Everybody makes mistakes, especially automakers who last year reported a record-breaking number of recalls. Fortunately, you don’t have to make the same mistake. Before you buy, a vehicle identification number (VIN) search will turn up any potential problems you can’t see under the hood.

Over 51 million vehicles were recalled last year, beating the previous year’s record, which included the initial Takata airbag recalls that spanned multiple car brands. The good news is that most issues are being addressed more quickly than in the past, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The type of recalls range widely, from electrical short circuits in vanity mirrors to serious steering failures. So, how do you know if the potential problem with a car is critical or not?

A recall can be conducted voluntarily by an automaker or ordered by NHTSA. Most recalls are issued by manufacturers these days rather than mandated by the government. In either case, the notice must be filed with NHTSA, which makes the record publicly available. The notice will include a description of the problem and the recommended remedy, whether it’s a part replacement, software update, or other corrective measure. Recall information online covers cars 15 years old or newer (in some cases the data goes back further).

If a car is unsafe to drive, the NHTSA notice will make that clear. However, all recalls are considered to be a safety matter. So even a report that looks inconsequential, such as a rare power seat malfunction or a windshield wiper issue, should be taken seriously and addressed as soon as possible. Recalls that are ignored not only put the driver at risk but also pose a risk to others on the road and can lead to costly, even tragic, mishaps in the future.

“We recommend that customers check for recalls frequently,” says Chad Lovell, managing director of emerging partnerships at Liberty Mutual Insurance. The insurer considers it to be so important that Liberty now offers to email recall updates to customers every month. (Most recall information online is updated every week.)

So VIN searches can be an excellent proactive safety step for existing car owners. It can take months for official mail notices from an automaker to reach customers informing them of a recall; and the letter may never reach you if you’ve moved since you bought your car.

In fact, according NHTSA, only about 70 percent of all recall repairs are ever made. That means that roughly a third of the cars on the market may have some form of outstanding safety problem. So don’t just take the seller’s word, trust but verify by doing a VIN search. The results will show if there are outstanding recalls and even note if the specific vehicle you’re looking wasn’t repaired.

So what if your search turns up a recall on the car you want but there’s no official fix available yet–should you avoid that car? Not necessarily. You can usually get it fixed after the sale because automakers are required by law to address any recall issues, no matter who owns the car. There is one caveat: car companies are not required to perform free repairs on vehicles more than 10 years old. However, most manufacturers will make the fix gratis if you ask for it up front.

There is also a new wrinkle in the recall world that is only just beginning to emerge thanks to the increasing trend toward connected cars and advanced safety systems: the software recall. Fixes for these recalls can be conducted at a dealership or in some cases owners can do it themselves. (At least one manufacturer, Ford, even offers automatic over-the-air updates on new vehicles.) After last year’s software recall on select Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler vehicles because of a potential hacking threat, many owners elected to make the fix themselves, for example. All they had to do was download the software from the Web and load it onto a memory stick, which they then used to update the car’s computer system on their own.

Lastly, there are other car related recalls shoppers should be aware of. Recalled parts such as tires can be searched at the NHTSA site, which also tracks recalls for child seats. And if there’s added equipment that the current owner had installed on the car you’re considering buying, such as a remote starter, NHTSA tracks those as well and has a searchable list online.

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Free Vin Lookup

Vin Lookup

The Vehicle Identification Number is located in many different places on a car. It is very common to appear on the dashboard and/or in the drivers side door sticker. You can do a free VIN look up to check vehicle problems on the button above.