Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Questions You Should Ask When Buying an Automobile (What the Seller Must Tell You)

When I turned 16 and went out to shop for my first car with my savings, all I could afford was used so I started perusing the classifieds in my local paper and found one worth looking into.  The friendly seller seemed sincere; the car was a few years old but looked practically new.  My mechanic, who I brought along with me, test drove the car with me and gave the engine a passing test.  I (naively) ended up purchasing it with cash, rather than check upon the seller’s insistence.

Shortly after owning the car, I got into a minor fender bender so I made a beeline to a body shop for a repair estimate.  To my surprise, I received a call from the repair guy who told me that the car had been in a fairly major accident prior to this.  The frame was bent and straightened.  What??!!  I quickly realized why the seller insisted on cash and why the car looked practically new.  He had a collision, fixed and painted the car and decided to sell it.  Being a rookie in the car shopping experience, I kicked myself in the you-know-what for not asking more questions: whether the car had been in an accident, what repairs had been done in the past, etc…

As it turns out, there are good, valid reasons to ask investigative questions to a dealer or private seller, and it’s imperative you get the answers in writing. As many Lemon Law lawyers would agree, there are several vital questions consumers should always ask a seller.  Some are solely for dealer transaction, but at any rate, they are prime examples of how thorough and vigilant buyers should be when purchasing a motor vehicle.

What is the repair history for this vehicle?

If the car is relatively new or Certified Pre-Owned, a dealer should be capable of looking up the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and giving you a record of the work that’s been performed on the car at various dealerships. While it won’t include repairs by shops that aren’t associated with the manufacturer, you could gather important information about problems encountered by the previous owner.  If you are purchasing a car from a private seller, there are many websites where you can look up the VIN yourself or run a CARFAX report before deciding to buy.  This information will uncover important info such as any prior flood damage, odometer rollback, prior repair information, and title information (junked or salvaged titles).

Can you verify the odometer reading?

Odometer fraud is unfortunately all too common. Many consumers are under the impression that electronic odometers make it more difficult to change the reading, but it is just the opposite. The dealer should be able to verify the odometer reading through the vehicle’s repair history, present mechanical condition and title history.”

Can I see the vehicle’s title?

Some deceitful used car dealers may attempt to misrepresent vehicles.  In many states, a vehicle’s title must indicate if the car was a lemon buyback, or a rebuilt or salvage vehicle. Check to see how titles are marked in your state through your state’s Attorney General.  Remember that seeing a vehicle’s title is not a substitute for researching the VIN or running a CARFAX report. Used car dealers sometimes commit title washing, where a lemon buyback or salvage vehicle from one state is transported to and sold in another state with less stringent titling requirements. Looking up the VIN is the only way you’ll know where the vehicle has been.  Note that relying on a CARFAX report is not sufficient, since many dealers have been known to alter them.

Is there still a manufacturer’s warranty on this vehicle?

If the car you are looking at is relatively new, it may still be covered under the original manufacturer’s warranty.  If that is the case, be sure to attain the warranty documents from the dealership or the seller.  To give yourself more reassurance, call the manufacturer before you buy and give them the VIN to verify that the original warranty is still valid.

What is your return policy?

In a previous blog post, we covered Lemon Law myths, in which one refers to the law mandating a cooling-off period, which covers the time you can return a vehicle if you change your mind. Generally, the 3-day right to cancel a contract doesn’t cover vehicle sales. However, some dealers do have a return policy. Ask what the return policy is and get it in writing.  There are a few states with a used car Lemon Law, but it’s an option of last resort.

Can I see the Buyers Guide?

There is a Federal law which states that every used vehicle must have a Buyers Guide conspicuously posted (which usually is posted on one of the rear windows). The Buyers Guide lets you know if the dealer is selling the car “as is” or if there is warranty coverage.  If so, the Buyers Guide indicates what’s covered and how much the dealer will contribute towards repair costs. If there is not a posted Buyer’s Guide, turn around run away fast.

Can I get that in writing?

Dealers eager to unload vehicles will often promise you the moon and stars when it comes to warranties, financing, extra bells and whistles or vehicle repairs. Whether it’s from a dealer or private seller, ask for the promise in writing as part of the contract. If you don’t, it will be an uphill battle proving the misrepresentation. In regards to financing, NEVER leave a dealership without the financing arranged, agreed to and signed for.  We’ve had past clients who did that and were victims of bait-and-switch scams.