'It's Recalled Car Roulette': Some Used Cars Sold With Unrepaired Safety Recalls

Dealerships Can Sell Used Cars With Open Recalls; Critics Say it's a Safety Risk

What to Know

  • Auto dealers can legally sell used cars with open, un-repaired safety recalls
  • Consumer advocates say used cars should have recalls fixed prior to sale; unfixed recalls pose safety risks to buyers
  • Auto sellers say requiring recall repairs for all used cars before sale would harm the used car market and greatly diminish trade-in value

When you buy a used car, you can count on the auto dealership making sure your new ride sparkles. But what about making sure it's safe?

A Fremont man says: No, and he has a burned-out pickup truck to make his case.

A charred, blackened mess was all that remained of Anthony Santos' pickup. He says it went up in flames while parked in his driveway.

"It caught on fire," Santos said. "I'm extremely grateful that I was not in the car with my granddaughter."

A recall notice warned pickups like Santos' could catch fire, even while "parked with the ignition off."

Santos says he didn't know to look for a recall when he was shopping, and he says the used car dealer that sold him the truck didn't disclose it.

Had he known about the recall, Santos says he would "absolutely not" have purchased the truck.

The dealer was not required to tell Santos about the recall. It was free to sell the truck, recall and all. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told NBC Bay Area car dealers are prohibited from selling new vehicles that have recalls, but there's no restriction on selling used cars with open recalls. State laws vary. Consumer advocates argue the sale of a recalled car can violate state law. But dealers insist those sales are legal.

Either way, consumer advocate Rosemary Shahan sees a safety risk in the uncertainty.

"It's recalled car roulette," she said.

Shahan is president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, also known as CARS. She says the law needs to change.

"Dealers should always fix unrepaired safety recalls before they sell a car to a consumer," Shahan said.

We wanted to know how many recalled used cars are up for sale. So, we went shopping. At dealers around the Bay Area, the NBC Responds team searched the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on 1,008 used cars listed for sale. We found lots of "known" problems:

  • Doors that can suddenly fling open
  • Steering wheels that might separate
  • Engines that sometimes shut off while driving

... and other dangerous defects.

In total, NBC Bay Area found more than 115 unfixed safety recalls on all types of vehicles. We found one truck that was for sale with three open safety recalls.

"You don't know if that defect is going to happen that day, or maybe sometime down the road," Shahan said.

Shahan says manufacturers will make recall repairs for free, so it would be easy for used car lots to get recalled vehicles fixed.

Dealers told us it's not that simple. Some recalls, like those exploding Takata airbags, drag on for years -- because of parts shortages.

The National Independent Auto Dealers Association says sidelining all recalled cars could disrupt the used car market and cut trade-in values as much as $5,700. The organization declined to talk to us on camera, but it told us it opposes new restrictions.

Shahan recommends you search the VIN yourself before buying any car. If you find a recall, don't haggle for a lower price.

"It's what I call the 'death trap discount,'" Shahan said.

Santos agrees. "Before you buy any used car, check to see if it has any active recalls," he said.

Here's how to search a VIN: first, find the 17-digit VIN on the vehicle. It should be on the driver's side, at the bottom of the windshield, or on a label inside the driver's side door. Then, look it up using your phone at SaferCar.gov.  It's free, and should take less than a minute.

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