How to Buy a Used Car from a Dealer

Authored By
Education for Justice
View or print documents
  1. Never buy a car without bringing a friend along. They can help you avoid high pressure sales pitches, give a second opinion, and be a witness if you have to go to court. Use this "Car Checklist" to help you remember the basic things to check.
  2. First, call your bank or credit union, or go to the library to check on the “blue book” value of the car model you want to buy. You can also find it online at Kelley Blue Book is a company that reports market values for new and used cars based on many factors. Looking the car up in the “blue book” is a good way to know what the car you want is worth.
  3. Watch out for tricks. “Bait and Switch” is when you go to a dealer to look for an advertised “deal,” but it is gone. Then they show you a more expensive car.  Another trick is when the salesperson says, “My manager may not agree with this price, so buy it now.” Take your time. If you let them rush you, you won't get the best deal.

    This can also happen with financing. Sometimes they even let you take the car and then call you back and try to force you to sign for a higher priced loan.
  4. Get a mechanic you trust to look at the car before you agree to buy it. If the seller refuses, buy your car somewhere else. There is probably something to hide.
  5. Get all promises in writing. A spoken promise is almost impossible to prove and enforce. If they won't put things in writing, they probably won't stand by the promise.
  6. Always ask the seller specific questions about the car, like:

    - Was the car in an accident?
    - Was the car in a flood?
    - Have you had the car checked by a mechanic?
    - Did they find anything wrong?
    - Is there anything wrong with the brakes? Engine? Transmission?
    - How long do you think the engine and drive train will last?
    - If it does not last that long, will you fix it? For how much?

  7. Insist on specific answers, not general statements. Words like “this is a good little car” are called “puffing”. You can’t count on them. But if the dealer writes down that the brakes were fixed last week and work perfectly, you may be able to force them to fix the brakes if they fail soon after you buy the car. Get it in writing!

  8. Read the contract, especially the fine print. Do not sign the contract if it is different from what the salesperson said about the deal. Make sure the numbers - especially your payments and all of the charges and fees – are written in the contract and match what the salesperson told you. Watch out for add-ins (see #11).

  9. If something says that you are taking the car “as is” or “no warranty,” this means they do not have to fix anything. If it dies the next day, you have to pay to fix it. if you borrowed money to buy it, you have to keep making payments.
  10. Get your auto loan from your bank or credit union. When you finance a car loan with the dealer, the dealer is often making money on the loan especially if they sell you the  loan at a higher interest rate. A local bank or credit union may give you a lower interest rate.
  11. If you get your loan from the dealer, ask them to put in writing that they are giving you the best rate you qualify for AND that they won't get any money from the lender. Ask them to sign and date this paper.
  12. Dealers try to make extra money by selling extra products or services. These can be things like credit insurance, service contracts, extended warranties, GAP coverage or maintenance contracts. By law, you don’t have to get any of these to buy the car. They are usually overpriced and often do not help you much when you need it.
  13. Get the title (ownership) documents when you buy, not later. This is the law. Do not pay the seller until you see the title. This makes it harder for someone who does not really own the car to sell it.
  14. Ask if there is an ignition cut off chip. Some finance companies put in remote controls that keep the car from starting if you are late with payments.