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What to do if your car is recalled

Has your car or truck been recalled? If you bought the vehicle new, you should have received notice in the mail. But if you aren’t the vehicle’s first owner, you may never find out if it’s the subject of a recall, since letters are sent only to the registered owner at the time of the recall, and the owner must take the initiative to complete the repair.

This process is a large part of why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, estimates that about 25 percent of recalled cars go unrepaired.

A quarter of all recalled cars might not seem like a large number, but when you consider there were more than 53 million cars recalled in 2014 — the worst year in U.S. automotive history — that means more than 13 million cars with either minor or dangerous defects could go unrepaired.

With older cars especially, chances are those vehicles will go on the market in the coming years — and unsuspecting buyers may assume that the previous owner took care of the recall repair.

How the recall process works

When an automaker discovers a safety defect, it is legally required to notify the NHTSA and conduct a recall; otherwise, the agency can sue. The manufacturer then has 60 days to send out recall notices to all registered owners using data it gets from each state’s department of motor vehicles. The outside of the envelope states that it is a recall notice in bold red letters. It is up to the owner to take the car in for the repair.

“There’s only one reason that they send out a notice: because the car is unsafe,” says Rosemary Shahan, president of the nonprofit Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, based in Sacramento, California. “Not getting it repaired can mean you are driving a ticking time bomb.”

Manufacturers sometimes send out reminder notices to owners who have not had the recall repair completed based on the vehicle identification records they keep, but they are not required to follow up. If parts are not immediately available, manufacturers will send out the recall notice, then send a second letter once they have the parts in supply. Automakers are required to issue recalls only on cars that are no older than 10 years, though they sometimes recall cars that are older.

Steps to take after a recall

When you receive notice of a recall, contact any dealership that sells your brand of car to make the appointment for the repair. You do not need to return to the dealership where you bought your car. All dealerships that carry that brand are required by law to make the recall repair at no charge.

Keep in mind that if you take your car in for a recall repair and agree to any other repairs, you are responsible for paying for that additional work. If you are not sure whether a repair suggested by the dealer is part of the recall, ask for clarification in writing.

If you had the repair made before the recall was issued (up to a full year), the automaker is legally obligated to reimburse you, as long as you had the work done at one of its franchised dealers. If you made the repair at an independent mechanic or on your own, you can request reimbursement if you can provide a receipt for the work.

Check the recall status on a used car

A used car, even one sold by a dealer, may not have had recall repairs completed before it is sold to a new owner.

Only franchised car dealers are obligated to complete recall repairs for the brands they carry new. For example, a Honda dealer is required to perform recall repairs only on any used Hondas before it sells them, but if it sells a used Toyota, it is not required to complete repairs associated with a recall.

Similarly, independent car dealers (which sell only used cars) and individuals who sell their cars privately are not required to have recall repairs performed before they sell a car. That leaves it up to the person interested in buying the car to make sure that any defects under recall have been repaired.

To check for a recall, you must have the car’s vehicle identification number, or VIN, which is located on the dashboard.

You can enter the VIN on the automaker’s website or by using the VIN search tool. Once you enter the VIN, the system will report whether the recall has been completed or not.

Shahan says anyone buying a used car should check the VIN before agreeing to a deal.

“You can’t trust any seller to tell you because even if they’ve checked, a recall may have happened after they checked,” she says.

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