For many people, buying used cars just makes sense. Used cars don’t depreciate at the same rate that new cars do. They usually cost less than new cars do. Buying used also allows consumers to possibly get into a better model of car than they could afford if they bought new. However, used cars have one more advantage over new cars that’s often overlooked: a searchable recall history.

If you buy a used car that’s maybe 5 or 6 years old, then it’s likely that whatever design imperfections the car possesses have probably come to light. In other words, if the car model you’d like to buy has gone through a recall, that’s now a matter of public record.

The car you want to buy may have also gone through an accident or been given a branded label. All these issues — the recalls, the accidents and the branded title label — are things you can research before you buy. You get no such advantage from a brand-new car. Here’s what you need to know to take advantage of this important used car benefit.


Some of the steps for checking the history of a car will overlap. This includes checking the car’s VIN number.

The VIN number is usually on the dash or sometimes on the door jamb. You’ll know you’ve found it when you come across a 17-digit number. In older cars, it’s often embossed on a metal plate.

Once you have the VIN number, you then need to go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) website. Go to the “Recalls” page. There is a search bar at the top of the page. Type your VIN number in the search field to see if the car’s VIN comes up. If there has been a recall on that model, it will appear on the website.

Depending on what you’re looking for, knowing that the car has had a recall could cement your decision to buy or pass on the car. Some people prefer cars that have never been recalled while some prefer one that has already been through the recall process and had any issues fixed.

Before moving on, it is also important to note one more issue. Some car models have had more recalls than others. According to CBS News, some common recall issues include faulty cruise control, air bags, and steering columns.

The car models with the least number of recalls include Honda’s CR-V as well as its Civic and Accord models. The Toyota Camry and Corolla and Subaru Crosstrek also fall into this category. When considering the kinds of safety issues that some recalls are trying to correct, like problematic air bags, the advantages of being able to research a car’s recall history come more sharply into focus.

Used cars have a proven history of recall survival
Check the Repair Record of the Model

After checking the recall record of the car, a good next step is to research the model’s repair record. It’s helpful to check auto forums on the internet. It’s additionally helpful to research the model on a site like Consumer Reports or J.D. Power and Associates.

You’ll have to do a bit of digging, meaning you may not get the lowdown on the types of repairs the car model usually requires. However, you’ll get an idea of how reliable a particular model is overall. You can search for this information on sites like U.S. News & World Report, J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports.

These sites cover which automobile models have been the most reliable historically, and while they do cover late-model cars, keep in mind that these reports may not have a recall list on some newer models due to the age of the cars in question.

Past Accidents

Once you’ve researched a model’s recall and reliability history, it is then wise to check to see if the specific car you’re thinking about buying has any kind of accident or repair history. The VIN will be helpful again in this case. After that, it’s best to check sites like AutoCheck or Carfax to learn more about that specific car’s history.

There is a charge to access these sites. If you’re buying a car from a dealership, that fee may be waived. Keep in mind that these sites only have a history of the previous owners’ recorded repairs. In other words, if an accident wasn’t reported, then it won’t be on these reports.

The cost to use these services runs between $25 and $100, depending on the number of reports that you order. The information that these sites can provide you is more detailed than the information you’ll get from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Used cars have a proven history of recall survival
Branded Titles

Branded titles are something else to consider. According to Carfax, a car earns a branded title if it has been involved in a serious accident or has suffered from significant damage, like a flood. If these events compromise the car at all, then the car is given a branded title by a state agency. Only a state agency can give a car such a distinction.

Some different types of title brands exist, including the lemon, the odometer rollback, the water damage, the salvage and the hail damage branded titles. Of all of these labels, the lemon title brand covers problems that new cars are known to have.

That said, it is possible for even a new car to get a branded title even if it’s not a lemon, if floodwaters or hail has damaged it. Almost 60% of the weather-related insurance claims on automobiles come from hail damage. It’s good to check for these issues as well.

Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles

There is one more additional advantage for used car buyers when it comes to reliability: certified pre-owned cars. Certified pre-owned cars, or CPO cars, are used cars, but they are put through a rigorous inspection process before being put on the market. For example, Ford’s inspection process requires its CPO cars to meet a 172-point inspection.

These cars also have a limit on the number of miles the car can have on it and limit how old the car can be. The cars go through a rigorous vetting process before being sold as a CPO. In light of this, it is unlikely that a car that has been recalled or one with a branded title would ever make it as a CPO.

CPOs come with a warranty as well. Basically, buying this type of used car is as close as you will come to buying a new car without actually buying a new car. A CPO automobile has all of the advantages of a used car, particularly where price is concerned. It also has made it past the recall and repair stages: Only the best cars are considered for these programs. For used car buyers who want even more peace of mind, this is a good option.

Final Thoughts

When a car model gets recalled, it often points toward a serious issue, like a problem with the air bags. Unfortunately, issues that would make a vehicle get recalled aren’t always apparent when the car is brand-new. It is only after the model has been on the road for a while that these issues appear.

While many people like to buy new cars because they believe them to be more reliable, that isn’t always the case as car recalls demonstrate. It’s for this reason that many smart car buyers gravitate toward used cars. By the time these consumers get the car, that model may already be 4 or 5 years old. This is enough time for the car to have a recall history that the consumer can look into before buying.

This, along with the advantage of a lower price, is what draws many used car buyers to the marketplace. However, buying a car past the age of recall isn’t the only advantage that used car buyers have nowadays.

By the time a car hits the market, it has a history, which can often be traced. Buyers who do their homework can find out if a car has encountered a serious accident, if it has fallen victim to floods or hailstorms and even if that model in general has proven reliable.

If you’ve been on the fence about buying a used car because you have had some concerns about a car’s reliability, you now know that buying used can actually be an advantage. It’s possible to research a car’s history before you buy it. It’s also possible to provide yourself with even more peace of mind if you purchase a certified pre-owned vehicle. In many respects, buying a reliable used car can be a better safety bet than buying a brand-new car off the lot.