I recently bought a used car from a used car dealership. I had an interesting experience post purchase and wanted to pass along some things I learned.
We as consumers in California have certain rights, I encourage anyone who decides to buy a car, whether new or used, to become familiar with these rights which can be found here. Additional information and tips can be found on the DMV's website as well.
In my personal experience, there are some things you should do, some things you should ask and others you should avoid.
Note: some of these things aren't necessarily required, provided for or rights under the law. Just best practices, some dealerships have better policies than others.
- Try if possible, if you plan on financing, to get pre-approval from a trusted bank with a letter of approval or the like. That way you know your budget and your rate and can calculate your payment ahead of time. This way, the money part of the transaction becomes known and less emotional when you get into a car you like. MS Excel has a great tool for calculating everything within the life of your loan, other tools are available online, just search amortization calculator.
- If you like a car, request to have the vehicle inspected at a trustworthy third party mechanic or a dealership that is familiar with that make of car. Inspection prices vary from shop to shop and you shouldn't base your decision to do an inspection on the price. Some investment now could save you down the road. You are purchasing a car, this is an expensive proposition and you are making a long term investment. Don't let the dealer scare you out of the inspection process by saying, 'We have a lot of interest in that vehicle.' Yes they might, but insist on the inspection anyway. If the dealership refuses, walk away.
- Get a Carfax. See if the dealer already provides one, if not ask them to. If they won't, get your own. It's worth it!
- Once the Carfax is in hand, see where the car was serviced and inquire as to the maintenance history. Although Carfax does provide service dates, it doesn't provide all and doesn't give detail as to what was done. Modern cars are full of electronics and can have any number of service bulletins issued on them in their lifetime. Different makes handle the resolution of these differently - some only in warranty - and others out of warranty. So whether you are in or out of warranty, it's good to know if those items were handled.
- After inspection, ask the dealer to cover the cost of some or all required or safety related items. They can say no (as is) but it doesn't hurt to ask. To keep your business they may just oblige you. But be prepared for a no, at least at this point you know how much work needs to be done. This could factor into any negotiations on price.
- Search out the retail value of the car on the market, Kelly Blue Book is a great resource, so is Edmunds. If you know the retail value and there are outstanding items, you could have some room for negotiation if there are outstanding fixes on the car.
- Ask about policies regarding the sale, like registration fee refunds if you overpaid. Clarity on this issue will save you some headaches. California law states that refunds are due to the purchaser in the event of overpayment. But it's not clear as to when the refund should occur. The only part that is clear is that the purchaser gets it whether it is requested or not.
- Ask about accessories and if they are included or missing. This could also play into negotiations on price, for example:
- Extra keys: In reality most cars come with multiple sets of keys, a used car should too since the keys are good to nobody else except the next owner. 2 sets are good, more is better
- Owners manual: This shouldn't actually have to be said, but an owners manual is a great thing to have, it has fluid capacities, tire pressures, maintenance intervals and use and care instructions.
- Interior/Exterior accessories: Things like a car jack, wheel lock keys, cargo nets, cargo area covers, etc. are great to have. Emergency supplies are must haves and should be part of your negotiations.
- If the car is from out of state, especially a state that does not require a front license plate, you will need one. It states in CA Law that the dealership shall provide the means to attach a front plate, specifically a bracket. If you feel the method which you dealer chooses to attach a front plate diminishes the look or integrity of the car, then you could refuse. Insist on a model specific bracket whenever possible since it fits the aesthetic of your particular car.
- Full tank of fuel! Yeah, this also shouldn't have to be said, but driving away from the dealer after signing away a good chunk of your money you would think you would have some gas in the tank at least enough to get around for a day or two (half tank?). Some dealerships have accounts with local fueling stations and provide vouchers by default, but it doesn't hurt to ask if they don't.
Hopefully this advice helps you in your purchase of a new (used) car. Unfortunately, these aren't always tips that dealers disclose since it's not in their best interest. Again these tips are best practice and by no means, unless specifically stated, supported by law. This is your money and you should do everything you can to protect your interests.