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.

A mechanic halfway under a car, smiling.

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

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

  1. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    car recall
    January 15, 2016 #

    good post thanks

  2. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    Dedee Niles
    March 3, 2016 #

    I recently got a recall on a 2014 chevy spark. So chevrolet replaced the 2014 Spark with a 2016 spark . but i was asked to put down 1000 dollars and pay more each month is this logical?

  3. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    Roy Mackey
    April 22, 2016 #

    I bought a used car with a defect it was repaired temporary, but It was denied to be fixed a second time under the recall. the dealer wanted to charge to repair the car additional with the payment. The defect was in the gas tank leaking. I let the car be repossessed because it was continue maintenance at 70000 mile. As is car can a dealer suit for repossess when repossesss is the collateral?

  4. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    Libro azul
    June 2, 2016 #

    Good information to consider in the future!!


  1. MY CAR HAS A RECALL NOW WHAT? - March 4, 2016

    […] An auto recall occurs when a manufacturer determines that a car model 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. […]

  2. Are You Driving a Recalled Vehicle? Here’s What You Should Know | Colley & Colley, LLP - March 30, 2016

    […] you did not receive a recall letter for a recalled vehicle, you are still entitled to free service to repair the recalled problem. Contact the manufacturer directly for more information on how to […]

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