What Is a Vehicle Recall and Do I Have to Pay For It?

If your car is recalled, here's what could have happened and who you can expect to remedy the problem.

Mechanic filling out paperwork for vehicleAdobe Stock


Finding out your vehicle is recalled due to a faulty airbag or wiring issue may seem like a serious inconvenience. However, many recalls are for fixes that can improve vehicle safety and help prevent future maintenance costs. Knowing what to expect from a recall may ease your concerns should you receive a notice about your car.

Why Do Vehicles Get Recalled?

When your vehicle does not meet Federal Motor Equipment Safety Standards due to a safety-related defect, manufacturers must alert you of this issue. Vehicle recalls are designed to address these safety issues before they cause you any car damage or bodily harm.

Manufacturers are typically the ones who initiate a recall, to stay ahead of any potential fines and driver-safety issues. However, whether or not a defect actually qualifies for a recall depends on the vehicle safety laws governed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is part of the Department of Transportation. Even if a manufacturer does not initiate a recall itself, the NHTSA can conduct an investigation and issue vehicle recalls based on publicly submitted cases of potential safety concerns.

Vehicle recalls can also be issued for failing to meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emission standards. According to the Clean Air Act, the EPA can require manufacturers to issue recalls if a large number of vehicles, engines, or pieces of equipment do not meet emission standards under actual use conditions.

How Do Manufacturers Handle Recalls?

After a safety recall has been issued by a manufacturer, the next step is often sending a recall letter to the owners of the vehicles. Generally speaking, these recall notices detail what vehicle owners should and should not do next, including what the recall covers, any potential warning signs, and what risks this defect poses.

Under vehicle recall laws, manufacturers have three options to remedy your recall, depending on the severity of the issue. Vehicles can be:

  • Repaired at a dealership
  • Replaced by the manufacturer
  • Refunded for the full purchase price (minus a reasonable amount for depreciation)

If a manufacturer believes a vehicle recall is incorrect, the company can challenge the NHTSA order in a federal district court. In this case, manufacturers are still required to let you know a recall was made, but they can also inform you that they're challenging the order.

Do You Have to Pay for Recall Repairs?

Dealers enter contracts with manufacturers that require them to make recall repairs for free, as the manufacturer will provide them with the necessary instructions and parts. If a dealer refuses to make a recall repair for free, you can contact the manufacturer to inform them of the issue, as denying a legitimate recall repair is a violation of the dealership's contract with the manufacturer.

One exception to this rule is if your vehicle is over 10 years old when the recall is issued. Your vehicle's age will be determined by the date it was first sold. That means if you buy a used vehicle, your car's age will have started when it was first purchased by the original owner.

If a recall is issued after you've already made the required repair at your own expense, you could be entitled to a reimbursement. However, you will need to act quickly. The deadline for reinstatement is typically 10 days after manufacturers have mailed out the last of their recall notice letters.

It's also worth noting that manufacturers only have to reimburse defect repairs that were made either after the NHTSA started its engineering analysis or one year before manufacturers alerted owners of the defect, whichever comes first.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
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Elliot Rieth
Elliot Rieth is a writer who was born and raised in Michigan, the center of the American automotive industry. With a background in the industry that spans from sales to digital marketing, Elliot has years of experience working directly with dealers and OEMs to create digital content and educate potential customers. When Elliot isn’t writing about horsepower or EVs, he can be found with his two greyhounds enjoying a new book or record.