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Buyers Beware: Reports of Used Vehicles Requiring Repairs

Three states report one in four CarMax used vehicles need recall repairs post-purchase


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When you get a “certified” used car, you expect it to be safe, right? Then you’d likely be surprised to know that “certified” doesn’t mean all of the serious safety defects subject to manufacturer recalls have been repaired and that could have life-threatening consequences.

The nation’s largest retailer of used cars, CarMax, has more than doubled the percentage of dangerous, defective, unrepaired recalled used cars for sale, according to Used Car Roulette, a new report released last week by the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety Foundation, MASSPIRG Education Fund and the Center for Auto Safety.

This conclusion is based on recent surveys conducted by the Frontier Group of nearly 1,700 vehicles that CarMax advertised for sale in California, Massachusetts and Connecticut, compared with survey data from 2015 about CarMax’s sales of unrepaired recalled cars at many of the same dealerships. The recent reports found more than one in four cars for sale on the surveyed lots have unrepaired safety recalls and there is no evidence to suggest this problem is isolated to these three states.

“Recalls happen when there is an unreasonable safety risk or the car fails to meet a safety standard,” says Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an independent, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. “Evidence of these defects is readily available to CarMax and calling an unrepaired recalled car ‘safe’ is deceptive on its face.”

According to its website, CarMax has five dealerships in Colorado: in Colorado Springs, Federal Heights, Littleton, Loveland and Parker.

None of those locations was part of the survey.

Here are the key findings of the report: 

  • At each of the eight CarMax locations surveyed in California, Connecticut and Massachusetts, at least 20 percent of vehicles CarMax advertised for sale had at least one unrepaired defect subject to a safety recall.  
  • In North Attleboro, Mass., Westborough Mass., and East Haven, Conn., more than 30 percent of vehicles CarMax offered for sale had at least one unrepaired safety recall defect.
  • On average, the percentage of vehicles with unrepaired safety recalls CarMax offered for sale has more than doubled, jumping from 12 percent to 27 percent, compared to survey results from 2015, which covered five of the eight locations newly surveyed.
  •  Forty-three vehicles had unrepaired safety recalls for which no repairs are available, so consumers who purchase them are stuck driving unsafe cars for an indefinite period before they can get the cars repaired.
  • The survey also found 86 vehicles had more than one unrepaired safety recall; 19 vehicles had three or more unrepaired safety recalls. One GMC Sierra Light Duty Pickup Truck for sale in Westborough had six unrepaired safety recalls.

All car dealers are prohibited by federal law from selling new cars with unrepaired safety recalls. Rental car companies (including auto dealers) with fleets of 35 or more rental/loaner cars are also prohibited by federal law from renting, loaning or selling used cars unless the safety recall repairs have been performed.

However, dealers are not prohibited by federal law from selling dangerous used vehicles that haven’t had safety recall defects repaired. Now, it’s worth noting that indeed, all 50 states, including Colorado, have various laws that may hold dealers liable if they fail to have safety recall repairs completed before selling vehicles at retail. Most states have general laws like the implied warranty of merchantability, which says there is an implied warranty that the product must operate as intended.  You would think a car under a federally-mandated safety recall would not meet the merchantability standard. But that has yet to be tested in the courts.  

CarMax claims instead of ensuring that “CarMax Quality Certified” cars are actually safe by repairing safety recalls before selling them, it is sufficient to do nothing and provide consumers who purchase “certified” cars with a disclosure about open safety recalls. But sometimes, CarMax doesn’t present the disclosure to car buyers until AFTER they have already signed a purchase contract.

That is precisely what happened to safety advocate Sean Kane who purchased a Jeep from CarMax in North Attleboro, Mass. in 2015. He shopped for the car with his 15-year-old son and told sales personnel his priority was the safety of the vehicle.       

The disclosure itself was confusing, indicating that, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there was an “open recall(s);” but based on the AutoCheck, the vehicle history report run by CarMax, there was no safety recall. In fact, the Jeep that CarMax sold Kane had three unrepaired safety recalls – it was prone to catching on fire, had faulty brakes, and had a history of stalling in traffic.

The New York Times reported that other dealers, including AutoNation and Ford, have publicly stated they sell cars with unrepaired safety recall defects.

These safety recalls can impact any brand or model of car. When cars with safety recalls are not repaired, the results can be tragic. The report describes one instance where people were killed within hours after a dealer handing them keys. The report highlights another instance where an independent dealer sold a Chrysler minivan without getting the safety recall repairs completed and the driver’s side door caught on fire.

Giving cover to some dealers, the Federal Trade Commission has signed consent orders which allow some dealers, including CarMax to advertise  that unsafe vehicles with unrepaired recalls are “safe,” “repaired for safety,” and passed a “rigorous inspection” and are offered for sale as “certified” cars, without first repairing safety recalls, so long as they disclose that the cars they offer for sale “may” have an “open recall.”  

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, USPIRG and the Center for Auto Safety are suing the FTC to have the consent orders overturned. The case is pending before the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. It is important to remember, however, the FTC only has authority over advertising – not on the underlying issue of whether they are allowed to sell unrepaired, recalled cars.

While CarMax and other used car dealers are not authorized to perform safety recall repairs themselves, they can get them repaired for free by authorized new car dealerships that have specially-trained mechanics. No other recalled consumer products may be sold after recall unless they are repaired and safe to use – not furniture, car seats, medicine or food.

Unsafe recalled cars should not be sold until they are repaired – period. It is just common sense and, arguably, the law.  


Danny Katz is the director of CoPIRG. U.S. PIRG is the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, including CoPIRG and MASSPIRG.  PIRGs are non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organizations that stand up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.

On the web at www.copirg.org and www.uspirg.org.

Rosemary Shahan is the president of the Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) Foundation. Since its founding in 1979, the CARS Foundation has worked to prevent motor vehicle-related fatalities, injuries, and economic losses through education, outreach, aid to victims, and related activities. For more about the CARS Foundation, please visit www.carsfoundation.org.

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