How to avoid buying a used car with an unfixed recall defect

With no recall until this year, used car buyers considering General Motors models with a faulty ignition switch had no way of knowing about the problem. But if recalls have been issued, you can now check individual vehicles of any brand to see if the defect has been fixed.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that on outstanding recalls, about 30 percent of owners do not take their car to a dealer for the recommended fix. And Carfax, which sells reports tracing the history of used cars, says its database with information from manufacturers shows that of used cars for sale online last year, about 3.5 million had defects subject to a recall but had not had the repair done.

Of course, not all recalls involve issues as life-threatening as the situation on the ignition switch on the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and the 2007 Pontoiac G5. General Motors is recalling these cars because a heavy key chain or having the switch jarred by rough roads could turn off the engine and disable the air bags. GM has linked the defect to 31 crashes and 12 deaths.

To look for open recalls on a car you are considering, go to this Carfax site for a free check. Click on the brand of car involved and then enter the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). If there is a recalled defect that has not been fixed, the site will give you a brief description.

What should you do if you find an open recall on a car you are considering?

  • Check the NHTSA web site for more information. You may need more detail to assess the seriousness of the problem. For instance, the Carfax site described one recall as involving a fix to the engine cover but the underlying problem involved cruise control and unintended acceleration.
  • Decide if you should avoid the car entirely. If the recall defect looks serious and you have other cars you are considering, you may want to just move on.
  • Ask the seller to fix the defect. If you really like the car in question, this is an option. "These recalls should all be taken seriously, but they don't have to be a deal breaker," says Carfax spokesman Christopher Basso. "The best option is to ask the seller to fix the recall before you buy the car. "

Even if you are not shopping for a used car, you can use the Carfax site to see if you have missed any recalls on the car you already own. And if you are having a problem with that car, but no recalls are shown, go to the NHTSA web site and check under the complaints section for your make, model and year. If other owners are having similar problems, file a complaint of your own in the hope that NHTSA will open an investigation if sufficient evidence accumulates about the problem.

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    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.