Unfortunately, buying a car can be a stressful experience. Consumers may feel overmatched when negotiating with experienced dealership salesman. We all know that saying, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Pressured negotiations can create misunderstandings, unmet expectations, and buyer dissatisfaction. In many of these situations, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While the following guidelines aren’t intended to serve as a cure all, they may help you avoid situations where dealer fraud, both parties’ misunderstanding, or customer confusion can taint the car buying experience.

Tips Before Buying

Here are some tips to ensure that you are prepared and protected before signing your name to any car purchase contract.

  • Research the vehicle: Check the vehicle’s history by purchasing a report from Carfax or Experian Automotive. A clean report is no guarantee that a vehicle doesn't have hidden problems however, these services do provide alerts to possible odometer fraud; reveal past flood, fire, and accident damage and can indicate whether or not a rebuilt or salvage title was ever issued for the vehicle. A free vehicle identification number (VIN) check is also available from the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The VIN is a unique identifying code assigned to an automobile. The VIN serves as a fingerprint, as no two vehicles in operation have the same number. A VIN displays the car's unique features, specifications and manufacturer which can be used to track recalls, registrations, warranty claims, thefts, and insurance coverage.
  • Conduct a price-check: Know the vehicle’s value, regardless of the seller’s asking price. Condition, mileage, age, equipment levels, and locale all affect vehicle value. Many pricing guide services are available online. These "book" values vary. In order to avoid the high-ball/low-ball game, ensure that the dealer uses one guide to determine the value of the vehicle for sale and the value of any trade-in.
  • Write down questions ahead of time: Arrive at the dealership with a prepared list of questions about the vehicle and check them off when they are answered to your satisfaction. Make sure all of your questions are answered before moving forward.
  • Take your time: Don’t be pressured into a one visit purchase. If details are missing, or if you haven’t had the opportunity to properly research the vehicle’s pricing and history, allow yourself the opportunity to leave the dealership in order to do so.
  • Get everything in writing: Don’t rely on the salesperson’s word. Get all promises in writing.
  • Know the price you’re paying: Negotiate for the best final price, not the lowest monthly payment. Lowering your monthly payment may involve spreading the purchase price over additional years of payments, increasing your true costs by thousands of dollars. Know the final purchase price, interest included.
  • Make an effort to secure your own financing: One of the most stressful and lengthy aspects of buying a car is negotiating dealer financing. If you can secure independent financing ahead of time, do so. In addition to saving time, pre-arranged financing may give you additional negotiating leverage with the dealer.
  • Beware of “As Is, No Warranty” language: “As is, no warranty” language listed conspicuously means that the car is sold with all faults and with no warranty of merchantability. A car sold this way could break down five minutes after you have driven it off the lot and the full repair cost would be your responsibility—regardless of what the salesperson may have said to you (see tip no. 5, above). This does not mean that a merchant or car dealer can defraud a consumer and hide behind an “as-is” sale, however. If the dealer lied about the year of the car, rolled the odometer back, sold you a salvaged-title vehicle without disclosing the salvage history, or if the car was stolen, the “as-is” sale would not keep you from going after the dealer to take the car back or pay you damages. The best rule when buying a used car is to take the car to a mechanic of your choosing, not one recommended by the dealer, to have a thorough inspection. What may seem like a waste of money and time could end up saving you thousands if the mechanic finds a major problem with the car.

Protections Are Available

Purchasing a used car from a dealer as opposed to an individual does have its advantages. Auto dealers maintain places of business whose reputations may be checked online through a number of organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, Edmunds, Carfax or DealerRater. The majority of dealers are willing to discuss problems with their customers, because they want to maintain a positive business reputation. Furthermore, complaints involving dealers can be investigated by the Michigan Department of State and/or mediated by the Michigan Attorney General’s office.

The Secretary of State's Office licenses and regulates auto dealers and repair shops. It also informs car buyers of their rights and investigates related complaints. Consumers can browse the Secretary of State’s website for brochures that offer auto buying and leasing tips, as well as doing business with a private individual (complaints about vehicle sales between individuals cannot be investigated by the Secretary of State's office, however).

The Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's office also helps consumers each year by mediating purchase-related complaints. The mediation process is available to help settle disputes before they end up in court. Click here to review the Attorney General Consumer Complaint form.