You've identified a used car you want to buy. You're doing your due diligence and researching its vehicle identification number (VIN). At first, everything looks great: It was never used as a rental car, it only had one previous owner, and it's never needed major repairs. Then you see something that gives you a sinking feeling. There's an open recall on your otherwise perfect used car.
You don't need to pay for a full VIN report to find out if a car has any open recalls on it. Type the name of the car make and model plus the words "recall lookup" into a search engine to find out if there are any open recalls for a particular used vehicle. The car manufacturer's website should have the most up-to-date information and will allow you to search by VIN.
Why Recalls Happen
Cars get recalled when a car manufacturer finds that a vehicle poses an unreasonable risk to safety. When that happens, the manufacturer must repair that vehicle at their cost.
Good and Bad News
The good news is that any recall-related repairs will be done free of charge. You have to take the car to a dealer that specializes in your particular car's make. The bad news is that it's possible the parts needed to make the repairs won't be available for a while. For example, there's been a recent massive recall on several makes of cars due to defective airbags. It's taking weeks to months for replacement airbags to arrive where they're needed.
Should I Buy a Car with an Open Recall?
An open recall doesn't automatically mean you should pass on this car, especially if the recall was issued less than six months ago. Ask the dealer to have the car repaired before you buy it. If they refuse, and you still want the car, you can try to negotiate the price to make up for the inconvenience involved in taking the car for repairs yourself. Be sure there's a dealer nearby who can handle the repairs before you go that route. Ask the seller to take about $100 to $200 off or whatever amount will make it worth your time.
If the recall on the used car is significantly older than six months, take that as a sign that the car wasn't well-maintained and think carefully before buying it. Otherwise, if the open recall is recent, the car can still be a good find, and you may even be able to lower the final purchase price of the used vehicle.