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How to Handle a Recall After Buying a Car

Automakers issue recalls when they, and possibly a government safety agency, have reason to believe there’s a defect in a specific car model that compromises the safety of drivers and passengers. A recall can happen shortly after a new car comes to market or years later; it can come as a result of reported incidents you might see on the news, or the manufacturer may discover the flaw before it makes headlines.

A recall can be related to the car's design, a batch of parts that are defective, or, with more recent cars, a software bug that wasn't noticed before the car went into production. While a recall means the defect is somehow related to safe operation of the vehicle, most recalls aren’t about cars bursting into flames while driving down the road.

By law, automakers are required to send one notification by mail to the original owner of each car affected by the recall. It’s usually a card (about the size of a large postcard) that outlines the specific problem of the recall and directs you to take your car to a dealership to be fixed. The card (or letter, in some cases) will also tell you the start date of when you can take your car in for recall repair—usually within 60 days of the recall notice. They need to give dealerships sufficient time to stock necessary replacement parts. There will often be a listing on the letter/card for the closest dealer and their phone number. Or, you can simply contact the dealership who sold you the car.

Do you have to pay for the fix?

For a manufacturer-issued recall, it won’t cost you a dime. How long it will take to fix the issue is another question. A software update might take only a few minutes, but major work on a full mechanical system—like the brakes or fuel system—could take a few hours. Most of this will depend on how busy the dealership’s service department is. Many dealerships will offer a free loaner car if repairs will take longer than a day. You can also check with your insurance to see if they will provide a car.

It’s important to know that you cannot take your car to a non-dealership mechanic to have a recall issue fixed. If you do, you will have to pay for the repair, and the automaker will not be able to guarantee the issue is fixed.

What if you bought a used car?

If your car has been recalled, it doesn't matter when or where you bought it, you can—and should—still take it to a franchised dealership of the manufacturer for the recommended repair. The manufacturer is still on the hook for repairs related to any outstanding recalls.

When shopping for a used, or pre-owned, vehicle, keep previous and current recalls in mind. Research the recall history on all cars you’re considering. If you buy a used car from a dealership that’s affiliated with the car’s manufacturer, there should not be any outstanding, unfixed recalls on the car. However, used car dealerships aren't required by law to fix or disclose outstanding recalls, so be sure to ask for a full car history report to make sure any recalls have been addressed.

There are a bunch of ways to find out if the car you are considering buying needs recall work done. CARFAX and, powered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), offer recall checks if you have the vehicle identification number (VIN) handy. You can also check the car manufacturer's website or contact a dealership to see if your car needs any recall work done.