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Frequently Asked Questions About Buying A Used Car

Authored By: DC Bar Antitrust and Consumer Law Section in Cooperation with the Office of Attorney General of the District of Columbia

FAQ

What are my legal rights when I buy a used car?

Your rights include:

● When you buy a used car from a dealer in the District of Columbia, you have the right to receive a car that runs, that can be driven safely, and that is reasonably reliable. This right is called "an implied warranty of merchantability."

● If there is a problem with the car that prevents you from operating it or operating it safely, then the dealer is legally required to fix the problem. If the dealer cannot or will not fix the problem, you have a right to return the car for a refund or to receive some money back.

● Generally, the greater the mileage on the car, the older the car, and the less expensive the car, the more serious a defect must be before you have a right to have the dealer fix it.

● If the problem arises after the written warranty has expired, you may be entitled to have a dealer repair items that go bad soon after the written warranty is up.

Remember, these rights apply if:

● You bought the car in the District of Columbia

AND

● You bought the car from a dealer (someone in the business of selling cars).

You do not have a right:

● to a used car that runs like a new car

OR

● to a used car that is free of defects.

What if the dealer says I can take his word for the good condition of the car?

Remember that spoken promises are difficult to enforce. Ask the dealer to put all promises in writing.

How do I know whether other warranties apply to the car?

Used car dealers are required by federal law to post a Buyers Guide in every used car that they offer for sale. The Buyers Guide contains important information for consumers, including whether the car comes with a written warranty. If a dealer is offering used cars that do not have Buyers Guides posted on them, you should consider going to another dealer.

What if I signed a paper saying I was purchasing the car 'as is'?

A dealer might ask you to sign a document saying that you are purchasing the car "as is." Remember that a dealer is not allowed to sell a car "as is" under District of Columbia law. So even if you have signed a document saying that you have purchased the car "as is," you cannot give up your legal rights as a consumer under the implied warranty of merchantability.

What can I do if a dealer refuses to honor a warranty?

If a dealer refuses to make repairs that are legally required by a written warranty or by the implied warranty of merchantability, you can sue the dealer for up to $5,000 in the Small Claims Branch of the D.C. Superior Court. The Small Claims Branch is designed to allow ordinary people to bring small cases without the help of a lawyer.

What are the laws that may help me in my case against a dealer? 

  • If you sue in the Small Claims Branch, you may ask the judge to consider the consumer's right to an implied warranty of merchantability, as provided by D.C. Code §§ 28:2-314 and 28:2-316.01(2).
  • You may also ask the judge to consider the District of Columbia's Consumer Protection Procedures Act, including the consumer rights provided by D.C. Code Section 28-3904 and the consumer remedies provided by D.C. Code Section 28-3905(k)(1).

What are some questions I should ask the salesperson about a used car? 

  • Did the dealer get the car as a trade-in or at an auction? If the dealer got the car at an auction, the dealer may not know much about the car's history.
  • If the dealer got the car at an auction, did the car come through the line on a "green light," "yellow light," or "red light"? A "green light" means that the seller denied knowing of any frame damage, water damage, or problems with the car's title. A "yellow light" or "red light" may mean a problem car.
  • If the dealer got the car as a trade-in, does the dealer have the former owner's service orders and repair tickets? If so, ask to see the service orders and repair tickets. Check whether the service orders include regular oil changes and other important maintenance items.
  • Has the car been involved in an accident? If so, ask to see the repair order.
  • May I test-drive the car?
  • May I have my mechanic inspect the car? If you don't know a mechanic, ask the local American Automobile Association (AAA) chapter for a list of mechanics or look for a car repair shop with the AAA sign.
  • Does the car come with a warranty? Which systems are covered by the warranty and which systems are not?
  • Will the dealer put the warranty and any other promises in writing?

What should I avoid doing or saying when shopping for a used car?

  • Don't let the salesperson pressure you into making a quick decision, even if the salesperson tells you that the car will probably be gone by the next day.
  • Don't tell the salesperson how much you are willing to spend monthly on the car. First agree on the price of the car. Then discuss the financing.
  • Do not discuss a single price that combines the price you are going to pay for the car and the price the dealer is going to pay you for your trade-in. Agree on the price that you are going to pay the dealer for the car separately from the price that the dealer is going to pay you for your trade-in. Remember that you can buy the dealer's car without trading in your car. If the dealer doesn't offer a fair price for your car, you can sell it to another dealer or place an ad in the paper.
  • Don't agree to dealer financing before you have shopped for financing at a bank or credit union and know the other rates available to you.
  • Don't let the salesperson pressure you into purchasing insurance to pay off your loan in the event you die or become disabled or the car is stolen or destroyed. First, find out if your lender requires that kind of insurance and, if so, consider shopping for another lender. Also, if you are going to purchase that kind of insurance, consider whether you can save money by purchasing it from your own insurance agent rather than from the dealer.

What are some things I should check for when looking over a used car?

  • If the used car is offered by a dealer, check that a "Buyers Guide" form is displayed on the car. Is the form filled out? A dealer that does not display a completed Buyers Guide on each used car that is offered for sale is in violation of federal law. In the District of Columbia, a Buyers Guide should not state that the car is being offered "AS IS - NO WARRANTY" because a dealer is not allowed to sell a car "as is" under District of Columbia law.
  • Notice whether the seats and carpeting show unusual wear and tear.
  • Check for damage under the floor mats.
  • Inspect the car's interior (including the trunk) for mildew, rusting, or a musty smell, any of which may mean water damage.
  • Check that the windshield wipers, heater and defroster, air conditioner, radio, and horn all work.
  • Make sure that the oil pressure and alternator lights go on when you turn the ignition (that means the lights are working) and go off during your test drive.
  • Check that the windows move up and down easily and that the seats move back and forward properly.
  • Check that the owner's manual is in the glove compartment.
  • Check that all the interior and exterior lights, including brake lights and flashers, are working.
  • Look carefully for rust damage, which can greatly lower the value of a car.
  • Look for mismatched or wavy paint, which might mean that a fresh coat of paint is covering rust or other damage.
  • Check that all doors, including the trunk and hood, open and close easily.
  • Loose fitting doors may mean a history of heavy use or damage to the car.
  • Check for leaks under the car. Black fluid may be oil; reddish fluid may be from the automatic transmission; greenish fluid is likely to be antifreeze. Brake fluid has an oily, strong odor.
  • Check the tires for uneven wear, which may mean bad shocks, misalignment, or poor wheel balance.
  • Press down on the bumper and release. If the shock absorbers are working right, the car should only bounce once.
  • Crouch in front or behind the car at a distance and check that the front and back tires line up. If they don't line up, the car has an alignment problem

What should my mechanic check for?

Note: If you don't know a mechanic, ask the local American Automobile Association (AAA) chapter for a list of mechanics or look for a car repair shop with the AAA sign.

  • Does the mileage shown on the odometer seem to be consistent with the condition of the car?
  • If the car made any strange sounds during the test drive, what might those sounds mean?
  • Any of the serious problems that used cars may have, such as:
    • Frame & Body
      • Frame-cracks, corrective welds, or rusted through
      • Dogtracks - bent or twisted frame
    • Engine
      • Oil leakage, excluding normal seepage
      • Cracked block or head
      • Belts missing or inoperable
      • Knocks or misses related to camshaft lifters and push rods
      • Abnormal exhaust discharge
    • Transmission and Drive Shaft
      • Improper fluid level or leakage, excluding normal seepage
      • Cracked or damaged case which is visible
      • Abnormal noise or vibration caused by faulty transmission or drive shaft
      • Improper shifting or functioning in any gear
      • Manual clutch slips or chatters
    • Differential
      • Improper fluid level or leakage excluding normal seepage
      • Cracked or damaged housing which is visible
      • Abnormal noise or vibration caused by faulty differential
    • Cooling System
      • Leakage including radiator
      • Improperly functioning water pump
    • Electrical System
      • Battery leakage
      • Improperly functioning alternator, generator, battery, or starter
    • Fuel System
      • Visible leakage
    • Inoperable Accessories
      • Gauges or warning devices not operating
    • Brake System
      • Failure warning light broken
      • Pedal not firm under pressure (DOT spec.)
      • Not enough pedal reserve (DOT spec.)
      • Does not stop vehicle in straight line (DOT spec.)
      • Hoses damaged
      • Drum or rotor too thin (Mfr. Specs)
      • Lining or pad thickness less than 1/32 inch
      • Power unit not operating or leaking
      • Structural or mechanical parts damaged
    • Steering System
      • Too much free play at steering wheel (DOT specs)
      • Free play in linkage more than ¼ inch
      • Steering gear binds or jams
      • Front wheels aligned improperly (DOT specs)
      • Power unit belts cracked or slipping
      • Power unit fluid level improper
    • Suspension System
      • Ball joint seals damaged
      • Structural parts bent or damaged
      • Stabilizer bar disconnected
      • Spring broken
      • Shock absorber mounting loose
      • Rubber bushings damaged or missing
      • Radius rod damaged or missing
      • Shock absorber leaking or functioning improperly
    • Tires
      • Tread depth less than 2/32 inch
      • Sizes mismatched
      • Visible damage
    • Wheels
      • Visible cracks, damage or repairs
      • Mounting bolts loose or missing
    • Exhaust System
      • Leakage

What should I do after I buy a used car?

Take the car to a new car dealership for the same brand of car. For example, if you bought a used Ford, take it to a dealership that sells and services new Ford cars. Ask the service manager to check whether any safety recalls have been issued for the car, and whether the recall work was ever done. To check a car's recall history, all the service manager needs to know is the car's year, make, model, and Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

If recall work needs to be done, the dealership will usually do it for free, even if you are not the original owner of the car. If you have trouble finding a dealership that will check for safety recalls, you should be able to get this information by calling the manufacturer or importer of the car.

What would be a fair price for me to pay for a used car?

The most accurate information is available through the "Black Book." However, this information is not generally available to you. The Black Book shows wholesale prices at which dealers purchase cars at area auctions. You can ask the dealer to see his copy of the Black Book. The Black Book price of a car depends on how good or bad the condition of the car is: rough, average, clean and extra clean.

Generally, do not pay more than $1,000 to $1,500 above the cost shown in the Black Book for a car in average condition; you may need to pay a higher mark-up for higher priced cars.

Where can I find more information about used car pricing?

You should check your local newspapers to see the asking prices for the kind of car you are interested in buying or trading in. The "asking price" is simply the price the seller would like to get for the car and may not reflect the actual value of the car.

You can also look for reported prices on websites:

  • www.kbb.com
    This website provides information on used car values based on the make, model and condition of the car.
  • www.nada.com
    This is the website of the National Association of Auto Dealers.
  • www.theautochannel.com
    This site shows the prices at which a particular make and model of a car has been sold. You can find the link to "true used car values" under "Auto Research." The site does not make any guarantees with regard to the data listed and does not recommend the exclusive use of their site or any other tool in determining a car's fair market value.

Where can I find more information about buying a car?

Various websites provide useful information on what you need to know if you're looking to buy a car.

  • www.edmunds.com
    You can find buying tips, finance tips and other useful pricing information here. You can click on the "Tips and Advice" button to see some of the tips the site has to offer. On the left side of the page you will also see a box for "Article Keyword Search." You can type in what you're looking for and the website will show you the information it has available.
  • www.carbuyingtips.com
    This site has valuable information on how you can get a good deal if you plan to buy a used car. But you will need to look for this information between many ads.
  • www.checkbook.org
    This site provides its services for a fee. You can subscribe to the Consumer Checkbook's CarDeals newsletter that provides updated information on incentives and rebates. They also operate a car buying service in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

Where can I find help if things to wrong?

  • The National Consumer Law Center has a number of publications that have been written for consumers. These include books on Surviving Debt, Consumer Rights for Immigrants and Return to Sender, a book on how to get rid of a car that turns out to be a lemon (unsatisfactory or defective). These publications can be purchased at www.nclc.org.
  • There are also consumer groups that you can contact. One such group is The Center for Auto Safety, a national, non-profit safety and consumer advocacy group that tracks complaints on lemons. It also has information packets on common defects. You can visit their website at: www.autosafety.com or call them at (202) 328-7700.
  • If you live in D.C., report any bad conduct to the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia and the Federal Trade Commission. The Attorney General's office can help you understand your rights. The D.C. Attorney General's office has a Consumer Hotline for you to call, at (202) 442-9828. You can also call the FTC at (202) FTC-HELP, that is, (202) 382-4357, or go towww.ftc.gov. While the D.C. Attorney General or FTC will not sue for just one person, if they think a company may be repeatedly violating the law, they may investigate and take legal action.
  • You should report safety defects to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at 1(888) 367-1100 or go to www.nhtsa.gov.
  • The Center for Auto Safety maintains a list of lawyers across the country who handle motor vehicle disputes (www.autosafety.org). Consumers can identify lawyers with expertise in motor vehicle and other consumer issues through the National Association of Consumer Advocates, at www.naca.net (go to its Resource Center, scroll down until you see a list of "NACA contacts in the area of . . . [different specialties, such as Lemon Law]").
  • You can also register complaints about "lemon" (unsatisfactory or defective) cars at www.autosafety.com, the website of the Center for Auto Safety.
Last Review and Update: Apr 28, 2005