Federal law explicitly prohibits dealerships from selling a new car if a pending recall hasn’t been performed, but used-car buyers aren’t protected the same way.

Consequently, used-car buyers need to add an item to the pre-purchase checklist that already should include: focus on reliable cars; test drive them; research pricing; get pre-approved financing; check the cars repair history; and negotiate the deal. In addition, buyers should check if all recalls have been performed.  

Dealerships and recalls

Despite not being mandated by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, manufacturer-backed certified pre-owned programs generally include checking for and performing any open recall as part of the certification process. In fact, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) advises its member dealerships to periodically verify the recall status of vehicles in inventory and to perform recall work on used-cars for the brands the dealer represents.

However, non-manufacturer certification or inspection programs may not include checking for and addressing open recalls and retailers selling vehicles from a different brand, or a corner-lot-type used-car dealer, may not address recalls. Therefore, the ultimate responsibility rests with the consumer to verify their car has had all applicable recall work performed. 

The bumpy recall road for used cars

As automaker recalls continue to make news, from General Motors ignition switch issues to potentially faulty Takata airbags, owners of recalled vehicles are naturally asking how these campaigns impact them.

Several legislators have taken on the issue of how recalls are handled for used cars and who is responsible for seeing that the work is done, including Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. He has most recently focused on CarMax, the large used-car chain that has been the subject of an investigation by the non-profit group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) Foundation.

According to Blumenthal, “CarMax advertises that all its vehicles must pass a rigorous ‘125-point inspection,’ but no inspection that routinely ignores outstanding safety recalls can be called ‘rigorous.’” Blumenthal urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on “CarMax’s dangerously deceptive marketing of used cars with lethal safety defects.” He called for enactment of a bill that he sponsored to make it illegal for dealers to sell or lease recalled used cars that haven’t been repaired.

CarMax can’t perform recall work because, under federal law, auto manufacturers are responsible for performing safety recalls and work closely with their franchised dealers to oversee the repair process, often including providing specialized training for their dealers’ auto technicians. However, CarMax can have recalled cars repaired free of charge by authorized franchised car dealers.

Until the FTC takes action, or there is a change in the law, used-car buyers are left holding the bag. That’s why Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, supported a June 2014 petition (pdf) asking the FTC to put a stop to deceptive claims by CarMax. Consumers Union and 10 other groups argued that these claims “tend to lull car buyers into a false sense of security regarding the safety of used vehicles CarMax is offering for sale to consumers.” Consumers Union also supports Senator Blumenthal’s bill, S. 900, the Used Car Safety Recall Repair Act, because auto dealers shouldn’t be allowed to sell defective used cars to consumers before they are fixed.

What can consumers do to protect themselves?

If you are ready to buy a used car from CarMax, another used-car dealer, or even a private party, ask the seller for the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and use it to check for any open recalls via any of the following methods:

  • Check for vehicle recalls by accessing the Consumer Reports recall database.
  • Visit the recalls page at SaferCar.gov.
  • Visit the manufacturer's website and look for up-to-date recall information.
  • Call the service department at the local dealer and ask them if there are any open recalls on the car you are planning to buy.
  • Go to the CarFax car history reporting service and use the free recall check service.

While the thought of buying—or having just bought—a car with an outstanding recall may be worrisome or scary, remember that a recall means that a problem has been found and a solution identified. The corrective action will be made for free, even after the sale, so long as you bring the car to the local franchised dealer to have the work performed. Of course, there remains risk in driving a recalled vehicle before work is performed, and some recalls can take significant time for parts and training to be available locally.

CarMax says it advises its customers to register vehicles with the manufacturer after they buy so that they can they obtain up-to-date information about open and future recalls. The company also says it supports legislation that would require automakers to provide used car retailers with the same recall notices, diagnostic and repair information, and the tools and parts that they give to their franchised dealers.