as having passed rigorous inspections and reconditioning. By law, used car dealers can advertise open-recall cars as ‘safe’ even if they have potentially lethal problems such as faulty ignition switches.
Check Vehicle Recall Databases
To check if the car you are interested in has an open recall, go to the NHTSA website, find the ‘Recalls’ tab, and enter the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) in the search box that appears. You can find the VIN on the car’s registration card and the lower left side of the car’s windshield. The search results will indicate any incomplete safety recalls associated with the VIN and all safety recalls conducted on the car model over the last 15 years. If the status of the recall information is “incomplete,” the safety issues the manufacturer flagged for that car have not been addressed.
Alternatively, find the new NHTSA search tool at SaferCar.Gov and enter the VIN of the used car or trade-in you want to check. The tool tells you whether the vehicle has ever been recalled and if it still needs to be repaired. A Carfax report can also tell you if the used car you are interested in has outstanding recalls from its manufacturer. Additionally, you can visit the manufacturer’s website to get information on its vehicle recalls. Toyota, Ford, Honda, and most of the other major automakers maintain an updated database of recalls. Check for recall status even if a vehicle owner or dealership advertises a used car as certified or insists that it has no unfixed recalls.
Get a Second Opinion
Most of the look-up tools mentioned above do not return results for recently announced safety recalls or recalls that are more than 15 years old. The tools maintained by government organizations do not cover safety recalls announced by small vehicle manufacturers either. If the car you are about to buy has a recent or dated safety recall or is an ultra-luxury or specialty brand, the VIN search tools may not alert you to any pending recall.
The only way to be sure that the car you are about to buy is safe is to have it inspected by a qualified, independent mechanic and take it for a test-drive. Preferably, the inspection should be in an auto diagnostic clinic where the mechanic can verify that all the safety components of the car are working as they should. If the used car has an open recall, a competent mechanic can recommend—based on his or her inspection report—buying it or walking away.
Verify the Recall was Addressed
An open recall does not automatically make a used car a lemon. If you are getting a good deal on a used car with a recall notice, you can offer to purchase it when the seller takes care of the recall repairs. If the seller claims the safety issues for which the car was recalled were addressed, ask for a work order of the repairs done.
The period a recall notice has been pending can alert you to the mechanical condition of the used car you are about to buy. If the recall notice is less than six months, you can give the seller the benefit of the doubt as it takes time to schedule recall repairs. If the seller has ignored the recall notice for more than six months, it is possible there are other mechanical problems they do not want to pay for at the manufacturer’s repair shop.
Take Advantage of the Open Recall
You can use your knowledge of the recall to get a substantial discount off the sticker price. Express your discomfort at buying a used car that is subject to a recall and push to get a markdown of 5% or more off the sale price. After purchase, take the car for the recall repairs. Most manufacturers offer free recall repairs at auto shops owned by partner dealers. Sellers may not take recalled cars for repairs because these repairs take time and the manufacturer may recommend that they pay for additional fixes as a precondition for doing the recall repairs.
Before you buy a used car with an open recall, ensure there is an authorized dealer who can do the recall repairs within a reasonable distance of where you live. Ensure also that there are no pending costly repairs that you will have to pay for to get the safety issues mentioned in the recall fixed. If you are buying from Carmax or other reputable used car dealership, ask you can get a safe loaner car—at no extra cost—while the one you are purchasing is being repaired. Take note that the parts an authorized auto shop needs to correct the safety defects may not be available for at least several weeks.