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Used cars often sold with defects, despite recalls

It’s a case of buyer beware, with potentially dangerous consequences.

More than 46 million cars and trucks on the road in the U.S. — about one-fifth the total — were recalled because of safety defects but never repaired, according to a study by Carfax, a company that sells vehicle history reports. Some of those defects have the potential to cause a crash, injury, even death.

Last year, around 5 million of those cars were sold to new owners.

That’s because there is no legal requirement for dealers or individual sellers to get the repairs done before a used car is sold. They are not even obligated to tell buyers if a car is subject to a recall.

“It’s a very major public safety problem,” says Chris Basso, a used-car specialist for Carfax, which analyzed state registration data to determine that one-fifth of the 238 million cars on the nation’s roads has an unrepaired problem that was the subject of a recall. “When those recalled cars go unfixed, they compound over the years, and it increases the chance of those parts failing.”

Federal regulators are pushing for legislation that requires dealers to fix recalled used cars. Independent dealers oppose such a measure but say they might go along with a requirement to disclose recalls to buyers because a new government database makes it easier to tell if a car on their lot has been recalled.

No one is sure how many crashes or injuries happen because of unheeded recalls. But buying an unrepaired car cost Carlos Solis his life. The 35-year-old father of two died Jan. 18 when shrapnel from the driver’s air bag in his 2002 Honda Accord tore into his neck after a minor accident near Houston.

Solis’ Accord had been recalled in 2011 to fix a faulty air bag inflator made by Takata Corp. that can explode with too much force. But neither the two previous owners, nor the independent dealer in Houston who sold Solis the car last April, had the repair done.

John Castro, 36, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, traded a pickup truck for a 2011 Toyota Prius in March of last year at Koons Ford in Baltimore.

Shortly after he took the car home, he read a dealer-provided Carfax report and found that his car had been recalled in February 2014 to fix a hybrid component that could malfunction and cause stalling. Koons had not done the repair, and no sales person mentioned the recall, Castro says.

“You think when you buy something, it’s been checked and cleared,” he says.

Dennis Koulatsos, Koons Ford general manager, says Castro’s car should have been fixed because there was a safety issue. All dealers, he says, have incentives to fix recalled cars. They could lose customers to dealers who do, or they could be sued if something goes wrong.