Consumer Law

Buying a Used Vehicle from a Dealer

Buying a used car is a frustrating experience at best, so know how to be a smart shopper and drive away happy.

Buyer's Research and Financing

Do your research ahead of time and know what make, model and year of car you're after. Pricing resources are available online or at your local library.

It's best to line upĀ financing with a bank or credit union before you buy. You can often negotiate for the best interest rate, and avoid possible financing scams. You'll also be informed if you choose to look at dealer financing.

If you need to get rid of your current vehicle, think about selling it privately, which usually brings you more money than trading it in. Negotiate the price of car you want to buy before you discuss your trade-in.

Regardless of the financing source, make sure you know the total sales price of the car, the amount you're financing, the finance charge (how much the credit will cost you), the payment amount and number of payments, and annual percentage rate (APR), which is the yearly cost of the loan (including interest) described in percentage terms.

Visual Inspection

Once you've found a car you're interested in, take a good look at it, focusing on:

  • Making sure the 17-digit VIN numbers on the dashboard and doors match (otherwise the car could be stolen)
  • Signs of flooding, such as water lines on the engine, new carpeting or upholstery, rusting under the seats
  • Signs of fluid leaks on the ground around the car
  • Fluid levels (radiator, windshield wiper, oil, and so forth)
  • Signs of oversprayed or new paint, indicating body work after an accident
  • Tire condition and wear

Test drive the car for general handling, unusual noises or rattling, and operating condition. Review any available maintenance records and confirm routine service such as oil and fluid changes.

Buyer's Guide Info

The Federal Trade Commission's Used Car Rule requires dealers to put a Buyer's Guide in every used car for sale. The Buyer's Guide states:

  • Warranty type
  • What percentage of the repair costs a dealer will pay under the warranty
  • That all promises made by the dealer should be in writing
  • That the vehicle should be inspected by an independent mechanic
  • Problem areas to look for in the car's mechanical and electrical systems

Mechanical Inspection

It's important to have an independent mechanic inspect the vehicle for mechanical defects before you buy it.

If the dealer won't let you take the car off the lot, you may be able to find a mobile inspection service to come to the dealership, or arrange for the dealer to take the car to your mechanic's garage.

The inspection should at a minimum cover the major mechanical systems mentioned on the Buyer's Guide. Have the mechanic complete a written inspection report with repair estimates.

Independent Research

Depending on where you live, you may be able to get at least some of the following information from your state Department of Motor Vehicles:

  • Odometer mileage each time a car has been sold
  • Accident records
  • Auction sales records
  • The number of owners, and when they bought and sold the vehicle
  • If the vehicle was leased, or a rental car or government vehicle
  • Dealer delivery date
  • Any vehicle emissions inspection problems
  • Whether the car has been reported as stolen


You'll want to negotiate the longestĀ warranty period possible.

If the dealer won't give you a warranty of at least 30 to 90 days, and insists on an "as is," sale, you probably don't want to buy the car. Some states, don't allow "as is" sales for most used vehicles.

If the dealer provides a written dealer warranty, read it and understand:

  • What repairs are covered
  • Whether parts and labor are covered
  • What repairs are excluded

If the manufacturer's warranty is still in effect, review its coverage and when coverage ends.

Your car is a major purchase, so be prepared and drive away from the dealer's lot with confidence.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Does a dealer have a duty to research a car's history and tell me about problems such as past accidents or repairs?
  • What can I do if I think a dealer concealed known problems about a used car?
  • Do dealer finance offices and banks have to provide the same loan disclosures to borrowers?
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