A photoillustration depicting a used car recall

More than 3.8 million cars have been recalled in the U.S. since Jan. 1 alone. Owners are being warned about dangerous Takata airbag inflators, the risk of engine fires in certain Hyundai and Kia models, and other serious safety issues.

But if any of those vehicles are for sale now—or enter the used-car market—shoppers may never know that the vehicle they’re considering needs important repair work done.

“Used-car shoppers are on their own, because dealers and private-party sellers aren’t required to make these needed repairs on used vehicles,” says Will Wallace, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. “They don’t even have to inform potential buyers that a recall has been issued for the car they’re considering.”

That’s not the case for new cars, Wallace says.

“New-car dealers and rental car companies are specifically required by federal law to fix open defects before offering the car for sale to consumers,” he says.

In the market for a used car? Here’s what you can do to protect yourself. 

Learn more about buying and choosing a used car.

How to Check for Recalls

The first step is seeing whether the car you want to buy has an open recall. It’s easy to find that out.

• Locate the vehicle identification number (VIN). A VIN is a 17-digit combination of numbers and letters unique to an individual car, and you can usually find it by looking at the bottom outside of the windshield on the driver’s side. Additionally, many online listings for a used car include the VIN.

More on Car Recalls

• Go to safercar.gov, the official, free-to-use website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is the government agency responsible for vehicle recalls, and enter your car’s VIN. If there’s an open recall on your specific vehicle, it will appear here.

“That’s the single best way for every consumer to check whether a car has an open recall,” Wallace says.

Car manufacturers alert owners of recalls via first-class mail, but those notifications won’t help owners who bought the car used.

“The problems arise generally in older cars, because there is a chain of ownership that may be lost,” says Alex Epstein, director of transportation safety at the National Safety Council (NSC), a nonprofit organization that promotes occupational, at-home, and road safety. “It becomes incumbent of the purchaser to ensure that the cars are recall free or at least have the recall dealt with.”

If you’re buying a car from a private party who hasn’t had the prescribed recall work done, Epstein says it’s worth checking to make sure that other maintenance and repairs haven’t been neglected either.

“It might raise a bit of suspicion in the back of your mind that the prior owner might not have maintained the vehicle as well as they potentially should have,” he says.

What to Do If There’s an Open Recall

So the car you want to buy has an open recall. Now what?

“Consumers can make a demand of any seller that they fix any open defects before selling the car to them,” says Wallace. “And that’s a reasonable request, and the burden for safety in this case shouldn’t fall on consumers.”

Getting a recall repaired may take time, but it shouldn’t cost the seller anything, Epstein says.

“You can bring these vehicles into their respective manufacturer’s dealer, and they will be fixed for free if the parts are available,” Epstein told CR.

Even though dealers aren’t required to make recall repairs on used vehicles, many already do. The National Independent Automobile Dealers Association (NIADA), a group that represents many independent used-car dealers, recommends that dealers repair any open recalls.

“NIADA recommends that as a best practice, all dealers should take steps to identify open recalls in their inventory and have those recalls fixed before selling a vehicle, if possible,” says Shaun Petersen, NIADA’s senior vice president of legal and government affairs. “NIADA also recommends dealers disclose the existence of any unrepaired open recall at the point of sale.” 

A logo for the airbag maker Takata, whose products have been recalled

The Takata Recall

If the used car you want to buy is under recall, chances are it’s because of a faulty Takata airbag inflator. This case has added millions of used cars to the recall rolls each year for several years now, and Epstein says the “vast majority” of cars currently under recall are related to Takata airbags. In fact, about 90 percent of the vehicles recalled in January were part of the Takata recall.

And it isn’t over yet. That’s because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and automakers have spaced out the replacement of Takata airbag inflators based on the risk to drivers and passengers, adding millions of vehicles to the recall each year for the past several years.

The goal has been to get replacement inflators to the highest-risk vehicles first, then to lower-risk vehicles as the supply of replacement inflators grows. The recalls are scheduled to proceed through at least Dec. 31, 2019.

The Takata recall is the largest and most complex automotive recall in U.S. history, covering 50 million airbag inflators in 37 million cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks from 19 manufacturers, according to NHTSA. Fifteen people in the U.S. have died, and more than 250 people have allegedly been injured because of those devices, NHTSA says.

The Takata devices use ammonium nitrate to inflate the airbag in the event of a crash. The ammonium nitrate can become unstable over time, leading to inflators that explode with an unexpectedly violent force. If the defective airbag ruptures, it can spray sharp metal fragments directly at the driver and passengers, increasing the risk of death or injury.

That’s why it’s important for shoppers to stay vigilant, and check whether the car they’re interested in buying is part of this recall.