Avoiding mistakes when buying a car

Purchasing an automobile often presents an intimidating set of mechanical, financial, and legal issues. Unscrupulous dealers take advantage of uninformed consumers by using several new and old techniques. At best, a consumer may end up paying more than they expected. At worst, dealer fraud can end in repossession and a negative credit history.

Whether new or used, owning a car can easily become a thousand-dollar headache. Fortunately, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—these tips will help you to avoid the major pitfalls.

New and Used Car Purchases: 

  1. Shop around for financing before you buy, because credit unions and banks usually offer much better rates than dealerships. Financing through the dealership also gives unscrupulous dealers an opportunity to run one of many financing scams.1
  2. Get a fair price. Kelly Blue Book (KBB) and the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) guidebook both offer online editions of vehicle pricing, by year, make, model, and condition. Check your local library or bookstore for the print editions of these well-known guidebooks.
  3. Shop around for the best warranty. If the car is used, call the manufacturer to find out if it is still under warranty, and if that warranty is transferable to a new owner.
  4. Check for recall and service bulletins online at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Center for Auto Safety (CAS). You may also find out about recalls and bulletins by writing down the VIN number and calling the customer service number for the manufacturer of the vehicle you plan to purchase.

Used Car Purchases:

  1. Find out the condition of the vehicle. You can purchase a vehicle history report through a National Motor Vehicle Title Information System approved vendor, or check to see if there is a free service through your bank or credit union. Do not buy the vehicle if you find a record of serious damage, an existing lien, or if the title is identified as salvage, junk, rebuilt, or flooded. Have a mechanic check out the vehicle. Many mechanic shops offer this service for around $100. 
  2. Make sure the seller signs a document showing the purchase price, date, name of the seller, and the year, make, and model of the vehicle—the title document itself may be sufficient for a private-seller transaction.
  3. Make sure the title transfers properly. Check with your local department of motor vehicles for the rules. Many AAA offices have a vehicle registration service and can assist with the title transfer.

Problems After the Sale is Complete:

  1. Don't get scammed by the dealer on repairs. Some unscrupulous dealers repeatedly sell the same defective car, knowing that the buyer is likely to spend more money at the dealership for ineffective repairs. The buyer may spend so much on repairs that they are unable to make payments, giving the dealer the opportunity to repossess the car and run the same scam again.2  If you experience mechanical problems soon after the purchase, comparison shop before taking it back to the dealer. Pay with your credit card, so you will be able to withhold payment through your credit card company in the event there is a problem with the repairs.
  2. Know the “lemon law” for your state. Some state lemon laws hold dealers responsible for sale of defective vehicles, while others don't. The Center for Auto Safety has an online guide to state lemon laws.
 
Sources:
  1. For details on financing scams: Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) http://www.carconsumers.org/usedcarbuyingtips.htm
  2. Ibid.
 

Issue updates

Blog Post | Consumer Protection

U.S. PIRG Amends Court Filings Against FTC As 3 More Used Car Dealers Allowed to Sell Unfixed, Recalled Cars | Michael Landis

U.S. PIRG, along with Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) and the Center for Auto Safety, is challenging in court recent actions by the Federal Trade Commission that put the health and safety of millions of Americans at risk. This week, we amended our previous court filings because the FTC has now filed unacceptable decrees with six, not three, used car dealers.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

The CFPB’s Structure is Constitutional and Important to its Mission | Michael Landis

Last fall, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit wrongly concluded that the leadership structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau violates the Constitution. U.S. PIRG Education Fund, along with many others, urged the full D.C. Circuit to rehear the case and correct the obvious errors in the panel’s decision. We were pleased when the D.C. Circuit agreed with our position and decided to rehear the case.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

Some Tips To Protect Internet Privacy | Ed Mierzwinski

You may have heard that Congress just voted to take away many of your online broadband privacy protections. After a little background, we will give you some tips on how to protect what’s left.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

Congress Votes Against Consumers and Internet Privacy | Kara Cook-Schultz

Yesterday, the House voted to gut online consumer protections, and if the president signs the legislation, internet service providers will be able to use and sell consumers’ personal information without their permission.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Guilty Plea By Volkswagen is an Important Step, Jail Time Should Come Next

Statement by Mike Litt, Consumer Program Advocate at U.S. PIRG Education Fund, on today’s guilty plea by Volkswagen in its criminal court case for emission violations.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Parents Beware - Many Toys Still Toxic, Hazardous

Dangerous or toxic toys can still be found on America’s store shelves, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group announced in its 25th annual Trouble in Toyland report.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Three Groups Urge FTC to Investigate “Wild West” of Online Data Collection

Three consumer protection organizations on Thursday filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), demanding the commission investigate growing privacy threats in the “Wild West” online.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Blog Post

In response to a tidal wave of unfair marketplace practices, the CFPB asked the public to submit comments on the impact of junk fees on their lives. Some 2,500 comments later, consumers have described the pain points caused by unfair junk fees.

Cover graphic courtesy Student Borrower Protection Center, used by permission

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Today, in response to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) request for information (RFI) on harmful “junk fees,” the Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC) and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund submitted comments exposing how financial service giants and universities are plaguing postsecondary students with unexpected, unavoidable, and hugely expensive charges on a range of financial products.

Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Report on issues with "Buy Now, Pay Later" financing plans.

Blog Post

Even with the knowledge I’ve gained working as a consumer advocate for several years, getting my finances in order has been a work in progress. 

View AllRSS Feed

Support us

Your tax-deductible donation supports U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s work to educate consumers on the issues that matter, and the powerful interests that are blocking progress.

Learn More

You can also support U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s work through bequests, contributions from life insurance or retirement plans, securities contributions and vehicle donations. 




U.S. PIRG Education Fund is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to social change.