I am an attorney and have been representing consumers for over 24 years in the state of Michigan. By far, the most frustrating calls I get at my office involve used car purchases where I find myself explaining the same things over and over again to people I cannot help. There are usually steps you can take to protect yourself before the purchase but often there is nothing you can do after. The answer lies in trying to not get ripped off in the first place. Here is what you can do when car shopping to protect yourself.
Have the car inspected. Are you a certified master mechanic? If not, then make sure you get the vehicle inspected before you buy it. Many people buy cars and then take them to a mechanic to be checked out. That's the wrong order. Finding something after the purchase will not prevent you from buying the car. The horse has left the barn, as they say.
Test drive the vehicle adequately. Not just a circle in a parking lot but out on the road. Make sure to get it up to highway speed and test all the accessories on the car. You'll want to factor that non-functioning air conditioning into the price but you have to know about it first.
Never buy sight-unseen. For some reason, people will buy cars off the internet without going to look at them first. Found a car in another state at a great price? Without looking at it with your own eyes, how do you even know the car exists? Yes, I have gotten calls from consumers who bought a car which did not match the pictures on the internet. Who'd have thought someone on the internet you have never met might be dishonest?
Check the title before you shake hands. After you inspect the car, be sure to inspect the title. I've spoken with people who shook hands and handed over money, only to be presented with a salvage title or one branded in some other way. You also need to make sure there are no liens on the title.
Read and understand the purchase agreement. If you are buying from a dealer, new or used, you will sign a Purchase Agreement or Buyer's Order which will govern the transaction. Most boilerplate Purchase Agreements contain paragraphs of legalese limiting your rights but reserving all of the dealer's rights. The salesman made a verbal promise to you that's not on the agreement? Probably not enforceable. The salesman told you the car had a warranty but the purchase agreement says the car was sold as-is? Do I need to tell you? And read the back side of the contract. That's where some of the craziest stuff is hidden. And the front often has a signature line saying that you have read both sides of the document and agree with all of it. Don't sign it until you have read it all and understood it.
Know who you are buying from. Are you buying from an individual? Are you sure? Many dealers sell off lot in an attempt to make buyers think they are buying from an individual. But the documents then show the seller is a dealer. In some states "Curbstoning" is illegal but not all. Even in the states it is not illegal it is problematic when the seller starts a transaction by lying to the buyer.
Never buy a car premised on repairs being made after delivery. I can't even guess how many times I have heard from buyers who noticed something wrong with the car before they bought it – and bought it anyway. "The seller said he'd fix it if I bought it." What if it can't be fixed? What if the seller refuses to fix it? What if the seller takes two months to fix it? All of this could be avoided by simply refusing to purchase the defective car in the first place. "Fix it, then I'll buy it."
Know what "as is" means if you are buying a used car. In most states, a dealer can sell you a car "as is" and it means the car comes with no warranty of merchantability. The car can blow up the minute you start to drive home in it and there won't be much (if anything) you can do about it. Without question, this is the biggest problem I hear about. There is no 3-day right to return, no "cooling off" period, and no promises that the car will last for any length of time. And remember that this applies to private sellers in most states. Even if they don't tell you the car is being sold as is – it is.
Understand the warranty, if you are given or sold one. When the seller tells you the car comes with a warranty make sure to find out what the terms of the warranty are. Aftermarket warranties for used cars come in all shapes and sizes and some are next to worthless. The seller should be able to provide you with some sort of contract, brochure or documentation showing who the warrantor is and how you will make any claims you might have. I have spoken to a lot of consumers who bought a "warranty" only to find out it was a severely limited service contract by a company no one had ever heard of.
Following the steps above will greatly minimize the odds of you being ripped off on your next used car purchase. If nothing else, my office phone will ring a little less.
Steve Lehto is a writer and from Michigan. He specializes in Lemon Law and frequently writes about cars and the law. His most recent books include Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow, and Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird: Design, Development, Production and Competition. He also has a where he talks about these things.