Buyers' Rights for Used Cars

Have a mechanic inspect a car before you buy.
Have a mechanic inspect a car before you buy. (Image: classy car for sale image by itsallgood from

People in general just don’t trust used-car dealers, and it turns out, for good reason much of the time. The Better Business Bureau reports that complaints against used-car dealers are perennially high and that law enforcement sometimes finds it necessary to file lawsuits against certain dealers. In 2009, more than 13,000 complaints were filed across the nation with the BBB regarding used-car dealers, making car dealerships the seventh most complained about industry. Before you purchase a used car, understand the best way to go about it, and know your rights.


The biggest problems consumers face when buying a used car is the car needing repairs within a month after purchase, repairs the dealer won’t make. About half of all used-car sales come with no warranty, and the other half come with limited warranties, according to the BBB. Even so, about half of all consumers still believe the dealer is responsible for repairs, maybe because buyers don’t understand what the warranty actually covers or maybe because the salesperson overstated the coverage. Don’t just take the salesperson’s word. The Federal Trade Commission requires that dealers post a “Buyers Guide” in all cars for sale. The guide spells out whether the car has a warranty and, if so, the exact terms. If you don’t see the Buyers Guide in the vehicle you want, ask for it.

Buyers Guide

The Buyers Guide contains information regarding whether the vehicle has a warranty or is an “as is” sale, how much the dealer will pay if there is a warranty and information about the difficulty enforcing an oral agreement. The Buyers Guide also advises consumers to get everything in writing and to hang onto the Buyers Guide after the sale. The Buyers Guide tells you about the major mechanical and electrical systems on the car and the problems you should watch for and advices you to let a mechanic inspect the car before you buy it. The Buyers Guide trumps the contract you sign with the dealer. For example, if the Buyers Guide says you have a warranty and the contract says the sale is “as is,” you go by what the Buyers Guide says.

Mechanic Inspection

Typically, the people who are least able to afford being ripped off regarding a car deal, are the ones who are, according to the BBB. Many economically disadvantaged people are in worse shape after buying a used car because they find out after purchase that the car has significant problems. The BBB and the FTC advise consumers to seek a third-party mechanic’s inspection, which usually costs $100 or less, before buying a used car. Ask the mechanic for a written report and a cost estimate for any necessary repairs. You don’t get a three-day window to return a used car, as you do with other types of purchases, because the law does not require used-car dealer to do this. You only have this privilege at the dealer’s discretion. When you buy a car at a used-car dealership, it’s usually yours. Ask what the return policy is before you buy the car, and get it in writing.

Private Sales

A private seller that you might find though an advertisement is not subject to the same rules as car dealers are. But that doesn’t prevent you from following the advice you’d find in the Buyers Guide. A private sale is almost always an “as is” sale; therefore taking the car to a mechanic first for an inspection before you buy is a good idea. If you sign a contract with a private party, the seller is bound by what is written on the contract, not by what he tells you.


If your car has a problem that is covered by the warranty and the dealer refuses to help you, ask to speak to the owner. If that doesn’t work and if you have a warranty backed from the manufacturer, contact the manufacturer directly. If the manufacturer does not back your warranty and the dealer doesn’t live up to the agreement, contact the BBB, your state attorney general or the Department of Motor Vehicles. Then, sue the dealer in small claims court.

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