Buying a used car? It may have been recalled.

That used car you want may not have been checked for safety. Here's how to protect yourself.

Published: July 16, 2014 05:15 PM

Next time you go shopping for a used car, you need to take safety into your own hands. Don’t be swayed by how good it looks, that it has passed your mechanic’s inspection, or that it has been certified under a manufacturer’s or private certification program.  You could end up buying a car that is being recalled.

Automobile recalls have been making headlines recently. This month, Ford Motor Company recalled about 101,000 cars for various safety issues—from improperly installed halfshafts to leaky fuel tanks. In June, General Motors added 8.2 million vehicles to its recall list over faulty ignition switches. 

Recalls such as these can make purchasing a used car akin to navigating a minefield. You can’t be sure the car you buy won’t blow up on you. You need to be especially careful, even when buying the car from private owners but also when you buy from used car dealers, where you would expect the cars to have been tested for safety for such important functions as braking, steering, and air bag deployment.

CarMax, the nation's largest used card dealer, goes to great lengths to impress on you that it has carefully checked its cars.  On its website, CarMax says that its cars  “undergo (on average) 12 hours of renewing—sandwiched between two meticulous inspections—for a car that doesn’t look or feel used.” The dealer also says that its used cars pass a more than 125-point Certified Quality Inspection by its technicians before they are sold.

Yet last month, Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, joined 10 other consumer groups to petition the Federal Trade Commission to investigate its assertions that CarMax is selling cars with unresolved recalls despite advertising them as having undergone a certified quality inspection.

“Such claims are dangerously deceptive, since they tend to lull car buyers into a false sense of security regarding the safety of used vehicles CarMax is offering for sale to consumers,” the June 23 petition (PDF) says.

It could be that other dealers are also labeling their cars as certified but not following through to make sure they are safe. That can happen if the seller doesn’t know about the recall, is too lazy to address it, or doesn’t think it’s important enough to worry about. A major reason, though, is that automakers often reimburse only their franchised dealers for the repairs needed for recalled-related problems—leaving little initiative for other dealers to make repairs.

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.

What you should do

One way to find if the car has been recalled is through the car history reporting service from CarFax. The company provides a free recall check service for more than three-dozen automotive brands. Another way is to check for vehicle recalls by accessing the Consumer Reports recall database, which features plain English descriptions written by professional mechanics. A third resource is the recalls page at If you see a recall, check with a franchised dealer to be sure the recall was addressed. You’ll need the 16-digit vehicle identification number you'll find on the dashboard, under the windshield.

When you search SaferCar, you’ll also see a tab for “service bulletins,” which is also worth checking. Though usually not safety related, technical service bulletins are communications from automakers to their dealers that discuss defects or other issues that might affect a vehicle’s performance or longevity, such as parts that fail prematurely or don’t operate the way they’re intended. Knowing what technical service bulletins have been issued for the vehicle you’re considering might give you insight about problems to look for before buying. You can find out more by reading our report “Massive GM Recall Reveals Benefits of Obtaining Technical Service Bulletins.

—Anthony Giorgianni

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