Buying a Used Car? This Tool Could Potentially Save Your Life

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  • A vehicle safety recall means there is a potentially hazardous problem with a vehicle that should be addressed as soon as possible.
  • You can use the NHTSA's vehicle lookup tool to check a pre-owned car for active recalls that need to be fixed. You'll need the VIN, which can be found in the lower-left corner of the window (among other places).
  • Niche luxury brands or international brands not sold in the U.S. may not be included in the database.

Recalls are nothing to shrug off.

It's often recommended to buy a pre-owned car over a new car because of appreciation. It's a well-known adage that new cars lose value the minute you drive them off the lot.

But there are also some important downsides of used cars to consider. Particularly, you often don't know much about the vehicle's previous life. Was it treated well? Was it maintained properly? Did it have consistent insurance coverage?

Has it had any important recalls?

Of them all, that last question could very well be the most important. Luckily, there's a tool for that.

Manufacturer recalls can be life or death

A modern vehicle has thousands of parts, each and every one of which -- in theory, at least -- undergoes extensive testing to ensure its safety and durability. But even the most reliable parts can fail.

When a part or system fails repeatedly, across vehicles and owners, that's when you have a bigger problem. And when that faulty part leads to a potential safety issue -- well, that's when you tend to get recalls.

A vehicle recall means the manufacturer and/or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found an issue that needs to be fixed as soon as possible, typically at the manufacturer's expense.

In other words, a vehicle with an active recall doesn't just have a faulty part. It has a faulty part that could greatly impact the vehicle's overall safety, putting your life (and the lives of your loved ones) at risk.

Think of it this way: The manufacturer probably wouldn't volunteer to pay for your repairs if they didn't have to, so it must be pretty important if they're the ones footing the bill.

Check your car's VIN for current recalls

When a new recall is issued, the manufacturer is required to notify all current owners via first class mail within 60 days of notifying the NHTSA. If you receive one of these letters, it's best to contact your local dealership or the manufacturer's customer service department as soon as possible to arrange repairs.

But what if the recall occurred before you purchased your vehicle? May I introduce the NHTSA's vehicle recall tool: NHTSA Recall Lookup.

This website allows you to use the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to see any active recalls on a particular vehicle. So, if you're purchasing a used car, one of your first tasks is to enter the VIN into the NHTSA tool to check for unrepaired recalls.

The VIN is usually found on the vehicle's lower left windshield. It may also be within the driver's side door, on your registration, and may even be listed on your insurance cards.

Niche brands may not be included

This tool is essential for the average used car buyer. But it's important to note its limitations. (No tool is perfect, after all.)

For one thing, the NHTSA tool only shows active, unrepaired recalls. If the vehicle had a recall that has since been addressed by a previous owner, it won't be listed. Similarly, it's reserved for safety recalls. A non-safety recall or manufacturer customer service notice won't be listed.

Additionally, it's also best used for major U.S. manufacturers. If your vehicle is from a niche manufacturer (such as an ultra-luxury brand), it may not be included. Similarly, vehicles from international manufacturers (those not doing business in the U.S.) aren't typically included in the listings.

Finally, recalls over 15 years old may not be included in results. However, if the recall has been updated or the manufacturer still offers service on the problem, it will definitely be listed. For example, the recent Do Not Drive order for certain models of Hondas and Accords should definitely show up for those vehicles.

Outside these limitations, the tool covers millions of vehicles -- including most used cars on the market today. As such, anyone buying a used car should plug the VIN into the NHTSA's recall tool as a matter of course. It very well could save your life.

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