Millions of used cars have dangerous defects

2001 Buick Regal GS General Motors

(MoneyWatch) If you are shopping for a used car, beware of buying one with a problem serious enough to prompt a recall but where no repair has been made.

According to a study by CarFax, which provides reports on individual vehicles, at least 2.7 million vehicles for sale last year were subject to unresolved recalls. In an investigation of the topic, auto website Edmunds.com notes that there are no laws requiring the seller of a car to notify a potential buyer that it is subject to recall.

Thus it falls to the shopper to do careful research to avoid unresolved recalls (more on that below). Some recalls issued by manufacturers through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are for relatively minor problems, but some cover dangerous flaws.

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Edmunds cites the case of the General Motors (GM) V-6 engine installed in Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs for the model years 1997-2003. The NHTSA had reports of about 250 engine fires thought to have been caused by oil spilling or leaking onto heated exhaust manifolds. In a 2009 recall, GM sent out warning letters to all registered owners and has sent repeated letters trying to reach all owners. But the company told Edmunds that only a little over half the vehicles have been repaired. When vehicles are sold, often more than once, auto companies frequently have trouble tracking down new owners' addresses.
One car owner told Edmunds he had never heard about the recall until his 2001 Buick Regal GS caught fire while sitting in his office parking lot. According to reports filed with the NHTSA, another 250 fires have occurred with this engine since the recall was issued in 2009.

If you are shopping for a used car, take these steps to protect yourself:

  • Look at the CarFax report, sometimes provided by dealers selling used cars or available for $34.99 on one vehicle and $44.99 for multiple reports. The report will show for an individual car (by vehicle identification number) if there are recalls affecting it for most makes. But Audi, BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota, and Lexus models do not have the same information because their makers have not cooperated, but CarFax is working to add this information. .

  • Search databases such as Edmunds' Car Maintenance Guide to check for any recalls on a given make, model, and trim level. Click on the recall tab to see a full history since the car was manufactured. NHTSA's Safecar.gov website provides similar information. But neither will tell you if a repair has been made on a specific car.

  • Ask the seller for a receipt or other confirmation that the defect was fixed. "As long as you can confirm that the repair has been made, the threat should be relieved," says Edmunds senior editor John O'Dell, who worked on the recall project.

Even if you are not looking to buy a used car, checking the recalls on a car you already own is a good idea. If you missed one, it should not cost you anything to follow up on it since the manufacturers pay their franchised dealers for recall repairs.

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    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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