Is your family thinking of purchasing a new-to-you, used car in the future? Large purchases can sometimes feel very stressful, as you are investing a lot of money into buying something that you hope will enable you and your loved ones to travel safely to work, school, and everything in between.
Next to buying a home, a vehicle is the biggest purchase most people will make. Furthermore, once you sign a contract, there is typically no turning back. Virginia, like many other states, has no cooling off period. This means that, once you sign the purchase paperwork, the vehicle is yours. Thus it is critical that you do your research beforehand. It is even more important to perform research when purchasing a used car, as many used cars may be sold "as is," meaning that, once you sign the contract, the dealer is not required to repair the vehicle or allow you to cancel the contract if you encounter problems with the vehicle.
Attorney John Cole Gayle, Jr. is a consumer law attorney who specializes in auto dealer fraud and Lemon Law in Virginia, and he has created this guide, to help you. Here are some important tips that Mr. Gayle encourages you to keep in mind, before you start your car-purchasing journey.
Perform preliminary research of makes and models.
Compare different year, makes, and models online, to see how various vehicles are rated for reliability, safety, and performance. You may want to check Consumer Reports, Edmunds, and Kelley Blue Book. Car Complaints is another good site (https://www.carcomplaints.com/).
Choose a car dealership with care.
Ask family members and friends if they can recommend a dealership with whom they had a positive experience. You may also research dealerships by visiting the Better Business Bureau's website (www.bbb.org) to see how they rate the dealership, how many consumer complaints have been made against the dealership, and how many of those have been resolved. Read online reviews on Yelp. (Note: when dealers know you are shopping around at other dealerships, they may be more willing to negotiate a lower price.)
Narrow your vehicle search to a few vehicles you’re interested in.
Once you have found a reputable dealership(s), go to their website and find a couple of vehicles you are interested in buying.
Take a screen capture of the advertisement.
Capture the ad by either taking a screenshot, saving it as a PDF, or printing it out on paper. You would be surprised at how FAST dealerships take down ads after the sale. Just to be safe, we recommend you save the ads of all the vehicles you are thinking of purchasing.
Always bring a witness with you.
If you ever run into problems down the road, it is imperative that you have a trusted family member or friend (who is 18 or older) to accompany you, when you purchase a vehicle. Make sure that your witness hears everything that is said during the entire buying process, from the give and take between you and the salesperson when you ask questions to the test drive to signing the purchase paperwork. The witness can be a spouse or co-signer.
Take a pad of paper, pen, and a list of questions. Ask your witness if they can write down the questions and resultant answers. If you are unsure of a response from the salesperson, ask him/her to repeat the answer.
Ask questions that are based on fact, that can either be proven or disproved. For instance, “Has this vehicle even been in an accident or been damaged?” is a fact-based question. “Is this vehicle a good car?” is an opinion-based question and cannot be proven as false. In the salesperson’s mind, the car may be a good car—even if the car has significant problems. Maybe what they consider to be a good car is drastically different than what you do.
Fact-Based Questions to Ask a Seller
- Has this vehicle been in an accident and/or been damaged? [It is vital to know about either.]
- Has this vehicle ever had a branded title?
- Has this vehicle ever been in a flood?
- Does the vehicle have any rust on it? If so, where?
- How many owners has the vehicle had?
- What repairs have been done to this vehicle?
- Where did you obtain this vehicle from?
- Did you purchase this vehicle from an auction?
- In what state was this vehicle last registered in?
- Are you aware of the vehicle having any problems?
- Does this vehicle have any engine problems? Transmission problems? Brake problems?
- Is this vehicle in need of any major or minor repairs?
- Does this vehicle have any structural issues? Frame damage?
Know your budget
Before you venture out to the first dealership, sit down and figure out what your budget is. You may even consider applying and obtaining pre-approval for financing. If you keep your financing separate from the vehicle purchase, you may feel less pressure to impulsively buy a vehicle from a dealer that promises to obtain financing for you. Furthermore, the dealer makes more on the financing. For instance, the higher the interest rate that the dealership gets you to agree to, the more money the dealer makes. The dealership may also quote you an interest rate or monthly payment that is higher than the amount that was approved by the lender.
Also remember to contact your insurance company to get a quote on car insurance based on the year, make, model and mileage of the vehicle and include that cost in your overall budget. Consider the amount of your down payment, the trade-in value of your old car, the length of the loan, the interest rate, and what the amount of your monthly payment will be. Here are two helpful calculators: How much car can I afford? and Estimate monthly payment.
Be very careful before allowing them to run your credit
Be cautious about allowing a dealership to run your credit. If you must have them run your credit, only allow to run your credit a limited amount of times (put it in writing) and only for a specific vehicle (do not give them blanket permission to run your credit). If you allow a dealer open ended permission to run your credit, they could seriously your credit by running it numerous times.
Research the history and value of the vehicle, yourself
Pull a Carfax.com and an AutoCheck.com report of the car yourself, if the dealership does not produce one for you. You will need the vehicle’s VIN number. The report may show whether the car has been in any accidents, whether it is a flood-damaged, salvaged or repurchased Lemon vehicle, what the odometer reading was at last service, whether it was previously a leased or Fleet vehicle, whether the car was sold at auction, and how many previous owners there have been. Keep in mind that occasionally the reports may lag or not contain complete information; however, they are useful resources for better understanding a vehicle’s history.
Please be aware that the two companies listed above use different databases and, even if a report is clear, that does NOT mean that the car has never been damaged in the past.
We also recommend checking out the VIN on the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVITAS) website. This website contains a list of links where you can obtain vehicle history reports. CarsForSale (https://www.carsforsale.com/free-vehicle-history-reports) provides consumers with a limited number of searches per day. In addition, you may try searching the internet for the VIN. You may also want to search the internet to see if there are any recalls on the vehicle by visiting https://vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/.
Ask the dealership to provide service records. Ideally, the dealer will provide all the records from the life of the vehicle, as that would demonstrate they have kept it in good shape. Read the records carefully; make sure they belong to the vehicle you are thinking of buying. Take pictures of the records (as the dealer may ultimately break their word and not provide the records after the sale has gone through).
Find out the actual market value of the vehicle
Check Kelly Blue Book, National Automobile Dealers Association, or Edmunds for the market value of the car you want to buy. You'll need to know the year, make, model, and mileage of the vehicle in question. Print that out and bring it with you to the dealership so you can use it in your negotiations.
Visually inspect the vehicle
Open the car doors and look at the door jams, to see if it has been repainted. If you suspect the vehicle had been in an accident, then ask another person to drive the car drive straight and then stand behind the vehicle and look at it. The frame should look like a rectangle. If it looks like a parralelagram, then it may have been in accident. Drive the car until you reach at least 60 MPH for a couple of miles (maybe take it from one exit on the highway to the next).
Take the vehicle out for a test drive
If there are issues with the vehicle that seem major, then be certain you are willing to fix the issues. If the dealership promises to fix the issues, ask them if they will put that promise in writing—and consider if you honestly want to go through the hassle of making sure they hold true to their promise.
Pause before purchasing a vehicle with significant warning lights.
If you see any warning lights pop up on the dash board, especially a check engine light or another significant system light, then reflect before buying the vehicle. If you have issues later, related to those warning lights, then you knew about the issues and bought the vehicle anyway.
Take the vehicle to a mechanic and a body shop to be inspected.
This may be the most important step of all. If you have followed all the previous steps and are pretty sure you are going to buy the car, then the final tip is to take the car to a trusted mechanic and a body shop, to have it looked over. The mechanic should not be affiliated with the dealership. Yes, you will pay the inspector for his/her time, but it may save you thousands of dollars and headache in the long run. The money you pay to avoid buying a problematic car will be money well spent, if you avoid costly and possibly dangerous problems in the future. If the mechanic finds something wrong, but you are still interested in buying the vehicle, you can share the defects that the mechanic found with the dealer–and ask for the price to lowered.
Take pictures of the vehicle, inside and out
Document the condition of the vehicle at the time of purchase (before you drive off the lot). Take pictures of various aspects of the car including the odometer, the exterior of the vehicle (noting any signs of accident damage), under the hood, and the general interior (noting tears and other damage), and under the vehicle to determine if there is any rust or bondo hiding rust). When photographing under the vehicle, take note of anything hanging as well. If you notice serious issues, you may want to walk away from the sale.
Negotiate the price.
These days you can negotiate a price online and over the phone. Ask them to confirm the negotiated price in writing via fax or email.
Negotiating over the phone and online may give you an advantage, since you have more time to consider an offer and make a counter-offer without feeling pressured.
While advertised vehicle prices are supposed to include everything except for tax, tag, title and Lemon Law fees, many dealerships nevertheless state prices that do not include the dealer fee or certain add-ons. So, in your negotiations, always insist that the dealer give you the out-the-door price and show you the breakdown of that price. In addition, make sure that the price given is the one that corresponds to the financing terms you want.
Read the purchase paperwork carefully before signing.
Take your time and review the paperwork very carefully. This cannot be stressed enough. Get all verbal promises in writing. Don’t buy what you don’t want or need. Additional options (such as paint sealants, additional undercoating, fabric treatments and anti-theft parts etching) and additional services (such as extended warranties or service contracts, routine maintenance packages, credit life or credit disability insurance) should be evaluated carefully as they may not be necessary or worth the price.
Take your time.
Don't give in to high-pressure tactics. You can walk away. You can sleep on it. You can go look at another car at another dealership and then come back (or not). There will always be good cars/good deals. Relax, breathe and remember to listen to your gut.
Before you buy the vehicle, sleep on the decision.
If you sleep on the purchase decision, then you are less likely to buy on impulse.
Forcing yourself to sleep on a car purchase may mean that you are limited to buying the vehicle closer to home, as it is not always practical to drive two hours away, inspect a vehicle, and then go home, sleep on it, and then return the next day. However, the benefit of pausing before buying a vehicle is that you may save yourself a lot of stress, issues, and money in the future. In fact, it may be wise in general to purchase vehicles closer to home. Consider this: if you experience issues with the vehicle and live far away, consider the cost and inconvenience of returning to the dealership to have problems resolved. Is the “deal” that much better than possible inconvenience?
Bottom line: Don't give in to high-pressure tactics. You can walk away. You can go look at another car at another dealership and then come back (or not). There will always be good cars/good deals. Relax, breathe and remember to listen to your gut.
Attorney John Cole Gayle, Jr. of The Consumer Law Group, P.C. hopes you will follow these steps and are able to buy a safe, reliable used car in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Edited by Jennifer Gruber.
The Consumer Law Group, P.C., the Law Firm of Attorney John Gayle, Jr., specializes in Virginia Consumer Law and handles various types of cases including Auto Dealer Fraud, Virginia Lemon Law, Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), Breach of Warranty, and Breach of Contract.
Please call our firm at 804-282-7900 to hold a no charge review with our intake team. We look forward to speaking with you.