Most people are vigilant about having their cars fixed by dealers when recalls are issued. New cars affected by recalls are fixed by the dealerships that display them on their lots. Did you ever wonder how used-car dealers repair cars under recall? The surprising answer: they don't.
This issue was brought to light by a report from watchdog groups in California. The California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) Education Fund and the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) Foundation reviewed CarMax facilities in Sacramento and Oxnard and found multiple cars for sale under recall.
According to the CALPIRG/CARS report, in Sacramento, almost 9% of the available cars on the CarMax lot (34 out of 386) were affected by recalls that had not been repaired. The situation was even worse at Oxnard, where over 10% of the available cars were subject to a recall (46 out of 455). Seven Oxnard vehicles were affected by multiple recalls.
Legally, CarMax is not under any obligation to fix the cars under recall, nor are other used-car dealers or rental companies. Regulations require new car dealers to take care of their unsold vehicles as a protection to the public, but used cars slip through a loophole, as they are no longer under the control of a franchised dealership.
Any of the used car dealers and rental companies could have their cars repaired under recall, and it is possible that some of them do. Consumers will have to ask. CarMax does not claim to make recall repairs and, in a press release, recommends, "having recalls repaired at a manufacturer-authorized facility."
How can you protect yourself? The easiest way is to do an online recall search for any used car you are interested in buying. The National Highway Traffic Administration maintains an auto recall search site that includes data back to 1966. You can search by make, year, and model to find relevant recalls or search by vehicle identification number (VIN) to check for specific repairs or complaints on that vehicle. CarFax has a similar recall search page on their website.
The presence of a recall does not necessarily mean the car is dangerous. You have no way of knowing if a previous owner had the recall work done prior to trading in the car, unless the service records are intact, and that is not always the case with used cars. The best way is to have the car checked out by a mechanic you trust — always a good idea with any used car purchase — and pass along your knowledge of the recall in advance so the mechanic can research it prior to inspection.
Make sure to have an inspection, but remember that it may not always be obvious whether repairs have been made. You have to decide whether you want to deal with the recall yourself if it comes to that. Check with the nearby manufacturer's dealer to see if the recall repair is still valid, and confirm that they will do the work. Do not expect them to be cheery about it, since you are contemplating buying a car somewhere else and taking it to them for free repairs.
In the end, if you are not comfortable that recall repairs have been made and are not willing to have them done yourself after the purchase, do not buy the car. You cannot get any safer than that.