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Do Your Homework When Buying a Used Car

Buying a used vehicle has major benefits, including reduced prices, avoiding fast depreciation, lower insurance rates, and not having to pay costs such as new car fees, etc. However, there are also risks, especially with vehicle recalls steadily on the rise: 2014 was a record-breaking year with about 64 million vehicles recalled due to safety defects (see our previous blog). If you’re considering buying a used car, it’s important to know if there are any open (unrepaired) safety recalls and whether those problems have been fixed.

To date, federal law requires dealerships to repair defects before selling new vehicles to the public. But there is no equivalent law for dealerships to repair defects before selling used vehicles, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). A recent Carfax study discovered that out of the 238 million vehicles currently on U.S. roadways, over 46 million have at least one unfixed safety recall. That’s about one in five. Carfax also reported that in 2014, about 5 million of pre-owned vehicles were sold to new owners before the recalled parts were fixed (

Fortunately, there are ongoing efforts to require car dealers to repair all vehicles under recall - including used vehicles - before selling them to consumers, according to the New York Times and other news sources. On February 20, the NHTSA and the U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) urged Congress to prohibit used car dealers and rental car companies from selling or renting vehicles with unfixed safety recalls. For example, the GROW AMERICA Act will “require rental car companies and use car dealers to participate in recalls of defective and unsafe vehicles” and also “require manufacturers to cease retail sale and/or require repair of vehicles or equipment that pose an imminent hazard to the safety of the motoring public.” ( DOT’s website)

Best Tips for Buying a Pre-Owned Car

But before you decide against buying a pre-owned car, there’s many proactive steps you can take to find a safe, quality used vehicle that you are happy with. Carfax Vehicle History Reports come in very handy, and you can also check with your auto manufacturer and local franchise dealer. If you’re negotiating with an individual seller, ask about the vehicle’s history and ask to see paperwork/receipts confirming that all recalls have been repaired. Finally, there are free online databases to search by your vehicle’s identification number (VIN) or license plate:

NHTSA has a free online search identifying open safety recalls and whether the necessary repairs have been completed., a joint effort of multiple federal regulators, lets you search under “Motor Vehicles” which also includes tires, equipment and child safety seats.

Carfax has a free online records check and Vehicle History Reports, which includes recall data. Carfax also provides a free “myCarfax app” which monitors your vehicle using only the license plate number.

Edmunds has a free online Car Maintenance Guide, which provides available recall and technical service bulletin information.

While the law won’t change overnight, these efforts are very positive for the public. In the meantime, the responsibility often falls on consumers to discover and address any problems. When buying a car, whether new or used, knowledge is always power.