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

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

  1. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    September 16, 2014 #

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

  2. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    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. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    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. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    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

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      November 30, 2014 #

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

  5. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    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!!!

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      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. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    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

  7. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    March 23, 2015 #

    My car is recall to I have to drop it off at the dealer so my question is . Are they gonna give me rental to use while there fixing my car ?

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      April 8, 2015 #

      Hello Dredre,

      This would be up to the dealership. Thanks for reading!

  8. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    Rhonda Stephens
    May 26, 2015 #

    For 2 years, I have received recall notices for a car that has been totalled. Is there any way to have these notices stopped? I have called the recall center every time; but the notices continue arriving on a regular basis.

  9. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    Dan da man
    June 2, 2015 #

    Any advice on what to do if months go by with no repair available for a recall? I have a Chrysler for which a recall for sudden alternator failure was issued in October 2014. I have taken the car to my dealer three times since then, each time was told no parts were available to fix the recall. Now its June – still no parts available, and a second recall has been issued. The second one is for another sudden loss of electrical power issue, something called the TIPM. My dealer says not only are no parts available for the second recall, but the automaker hasn't even issued dealers a notice about when a fix will be available for it. Pretty frustrating.

  10. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    linda earle
    June 24, 2015 #

    My 2015 Toyota Highlander has been in the Toyota service department since early May, 26, 2015 because it was "one in five" Toyotas that failed the recall for the power steering defect. They have provided a rental Camry; however, it is summer and I have 5 grandkids who want to travel [not all at once, but more than the Camry can handle comfortably.]. There are numerous similar inconveniences. The biggest irritant is that they give me no information concerning when they expect to have the necessary parts so I can make plans before school starts again. As 4/5s of the cars work fine I have to assume it is not a solution issue problem. I further imagine the needed parts are being placed in new cars rather than being sent to the dealers for repairs. I've tried googling but can find no information. This is my 4th Toyota and I've been very happy with all. The service department employees are very nice but I want answers or solutions. Any suggestions for constructive action on my part.

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      July 10, 2015 #

      Hello Linda,

      Our best suggestion would be to log a complaint with the vehicle manufacturer.

      Thanks for reading.

  11. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    July 13, 2015 #

    I have a Ford Edge that has been recalled- leaking gas tank, Its been 7.5 months sitting at the dealership- they are paying for my rental, but am I expected to pay for repairs to the rental I didn't choose to have??

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      July 16, 2015 #

      Hello Char,

      Insurance typically will not cover wear and tear. We suggest speaking to the vehicle’s manufacture or the local dealership for more information on this.

      Thanks for reading.

  12. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    Barb Grewell
    July 15, 2015 #

    Thanks for the information

  13. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    Amorie Taljaard
    August 3, 2015 #

    I have sold my car a couple of months ago, now they phone me to tell me that there is a recall on my car (which I do not own anymore). Is this my problem??

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      August 12, 2015 #

      Hello Amorie,

      Only if you still owned the vehicle. It sounds like they just haven’t updated their records.

      Thanks for reading.

  14. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    August 18, 2015 #

    I am in the process of buying a new car (Ford) and I just received a safety recall notice regarding the defective airbags. Unfortunately, they're telling me they don't have the parts to fix it right away. I contacted the dealer where I bought the car and they said "It's going to be a while". I've put a deposit on the new car, it's been ordered, and it should be arriving by the end of this month. They made an offer on a trade-in which I accepted. Will I still be able to trade that in?

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      August 19, 2015 #

      Hello Ellen,

      Thank you for reaching out to us. We would suggest speaking to management at the dealership for more details. Thanks for reading.

  15. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    August 18, 2015 #

    Oops – I forgot to mention that my current car is a Toyota and I'm purchasing a Ford. That makes the situation a little more complicated than if I were trading it in for another Toyota. Thank you.

  16. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    August 25, 2015 #

    What if I had paid to repair my car and then discover a year or two later that the car was recalled for that problem? Is there any way to get my money reimbursed?

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      September 1, 2015 #

      Hello Kara,

      We would suggest speaking to your dealership directly.

      Thanks for reading.

  17. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    August 26, 2015 #

    If the car was taken on lease does that mean that the dealer bears car repairs if they are unsafe to drive?

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      September 1, 2015 #

      Hello Sasa,

      This would be best answered by the dealership you’re leasing the vehicle from as well as referring to your lease agreement.

      Thanks for reading.

  18. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    October 18, 2015 #

    I am considering to buy a car (Mitsi) that has been in collision and since then been totaled (an 10+ years old car and insurance company did want to fixed it) and rebuilt. The vehicle has already passed local safety and mechanical inspection that is required for registration. While investigating the story around that make/model, I figured out that a manufacturer has recently (same time as collision happened) reported a recall for that car (airbags). Interestingly, the car that I am interested in still has original airbags, So I wonder if a manufacturer/dealer is still responsible for fixture? Thank you.

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      October 26, 2015 #

      Hello Sandro,

      You will need to contact the dealership for recall information.

      Thanks for reading.

  19. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    November 3, 2015 #

    I have a recall on my Ford. I took the car to Premier Ford in Brooklyn NY and they do not want to fix it. I called Ford Customer Service and they say any dealer should fix it. Why would they not want to fix it? They say I need to take it to the seller. I purchased from a used car salesman who doesn't have a service station. What to do?

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      November 4, 2015 #

      Hello Tee-Tee,

      We suggest talking to the Customer Service department at Ford about your concerns. They may have additional options. You may also consider speaking to the local BBB and filing a complaint against the dealership.

      Thanks for reading.

  20. Avatar for Jessica Guerin
    November 21, 2015 #

    I recently bought a 2004 Pontiac with a recall on it. The recall was issued in 2014. Does the dealership still have to fix it?

    • Avatar for Jessica Guerin
      Rachael Heller
      November 23, 2015 #

      Hello James,

      We'd recommend that you ask the dealership this question.

      Thanks for reading.

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