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What to do if Your Used Car is Recalled

Dealerships are legally required to do the recall maintenance for free when under an active recall—whether you bought the car from them or not.

What to do if Your Used Car is Recalled

If you’ve ever bought a new car, you know the headache of recalls. You get a notice in the mail, drag your car into the dealership and head out, hours later with a new bunch of software, a new safety system or a replacement part. But what if your car is not a new-new car—but a new-to-you-car and it’s been recalled?

Open Recall Protocol

First, find out what the recall is. A quick Google search can do the trick or you can visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration site to look for your specific make and model. Their site goes back to 1966 and you can search by VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) if need be. Plugging the VIN number into NHTSA’s site will tell whether or not the recall has been done on your specific car.

Check the vehicle's service records

If the VIN comes up clean, be sure to check the service records for the car. Last year, NHTSA estimated that 25% or more of the cars that are recalled never have the recall maintenance done. That means that there’s a pretty good possibility that the car you are buying hasn’t been updated. The previous owner should have had the recall maintenance done and the services records should show what exactly was done. If the records aren’t available take your car to a trusted mechanic and have it checked out.

Unfortunately, both individual sellers and big used car dealers are not required to do the repairs before selling a car to you. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that most used car dealers and sellers don’t preform the needed repairs. In fact, a recent study by watchdog group, California Public Research Group (CALPIRG) found that a large used car dealer had a relatively high percentage of cars for sale on its lots in Oxnard and Sacramento that were under recall but had not been repaired as required. That being said, if you shop through Instamotor, recall information is shown in the app for each car you’re looking at that has an open recall. That means that you’ll know up-front whether you need to get the recall fixed.

If you discover that the recall maintenance hasn’t been performed on your used car you’ll need to get it repaired before driving it any considerable distance. Recalls aren’t something to be messed with. If NHTSA has taken the time to notify the public about a problem in a specific model, you can be sure it’s a rather serious matter—so whatever you do, don’t delay.

Contact a Local Dealership

Call up a local dealership for your car’s brand and see if the recall is still valid. If it is, they will do the work for free. Dealerships are legally required to do the recall maintenance for free when under an active recall—whether you bought the car from them or not. While they may not be thrilled with the work, in many cases, there’s no way around it and it’s always better to be safe rather than sorry.

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Abigail BassettAbigail Bassett

Digital media content producer/consultant & former CNN senior producer, now running CN'TRL : Cars, Tech, Real Estate & Luxury.

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