How to Check Your Used Car for Recalls Before You Buy

August 24th, 2018 by

Used Car Dealership

Whenever you’re standing in the showroom of a used car dealership, all the potential uncertainties can be terrifying. Staring you down from under each hood could be a faulty transmission, an engine just waiting to sputter into nothing, or a belt on the verge of fraying into disarray. One thing that doesn’t have to be an uncertainty is whether the used car you’re considering is under recall. Keep reading to find out the steps you need to take to find out whether there are any active recalls for your new car’s make and model, as well as what you should do if one turns up.


Legal Issues Surrounding Used Cars and Recalls

The laws surrounding new cars and recalls can cause some confusion for used car buyers. The Motor Vehicle Safety Act forbids franchised dealerships to sell new cars under active open recall. However, no such law exists to prevent the sale of used cars subject to recalls. Dealerships are subject to some liability when it comes to vehicles under a certain type of recall called a “stop-sale recall,” though.

If a vehicle is under a stop-sale recall, dealerships are encouraged to refrain from selling those vehicles until repairs have been made to address the recall. If a driver were injured in an accident due to mechanical issues related to a stop-sale recall, an attorney could easily bring this up in court to the dealer’s detriment. In most areas, a situation like this one would be covered under tort law, which according to its legal definition, covers injury or loss due to the wrongful acts of others.

Additionally, leaving vehicles under a stop-sale recall on the sales floor speaks to serious issues with a dealership’s ethics and should be considered a red flag. For other types of recall, as we’ve mentioned, consumers are on their own. That’s why you’ll need to follow the steps below to make sure no open recalls turn up for any used cars you’re considering.


Finding the Vehicle Identification Number

The first step to determining whether a recall is active for the used car you have in mind is to locate and record its vehicle identification number, or VIN. This number is specific to your vehicle and is made up of 17 capital letters and numbers. You’ll find the VIN for the used car you’re considering.

From outside the vehicle, on the driver’s side, look into the corner of the windshield where it lines up with the car’s dashboard. Many VINs are located here. If you don’t spy a VIN in this location, there’s one more place to check. You can check inside the driver’s side door where the door latches when it’s closed. This spot is called the door post. You may also find a VIN on a car’s insurance card if the vehicle is currently insured, or on its title and registration paperwork.

If you notice that your VIN is fewer than 17 characters, that’s OK. Cars manufactured before 1981 can vary in length from 11 to 17 characters. Record the VIN, double-check it, and move on to looking for open recalls on the used car you’re considering.


Where to Look Online for Recall Information

Once you’ve recorded the VIN, you have options. There are several places you can look to find out about the recalls on the vehicle if any apply. has a free Vehicle Recall Check on its website.

You can visit the Car Recall Tracker on the Consumer Reports website at, though you’ll need to register for a free account to do so.

From the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website, click on “Search for Recalls by VIN.” The NHTSA’s website also offers a VIN search that will return any active recalls.

You can simply call a local car dealership and ask them to check into the VIN you’re looking at. However, we recommend not using the dealership you intend to purchase from for this inquiry so the answer comes from an objective party.

The website of the car manufacturer should list active recall information for all their makes and models.


What to Do If Your Car Is Eligible for Recall

If your car does have an active recall that hasn’t been addressed, there’s no need to panic. One in four cars on the road in America are eligible for recall, for one reason or another, and haven’t received the needed repairs. The good news is that dealerships associated with the manufacturer of the vehicle you’re considering should handle any needed repairs without charging you a penny.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should brush off the information if recalls are returned. We’ll cover things you should consider if a used car you’ve found at a dealership is under recall in the next section. If you’re looking at a car with a private seller or in another situation, though, you have two ways to proceed. The seller may simply handle getting the needed repairs for you before they sell you the car, in which case, you’ll want to be sure to see a receipt or other verification. But if you’ll be taking the car in for repairs, the time and energy you’ll spend doing so shouldn’t be discounted. Make sure to ask for a reduction in the car’s price if you’ll need to see to these issues yourself.

As we’ve discussed here, finding out whether or not a recall exists on the car you want to buy at a used car dealership doesn’t have to be a mystery. And if you follow these steps and learn that there is an open recall for the make and model you want to buy, it isn’t the worst thing that could happen. The information presented here equips you to be your own advocate on the used car lot, recall or no recall.