What You Should Know about Used Cars and Open Recalls

It may surprise you.

| Eliza Duggan

It might not have that new car smell but there are many benefits to buying a used car, with perhaps the biggest one being that used cars generally cost less than new cars. One downside, though – which consumers may not be aware of – is the risk that the used car you’re buying is subject to a safety recall that hasn’t been repaired.

Let’s take a closer look.

Unrepaired safety recalls: used vs. new

Yes, you read that right. There’s nothing stopping dealers from selling used cars that are subject to unrepaired safety recalls. Even “certified preowned” vehicles, which are sold at higher prices than non-certified used cars, or those advertised as passing rigorous safety inspections, can be subject to open safety recalls. And it happens more than you might think.

Sellers of new cars, however, don’t have the same leeway. In fact, auto dealers are not legally allowed to sell new cars that are subject to unrepaired recalls (and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has the authority to crack down on dealers who sell recalled new cars, even if no one suffers financial damages or is injured or killed.) Of note, rental car dealers must also address open safety recalls before letting consumers behind the wheel.

How widespread and serious are these recalls anyway?

According to the National Safety Council, more than 50 million vehicles on the road today have open safety recalls. Recalls are issued for a number of reasons, many of which can cause injuries or death. The NHTSA warns that “Every vehicle recall is serious and affects your safety.”

The FTC weighs in, critics react

So what happens when a used car that is subject to an unrepaired safety recall is advertised as safe? Pursuant to the FTC, as explained in 2016 consent orders against General Motors, CarMax and others, dealers are prohibited from making any safety-related claims about their vehicles unless:

(1) the vehicles are recall-free, or, alternatively, the company discloses clearly and conspicuously and in close proximity to the representation both that the vehicles may be subject to open recalls and how consumers can determine the recall status of a particular car, and (2) the claims are not otherwise misleading.

Many auto safety and consumer advocates opposed these FTC consent orders, arguing that even if used car dealers provided the FTC-required disclosures, they would not be enough “to compensate for the initial false impression” of safety.

Has anything been done since 2016?

In January 2024, the FTC issued a final rule intended to address scams in the auto industry called Combating Auto Retail Scams Trade Regulation Rule, or CARS Rule. The rule, which will go into effect in July, prohibits, among other things, auto dealers from making certain misrepresentations in the course of selling or leasing cars. While the rule does not specifically address the issue of outstanding safety recalls on used cars, the FTC noted that it takes seriously deception relating to the safety or condition of a vehicle and that deceptive conduct in this area may be covered by the rule depending on the claim being made by the dealership. Only time will tell if the FTC will use this rule in such a way.

What can you do in the meantime?

If you want to learn whether a used car is under recall, check the car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, by entering the 17-digit code on the NHTSA website.

The site will tell you if the vehicle has been subject to an open recall in the last 15 years and has not been repaired. If the car is under recall and less than 15 years old, manufacturers are required to fix it for free, even if the car was not purchased from a manufacturer-authorized dealer.

Find more of our coverage on cars here.

Eliza Duggan

As a staff attorney, Eliza supports’s mission through legal actions, including drafting amicus briefs in relevant cases and filing administrative comments. She is dedicated to protecting consumers in the…

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