What Is a Car Recall and How Do You Deal with It?

From the basics (what is a safety recall) to the more complex (what to do if the dealer tries to charge you for a recall repair), we clue you in on the recall process.

In February we reported twice on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) recent safety recalls and thought, “Hmm, a lot of people may have questions about the auto recall process.” Questions like, “What is a recall?” and “What do I do if my car’s recalled?” Well friends, we’re here to answer those questions because, well, that’s what we do.

What is a car recall?

An auto recall occurs when a manufacturer (or the NHTSA) determines that a car model (or several models) has a safety-related defect or does not comply with a federal safety standard. When this happens, the automaker will alert owners to the problem and usually offer a free repair. Keep in mind that a recall doesn’t mean that the entire vehicle will be replaced.

If my car’s recalled, how will I be notified?

Car companies are required to send letters to customers affected by a recall. You can also stay up-to-date on recalls by visiting the NHTSA’s website.

What does a recall letter include?

A recall letter should contain the following information:

  • A description of the defect
  • The risk or hazard posed by the problem (including the kinds of injuries it can cause)
  • Potential warning signs
  • How the manufacturer plans to fix the problem (including when the repair will be available and how long it’ll take)
  • Instructions regarding what you should do next

What should I do if I receive a recall letter?

The recall letter should have instructions as to your next steps. Generally, you’ll be instructed to call your local dealer to set up a repair appointment.

Important (not so) fun fact: if you have a tire recall, you must have the repair work completed within 60 days of receiving notification.

What if I don’t receive a recall letter?

When a recall is issued, manufacturers will do their best to contact all affected owners. If you don’t receive a car recall notice, however, you can search through current safety recalls on the NHTSA’s site. And whether you received a letter or not, the manufacturer is still obligated to repair the defect (for free).

The NHTSA recalls site is usually updated before the letters go out, so it’s a great resource to have on your radar and provides pertinent info about recalls on cars.

Does a safety recall mean I’m in immediate danger?

No. If your car is on a recall list, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re in danger. However, if you learn that your car has been recalled, it’s best not to take the risk. Have your car repaired as soon as possible, especially if the defect could pose a major hazard.

Do I have to pay to have my car fixed?

No! If your car is on the NHTSA’s car recall list, all recall-related fixes should be done free of charge. You’ll need to take your car to an authorized dealer since they contract directly with the manufacturer. And to avoid complications, it’s best to bring your recall letter with you (if you have one).

If your dealer tries to charge you for the recall fixes, ask to speak to a manager and explain the situation. If you still run into issues, your next step is to contact the manufacturer directly (their number should be provided in the recall letter). If all else fails, call the NHTSA (1-888-327-4236) and report the issue immediately. They’re a government agency, so they’ve got pull.

Will the problem be fixed?

Good question. The NHTSA monitors each safety recall to ensure the manufacturers provide owners with safe, free, and effective remedies. If you’re concerned that the error wasn’t resolved or believe a further problem exists, contact the NHTSA.

Where can I get more info on safety recalls?

The NHTSA has an online brochure with everything you’d want to know (and probably a few things you don’t) about car recalls. Check it out.

Related links

Even more info on safety recalls
The most up-to-date list of safety recalls from the NHTSA

8 Responses to “What Is a Car Recall and How Do You Deal with It?”

  1. collisioncenteroftemecula35
    September 16, 2014 #

    Nice blog!! Great information that you have shared with us..

  2. Mitchel
    September 29, 2014 #

    What about needing to get around while your car is being repaired? Since there is a recall do you get a rental car that the dealership pays for? What if you're disabled and need your car at all times or some form of transportation, what then? It's their fault, not ours, we shouldn't have to pay for a rental car while they fix their mistakes.

  3. SKY2000
    September 29, 2014 #

    Do you have to bring in the letter to the dealer? I just found the recall and don't have a letter.

  4. michelle
    November 11, 2014 #

    What if my car did what the recalls warning:is about an I don't have a litter what do u do I have proof of a catch on fire

    • Terri
      November 30, 2014 #

      My car did have a fire. Now its totaled. am I to blame.

  5. Michelle Haynes
    November 25, 2014 #

    I have had a recall letter from Jeep who say that they will fix the problem free of charge with the exception of any additonal work required as a result of pre-existing collision damage or corrosion in the area that needs repairing. My care is 11 years old. If they are working on a car so old and there are other problems in the area that they are fixing do they have to pay for this as well? It has taken them 12 years to recall the vehicles back. It is for vehicles 2002-2007! It is my view that the recall should have been dealt with a long time ago!!!

    • Jennifer Wood
      November 25, 2014 #

      Hi Michelle,
      I'd recommending contacting the company in order to have them assess the damage and determine what is, and what's not, covered.

      Good luck!

  6. Brad
    December 25, 2014 #

    Thanks very good info my 2012 charger had the p60 recall for alternator problem on Christmas Day my car went haywire shut down on the highway steering got stiffed all the electrics went out brakes got stiffed it was bad very upset with my dodge my family's life was really in danger and I felt hopeless

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