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Let's say you have your eye on a used 2002 Volkswagen Passat, it passes the visual inspection, and your mechanic gave it a clean bill of health. Can you be sure it's not a lemon?
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains a free, searchable database of automobile recalls. You can simply enter the year, make, and model and you will be able to view a report listing any recalls that apply to the car. You can also check for recalls on car safety equipment while you're at it (including child safety seats).
Now let's say, according to the database, that your dream Passat had two recalls, one for tires and one for a problem with the fuel tank. Does that mean you shouldn't buy the car? Nah! Take the NHTSA recall report back to the dealer, make sure the dealer fixes these items if they haven't already been fixed, and by all means by the car if you want to.