Dear Attorney Zeigler, I need an inexpensive car to get back and forth to work. I don’t know how to buy one, and I don’t want to get taken advantage of. I hear horror stories about buying used cars. Is there anything that I can do to protect myself?
Yes, you can take certain steps to protect yourself. Education and preparation are the car buyer’s best tools. Read below to see the steps buyers should take before buying the car.
Save the advertisement
If you find a car online, in a mailer that comes to your home, or in the newspaper, keep a copy of that ad. The ad contains the initial promises that the seller made about the car. If you buy the car and have a problem in the future, that ad may be able to help you resolve it. Buying a car can be very exciting, and people often forget to check for equipment or functions that they thought were included on the car. If you have the advertisement, then you can confirm that the equipment advertised is actually on the car.
Cash is king. And, in my experience, if you can’t afford to pay more than $2,000 for a car, then you should either use another method of transportation or get a loan so you can afford a better car. That might sound harsh, but so many people contact me about issues they are having with cars that they spent their last $1,500 on. It doesn’t matter if you buy from a private seller or a dealership. The kind of car that you can get for $2,000 is likely old, high mileage, or damaged in some way. If you don’t have another $3-4,000 saved to repair the car’s inevitable mechanical issues, then take the bus and continue to save your money.
…Or get outside financing
Dealerships have been known to lay fast and loose with the financing—super high interest rates, charging you for items you didn’t ask for, or the dreaded “return the car, because your financing wasn’t approved.” To avoid these dilemmas, take out a car loan directly with your bank or credit union. That way, you know exactly how much you can afford to spend and you can shop like you have cash. When you select your car, the bank or credit union gives you a check or sales draft that you give to the seller when you sign the paperwork. It is a much less stressful process when done this way.
Research the dealership before you go
One of my biggest pet peeves when I was a lawyer for a state consumer protection agency was any complaint about a dealership that contained printouts of all of the complaints posted about the dealership with Yelp or Google. Why didn’t the consumer do that research before buying a car from that dealership? Don’t do that. It’s the 21st century. You have online reviews at your fingertips. Take the time to research the dealership before you go. This should go without saying, but don’t buy a car from a dealership with a bad reputation.
Do more than just a test drive
I’m shocked by the number of people who do not test drive cars before they buy them. You should test drive the car. Turn on the heat and air conditioning. Test the radio, then turn it off so you can listen to the engine and transmission. Lift the hood and see how the belts look.
You should do more than just test drive the car. If you have no experience with cars, find someone who does and get their opinion. Have a mechanic review the car and give a professional opinion. That can cost $75-100, but it will be money well-spent, if it saves you from wasting $5,000 on a car with frame damage. Most reputable dealerships will allow you to pay a deposit to take the car to a mechanic for review. I’d be suspicious of any dealership that wouldn’t allow me to have a mechanic look over the car. If you’re buying from a private seller, have them bring the car to your mechanic’s shop.
Run a vehicle history report on the car. AutoCheck and CarFax are the two most well-known vehicle history reporting services. The reports don’t contain all of the history on any vehicle. Instead, they show what was reported on the vehicle. If an accident wasn’t reported, then it won’t show up. However, because so many insurance companies and motor vehicle departments report to CarFax and AutoCheck, it’s in your best interest to spend the $25-40 to get a report.
Contact a branded dealership in your area and ask if they can give you a copy of the vehicle’s service records. Some dealerships will give you a printout for free or at a very low cost. Review the service history to be sure that the owners took care of the car. The service records should also show if any repairs were performed under the warranty.
Here’s the thing: cars are expensive. If you can’t afford to have a mechanic look at the car or to pay for a vehicle history report, then you can’t afford to own a car.
Get all promises in writing
If a seller tells you that the car is in a certain mechanical condition, then get that promise in writing. If the car is “certified” or the seller said it was checked out, then get a copy of the certification or other documents showing it was checked out. It doesn’t count if it’s not in writing.
Dealerships have a document called a “We Owe.” They use those to write down what they’ve promised to do for you or give you as a condition of selling that car to you. So, if the dealership says that they will put in a new battery or change the oil when you buy it, then have them put it on a We Owe. Keep a copy of the We Owe for yourself.
Bottom line: Buying a car takes time and patience. Following these steps doesn’t guarantee that you will avoid all bad cars or bad dealerships, but they are a step in the right direction to protect yourself. If you already know that you are an inexperienced car purchaser, don’t remain vulnerable.
People call this law firm every day who rushed into a car purchase and are now experiencing problems. If you think that the car dealership failed to do what it promised, call The Zeigler Firm at 770-580-9013 to schedule a consultation.