The used car you’re about to buy might not be safe to drive. Federal law does not generally require car ­dealers or private sellers to have safety recall repairs performed on used cars before selling. The Used Car Safety Recall Repair Act, introduced to the Senate this past summer, could change that—but as of late 2019, there is no federal requirement and buyers must beware. At least 48 states do have laws against such practices, but those laws tend to be poorly enforced. Note: Federal laws do require auto dealers to have recall repairs performed on new cars and on former rental cars before selling them.

Surprising fact: More than one out of every five cars on US roads has not had necessary recall repairs performed—­including repairs for potentially lethal ­issues such as exploding airbags and flawed brake-assist systems. This means that a significant percentage of the used cars on the market today are likely at risk for these dangerous problems. 

Think a used car couldn’t possibly require recall work because a big chain like CarMax lists it as “certified” or says it passed a rigorous inspection? Think again—sellers often ignore open recalls when they apply these designations. What’s especially galling is that these sellers could have had recall repairs done for free—the cost of these repairs is shouldered by automakers. But sellers aren’t doing it simply because arranging for these repairs can be inconvenient for them. Even manufacturer-backed certified pre-owned programs do not always guarantee that recall work has been performed, but this can vary by ­manufacturer.

Self-defense: Before buying a used car, enter its ­vehicle identification number (VIN) into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s recall website to check for open recalls on the car. If the recall repair has been performed on the vehicle, you won’t find an open recall listed for it on the site and you’ll know that you are in the clear.

What to do: If the car has a recall pending, don’t buy it. While it’s true you could buy the car then take it to a dealership yourself to have the recall repairs done at no cost, that might leave you driving an unsafe vehicle for months until the dealership has the time and the parts to tackle the job. What’s more, the fact that needed recall repairs have not been done strongly suggests that the car’s previous owner paid insufficient attention to maintenance…and the fact that the seller failed to mention the recall to you suggests that he/she is being less than honest. That’s not a car you want to buy or a seller you want to buy from.