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Educational Consumer Tips

Buying a Used Car at a Dealership

Author: Better Business Bureau


Whether you’re looking for your first car, or something more family-friendly, buying a used car can be a hassle. What sorts of problems do you look for, and how do you know you can trust a dealer? When you’re buying a used car from a dealership, consider these tips.

Buying-at-a-DealershipThe Used Car Rule. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Used Car Rule states that dealerships must post a Buyer’s Guide for every used car that is for sale, with the exception of motorcycles and most recreational vehicles. In part, the Buyer’s Guide will inform a buyer if the car comes with a warranty, or if it’s being sold “as is,” and the percentage of repair costs to be paid by the dealer if it does include a warranty. It will also inform you of any major mechanical or electrical issues with the car.

As Is Car Sales: In California, dealers are allowed to sell a car “as is.” Which means the seller is under no obligation to fix repairs after the purchase is made. If a dealership promises to repair the vehicle after the purchase date, be sure to get the agreement in writing.

Finding a Dealer. Ask friends and family members for trustworthy dealers they have used in the past. Or begin your search at to find an Accredited used car dealership.

Know the History of the Vehicle.  When looking to purchase a used car, copy down the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which is located on the driver’s side dashboard near the window or on the driver’s side door. Make sure all VINs are identical. The VIN provides a Vehicle History Report and allows the buyer to check the title of the used car. Find these reports online at the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System website. Also be sure to obtain any service records that are available. (What about other vehicle history reports?)  Like CARFAX, the reason we wrote this is for horse trailers etc.

Decide What Kind of Car You Want to Buy. Consider things like gas mileage, car insurance rates, and what you’ll be using the car for. Also be sure to consider any safety features you want on your car. If you want a specific make or model be sure to research the vehicle online. Look for information about recalls on the vehicle, and the estimated value of the car depending on year, mileage, and overall condition.

Two-Day Contract Cancellation. In California,when you buy a used car from a dealership, and the car is less than $40,000, the dealer must provide you with the option of purchasing a two-day contract cancellation. However, this does not apply to motorcycles, recreational vehicles, or vehicles sold for business or commercial use.

To receive a full refund, less restocking fees, the car must be returned to the dealership in the same condition it was purchased, and not exceed the mileage as outlined by the contract. However, the contract must permit no less than 250 miles. If a dealer charges a restocking fee, the contract cancellation purchase price must be deducted. The refund includes sales tax, registration fees, deposits, and trade-in deposits collected from the buyer. If the dealer refuses to accept the vehicle because it fails to meet these standards, they must provide a written response to the buyer.

It is also important to know that contract cancellation fees, and restocking fees are tiered according to the price of the vehicle. Price ranges can be found on the California Department of Motor Vehicles website.

Test Drive the Vehicle. When test driving the vehicle, try to drive on various road conditions - in traffic, and on hills and highways. When you are test driving a car, consider things like comfortability, visibility, and any possible noise coming from the vehicle. It is also important to note how the car shifts, and how the pedals feel when you brake.

Have the Car Inspected. Even when buying a used car from a dealership, consider having it inspected by an Accredited auto repair service. Although you will have to pay a fee to have it inspected by a private mechanic, it could save you money in your future. If a car is  Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) the dealer must complete an entire inspection on the vehicle and provide consumers with a copy of the inspection report.

California Lemon Law. In California, the lemon law applies to cars that are still under the manufacturer warranty. If you purchase a used vehicle and it is still under this warranty, the manufacturer, or representative of, must make repairs within a reasonable number of attempts, or otherwise replace the vehicle or return the purchase price to the buyer. The buyer is completely free is free to choose whether to accept a replacement or refund. The manufacturer will also be responsible for paying for sales tax, license, registration, and incidental damages the buyer may have incurred including repair, towing, and rental car costs. If you think your car is a lemon, file a complaint with BBB’s AUTOLINE.