What To Do If You Get a Car Recall

So, you’ve received a car recall notice. Aren’t sure how to handle that? We’ll take a look at that process right here.

You recently purchased that new car. There are no scratches on it. The hubcaps still sparkle in the sunshine. That new car smell is even still around. Then, you receive a notice about a recall. What do you do next?

If it’s your first car, the process can seem intimidating. If you’ve had to deal with several recalls already, the process can be annoying.

A Few Basics

Complaint form
Complaint form

First, however, let’s start with some basics. What is a recall? When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) receives a consumer complaint about a possible safety issue, the agency goes through a process of analyzing the complaint and the population size of the affected vehicles. When it is determined that there is a safety hazard that is likely to occur, a recall is issued. The process doesn’t stop there. There is a formal investigation and then the situation is monitored.

Recalls can be issued on your vehicle, car seats, tires or equipment. A Nissan recall affecting nearly 127,000 Altimas and Titans was released earlier this year due to the potential for sidewall failure on certain Continental tires. It should be noted that many times it is the manufacturer who initiates the recall process, notifying the NHTSA that there is a potential issue.

2020 Nissan Altima with Continental Tires - carsforsale.com
2020 Nissan Altima with Continental Tires - carsforsale.com

How will you be notified? You should receive a notice in the mail from the manufacturer within 60 days of the recall decision. If you’ve changed addresses or there was a mail mishap, you may not have received the notice. You can always check the NHTSA website for any recalls currently issued on your vehicle. All you need is your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

Take Your Car to the Dealer

Tesla Model 3 infotainment screen - tesla.com
Tesla Model 3 infotainment screen - tesla.com

Don’t be surprised if you get that recall notice. The NHTSA issues recalls every month. For instance, a Tesla recall was recently issued due to touchscreen malfunctioning. A Subaru recall was just issued on nearly 900,000 vehicles. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you must immediately stop driving your car and start looking for the best trade-in deal you can find. There is quite a range in the severity of recalls that are issued. Some will be more urgent than others.

It could be an air conditioner that isn’t working properly. Or maybe it’s the radio that has issues. While those are a hassle to deal with, they don’t usually impact the safety of your vehicle.

The first step is to contact your local franchised dealer, even if you didn’t purchase your vehicle there. Let them know that you received a recall notice (they will probably know about it already) and then schedule an appointment to bring your vehicle in and get it fixed.

Dealership service center
Dealership service center

Also, be sure that recall notice that you received in the mail is handy. In addition to the recall details, it should also include a reminder that fixes are free of charge.

There are actually three options for vehicle manufacturers: repair, replace, or refund. The repair is done at no cost, the replacement is of an identical vehicle and the refund is the purchase price in full (allowing for depreciation). No, you probably won’t get a brand-new vehicle. In most cases, the repair is scheduled and then taken care of.

What if the Dealer Refuses to Fix It?

If a dealer refuses to fix the recalled part of your car for free, then contact the manufacturer and the NHTSA.

In most cases, there are contractual agreements between manufacturers and dealers which require dealers to honor the recall, regardless of where you purchased your vehicle. Also, dealers depend on loyalty. They usually won’t want to lose a potential future customer over a recall fix.

Can I Get Reimbursed?

Reimbursement check
Reimbursement check

If you end up paying for needed repairs before a recall is even issued, under certain conditions, you may be eligible for a reimbursement. Whether or not you receive a reimbursement is based on the date the NHTSA opens its engineering analysis or one year prior to the manufacturer’s notification of a defect.

Don’t leave that on your to do list though. The closing date of eligibility for a repair reimbursement is exactly 10 days after the manufacturer mails the last recall notice to the last owner of the vehicles impacted.


Also, important to note, you must have documentation of the work that was done if you hope to get reimbursed.

If you’ve suffered injuries due to a part that was recalled and want to take legal action, you’d need to consult a lawyer, your state attorney general or local district attorney’s office.

What if There Is No Fix?

Vehicle being serviced
Vehicle being serviced

Sometimes there is no immediate fix to whatever the issue is that initiated the recall. An open recall can be frustrating because the manufacturer isn’t ready to provide a remedy to the problem. In that case, you should look for any interim safety guidelines that were provided along with the notice and follow those until the time comes when you can bring your car in for the repair.

The recall notice that you get in the mail should let you know whether or not there is an immediate repair that can be done. If there isn’t, that same recall notice should let you know what a possible timeline is for those repairs to be available.

Other times, a manufacturer will challenge the recall issued by the NHTSA. If they do, it gets settled in court. While the case is in court, you aren’t entitled to a free repair. If you find yourself in that situation, you could fix the vehicle on your own and save your paperwork for a possible reimbursement.

Do Recalls Expire?

Designated deadline
Designated deadline

However, there is a limitation based on the age of the vehicle. To get the free repair, the vehicle can’t be more than 15 years old on the date that the defect is determined. The age of the vehicle is determined by the date of sale to the first person who purchased it.

Of course, that safety issue may still need to be fixed, even if it’s not for free. Then, unfortunately, you eat the cost of the repair.

With tires, there is a five-year purchase window for free repairs or replacements.

Used Car Recalls

Woman doing research
Woman doing research

If you’re purchasing a used car from someone, then it’s up to you to check for recalls before the sale is final. Unlike new car dealers, there isn’t a federal law regarding used car purchases.

Used car dealers or individuals selling cars aren’t required to check the recall status before they make a sale. If you find yourself considering a used car, ask them for the VIN and then do the check in the NHTSA database yoursel

Once you buy a used car free of recall notices, you’ll want to make sure you get any information in the future. Be sure to update your registration with a current mailing address. Automakers use that state registration data to send notifications by mail, so if they don’t have your address, you may not be notified of the recall. Of course, you can always sign up for email notices through the NHTSA website as well.

Our Takeaways

Mechanic working on a car
Mechanic working on a car

Don’t overreact. Just because your vehicle has a recall doesn’t mean you need to start shopping right away. Most recalls you’ll get can and will be fixed promptly at the manufacturers’ expense.

Be patient. If you get a recall notice that can be taken care of right away, great! However, you may not always be able to fix it right away. It may take some hoop jumping to get it resolved, but you can cross it off your list eventually.

Fix the issue. While some recalls may seem relatively minor, if the NHTSA has issued a recall, it’s best to get it taken care of. After all, it’s usually free.

Documentation is key. Keeping track of your paperwork virtually or with hard copies is never a bad idea, but it could come in particularly useful in a recall situation.

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Jesse Batson

Jesse Batson earned his journalism degree from South Dakota State University. No stranger to newsgathering and reporting, Jesse spent 13 years in TV news. 10 of those years were spent working in Charlotte, NC, home of NASCAR. A highlight of his time there was being able to take a lap around the Charlotte Motor Speedway. His interest in vehicles, starting with Matchbox cars, a Big Wheel, and the Transformers, evolved into taking photos of motocross events. Now, he puts his research skills to use on car culture, reviews, and comparisons.

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