In my 24 years of practicing law, I have spoken to thousands of consumers who were ripped off when buying used cars. There are a few themes I hear over and over again. I’ve condensed what I have seen to a few simple rules which will help you if you follow them.
1. Get the vehicle inspected before you buy it. So many people call my office to tell me what a mechanic found AFTER they bought the car. These callers hope that an “obvious” defect means the car is returnable. On the contrary: If it was an obvious defect, you should have spotted it. And a mechanic can find it just as easily before you buy the car as after.
Having a mechanic tell you what is wrong with the car after the purchase is eye-opening - but won’t mean you can return the car. Can’t afford or find a mechanic? Bring a friend who knows cars. It’s still better than nothing.
2. Never buy a used car with a defect that the seller promises to fix after you buy. What is your recourse if the “fix” fails? Often, sellers will tell you they will repair something while the written contract for the same sale says that verbal promises are unenforceable. And no, the answer is not a “Due Bill.” Why are they afraid to repair the car before you sign the purchase agreement? Which leads to...
3. Read and understand everything you sign before you sign. Shockingly, many callers to my office do not know what they signed or what any of it meant. “As-Is”? Two two-letter words that doom many car purchases every day. Waivers, arbitration clauses, shortened statute of limitations. The list is endless, as the documents sometimes seem to be as well.
4. Avoid Curbstoners. If the seller claims to be selling the car for someone else OR they want the paperwork done by their “friend” who owns a car dealership, run away. ANY sign that the seller is being dishonest should make you reconsider.
5. Remember that there is a huge pool of used cars out there. At the first sign of any issue, walk away. Better to be safe than sorry. And never buy a car from a used car lot simply because they offered you financing when no one else would. This often results in them off-loading the worst dog on the lot to you.
If they believe you are desperate, they are hoping you will ignore the obvious warning signs that the car is a bad bet. Some people tell me they had “no other option” than to buy the lousy car with the crazy high interest rate. Actually, you had a better option: Walking away.
Can you ignore any or all of the above and get a good deal on a great car? Possibly. But if you follow these rules, you will reduce the odds of being ripped off about as far as humanly possible. And this is doubly so for those who are not sophisticated buyers.
Many of the readers here are more car-savvy than the average person, but it is usually the average person who calls my office and tells me a tale of woe—a tale that would not have had an unhappy ending if they had followed the advice above.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 24 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.
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Top photo credit Flickr/dave_7