One of the most common phone calls I get at my law office goes like this: "I just bought a CPO car and found out that it has all sorts of problems that should have been found in the CPO inspection. Can I return the car?" The answer is almost always no. Mainly because most people do not understand what rights they get with a CPO car.
The Certified Pre Owned designation is a fairly modern marketing tool where a manufacturer creates a program to help its used cars sell for more money. The manufacturer asks dealers to inspect late model used cars and then, if they pass the inspection, label them as "Certified Pre-Owned." The CPO label is highly touted in advertising by both automakers and the dealers. But what do you really get with a CPO car?
General Motors describes the advantages of its CPO this way:
Introducing our improved CPO benefits package. For starters, we've extended the Powertrain Limited Warranty to 6 years or 100,000 miles1 for greater peace of mind. Plus, every Certified Pre-Owned Chevrolet, Buick, and GMC vehicle is inspected and reconditioned by authorized factory technicians to meet GM standards. There's more. We look out for you even after your purchase with our exclusive CPO Scheduled Maintenance Program with two included maintenance visits. Altogether, you enjoy over $2,800 of Built-in Value—that's a greater value than ever before.
Notice that it does not say that any of the items on the checklist are guaranteed or warranted in any particular way. They just say you get an extended powertrain warranty and some "included maintenance visits."
Most CPO programs are very clear. All you are getting is a used car with a slightly better warranty than what might be available on a non-CPO car. Can you count on the inspection? No. The inspection is done by the dealer at the behest of the manufacturer. They might say the car was checked against a 175-point checklist, but if the technician doing the checking missed something? Too bad. Nowhere does it say that the dealer is guaranteeing that nothing on the checklist was missed. The checklist was done for the sake of the manufacturer, not the buyer. And nowhere in any company's CPO guidelines does it ever say that the items on the checklist are guaranteed any differently than how the car would be covered otherwise.
The manufacturers are very careful about this. Most CPO guidelines simply state that the CPO car is a fabulous car with a wonderful warranty from the manufacturer. The first half of that statement—about the car—is not legally enforceable as a warranty. And the second half is only as enforceable as the warranty the CPO car comes with.
You bought a CPO car and the door handle broke off the first time you tried to open the door when you got it home? Better hope the door handle is covered by the factory warranty, because whether or not the door handle was supposedly inspected and was on that CPO checklist is irrelevant.
I have written and spoken about this topic many times and every time it comes up, I hear from two groups of people. Disgruntled car buyers always check in with their horror stories. Mainly, things which were obviously not inspected even though they were included and checked off on the checklist. The other people I hear from are the salespeople who work at dealerships. And they come from all makes. I hear about how late model cars are traded in and being pushed out on the lot as CPO cars without anyone doing anything other than rinsing them off and slapping a CPO sticker on the window. Two-hundred-seventy-five-point checklist? Yeah, right.
So, my advice to a person buying a CPO car is the same as what I tell a person buying any used car: Take it for a test drive and have it inspected. But whatever you do, don't lower your guard because the car supposedly passed a "multi-point" inspection. If it really did go through an inspection, it's not something you can count on, nor does it give you any recourse beyond the CPO's extended warranty.
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 , and . He also has a where he talks about these things.