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Vehicle recalls are for the safety of all—drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. Millions of vehicles are recalled every year; for something as small as the brightness of headlights or as significant as the Takata airbag recall—a challenge that still hasn’t been fully resolved. Some states have come under fire for auto safety laws that have a bit too much wiggle room for sales of cars with open recalls.

Learn how cars can be listed for sale that are actively being recalled, which states to watch for, and what consumers should look for when buying a used car.

Cars and SUVs displayed in the showroom window of a car dealership
Cars featured through the window a dealership’s showroom | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Why are dealers selling cars with open recalls?

WSMV & News4 Investigates took a hard look at local car dealers in Tennessee who were selling vehicles that were actively being recalled. This was after hearing reports from local drivers who had paid for cars that were either recalled soon after purchase or had an open recall at the time of sale.

In Tennessee, dealers only need to notify customers of the safety recall. The measure requires that buyers need to sign an acknowledgment form and confirm that they’re aware. But, with so many documents to complete in the car-buying process, it would be relatively easy for a dealership to slip that information in with other forms.

News4 doesn’t specify whether the cars in question were purchased new or pre-owned. However, since it is federally illegal to sell new vehicles with open recalls, we can assume that the drivers interviewed were discussing pre-owned vehicles. 

These cases took place in Tennessee, but dealers are selling cars with open recalls all over the country.

Dealers selling recalled cars isn’t anything new

Automotive News reported on a story back in 2016 about a prominent auto dealership group who had pledged not to sell vehicles with open recalls. However, their commitment didn’t last all that long. At the time, millions of vehicles were all being recalled with the same problem, which meant that every dealership was in competition with others to get the necessary parts to make the repairs. 

The dealer group had hedged a bet that other members of the auto industry would follow suit, but it didn’t happen. Car dealers were faced with the difficult decision of selling these recalled cars or holding onto dozens—or potentially hundreds—of vehicles that wouldn’t be able to repaired for months.

Particularly now, when there’s a major car parts shortage, dealers are likely less motivated than ever to hold onto vehicles that may sit for weeks or months before necessary parts are available. 

Selling a car with an open recall can be done ethically, as long as the consumer is fully aware of the recall and the recall isn’t for anything potentially life-threatening. How can buyers keep themselves safe? 

Line of cars at a dealership. These cars may have open recalls and still be sold
Line of cars at a dealership | Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

How to check a car’s VIN for open recalls

There’s no way to look at a used car and know whether it has a part, accessory, or software that needs to be repaired or updated. Fortunately, it’s really easy to check a car’s specs online and see if it has any open recalls associated with it. You can find the VIN on the driver’s side dashboard or on a sticker in the driver’s side door. If the VIN can’t be found in these locations, the dealer should be able to provide that number for you.

Once you have the VIN, use the NHTSA checker to look for open recalls. Note that this online checker will only show recalls from the past 15 years that have affected the vehicle and haven’t been repaired, and won’t show previous recalls that have been repaired.

Safety advocates in some states are pushing for legislation that will crack down on laws allowing the sale of used cars with open recalls. Certain automakers have their own rules for whether or not their dealers can sell a recalled vehicle, and state and local laws may also come into play.