Jim Adler | The Tough, Smart Lawyer
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By Jim Adler November 17, 2016

If you’re in the market to buy a used car, you should know there’s a chance that any such pre-owned vehicle has been part of an auto safety recall. As a prospective buyer, you need to know if a vehicle has had any defects which caused a recall, and also if the vehicle ever was brought to a dealer for recall repairs.

It’s unlikely you will learn this information from a used car dealer or an individual selling the car. A car’s original owner is under no legal obligation to have any recalled parts repaired before selling the car, and also isn’t required to notify potential buyers of any recalls. The prospective buyer thus has full responsibility to check for used car recalls.

NHTSA Service Has Recall Answers

There’s a quick and easy way to do this. Simply visit the website of safercar.gov, which is provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA is an agency in the U.S. Department of Transportation whose chief responsibility is to enhance and ensure safe driving.

On the NHTSA web page linked above, you will find a field for entering the car’s VIN, or vehicle identification number. The NHTSA then will alert you if that specific vehicle “has not been repaired as part of a safety recall in the last 15 years.”

An exception is that, if a recall has just been issued affecting the vehicle, its VIN may not be available yet in the NHTSA’s database for determining recall answers. From Acura to Volvo, virtually all auto manufacturers which sell vehicles in America participate in this service by providing VIN numbers to the NHTSA, but that can take time.

An alternative is to check with CARFAX for recall information provided by the same manufacturers.

Millions of Cars Have Recalls

CARFAX reports that in 2016 alone, more than 47 million cars on our roads have an open safety recall. That means they may or may not have been repaired — and many will be cars that are placed on sale as used cars, especially since some owners of recalled vehicles try to unload them rather than drive them with safety defects or get them repaired.

An estimated 1.4 million used cars for sale in a recent year had been recalled but not yet repaired. That’s about 3 per cent of all used cars sold yearly, according to usedcars.about.com. These are vehicles you should avoid buying without more knowledge about them.

Clearly, it’s vital that you check for recalls before buying a used car. After all, driving a defective vehicle with bad airbags or other problems could cost you your life.

Keep Checking for Used Car Recalls

Even after buying a used car with a clean profile in terms of auto recalls, periodically you should keep checking for used car recalls with the NHTSA. That’s because future recall notices will be sent by the manufacturer only to the original owner on record, even if that person no longer owns the vehicle. The manufacturer has no way of knowing about subsequent owners, including you.

Sometimes years pass before a car is determined to have a defect and is recalled. The used car you buy today may not have been subject to an auto recall when you bought it, but it still could be recalled in the future.

If you find a used car that you want to buy, and then learn it’s part of a recall and hasn’t been repaired, you may insist that the repair be made prior to purchase, or ask that the price be lowered instead. After that, you can take the car in for recall repairs yourself.

If that’s the case, an auto dealer will not care if you weren’t the original owner. If the vehicle is identified as being part of a recall, the dealer has a responsibility to make free repairs of the defect which spurred the recall, whether the car belongs to its original owner or was sold as a used car.

There — now you’re ready to buy that used car with full knowledge about any recalls and whether it’s been repaired. As always: Safety first.

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