When you buy a used car, you may look for things like dents, any problems with the engine, and even the stereo. But what you may not know to look for are the safety recalls and the seller doesn't have to tell you anything about it.

51 million cars have major safety issues, according to congressional testimony by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That is more vehicles than people in Texas and New York State combined. Many of those cars are for sale.

The KVUE Defenders ran the VINs of Used Cars for Sale in Austin. We found one out of five used cars for sale have major issues. We found out, a seller may tell you many lies to move the car.

When we visited area car lots, we found sellers who would lie about problems.

“We can’t sell anything with a recall,” said one salesman. He didn’t know we looked up the car’s VIN on safercar.gov. We knew we picked a car with an outstanding recall.

“If it’s unfixable, we can’t sell it,” he later said.

Among the recall problems were “faulty steering wheels,” “airbags,” and “software security vulnerabilities.”

Some vehicles for sale had three or more safety recalls listed.

Federal legislation stops short. It’s the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) job to investigate vehicle safety complaints.

Last year, the Office of the Inspector General found NHTSA didn't complete car investigations fast enough. Their report said NHTSA investigators lacked proper training for their investigations. So, the 20 percent of used cars for sale with recalls we found may be greater, but unknown.

A few weeks ago, the agency said they’ve made improvement, but they're still working on getting it right.

Even with better investigations, none of it will fix the lies we heard like this one:

“We can’t see it if it’s got a recall,” said another salesman.

There is one bill, the Vehicle Safety Improvement Act. It would force sellers to tell buyers about any open recalls, but it’s going nowhere right now.

In the meantime, you can look up the information yourself.

  • Ask for a Carfax report. Then, look at the “detailed history” to see the status of any open recalls.
  • Shop online first. Run the VIN of the vehicle you like in the government recall search engine.
  • There is an easy app you can use to see if your vehicle has a car recall. The “My Car Fax” app is free.