What to Look for in a Used Car Return Policy

February 17, 2012

It's easy to get burned by a vague used car return policy. Learn what to look for and insist on in an acceptable policy.

Used Car Salesman

Understanding a dealer's used car return policy can be extremely important. Used cars are not held to the same contract standards as new car purchases, so be very careful of what you sign before taking possession of the vehicle. Read everything thoroughly.

New Car vs. Used Car Purchase
The government requires that new cars have a minimum amount of warranty coverage. Used car purchases, on the other hand, are not governed by the same contract requirements. In most cases, the only warranties extended by a used car seller are those specifically laid out in the purchase contract. This means that if you drive the car off the lot and the seller did not specifically say that you could return the car, any damage you discover is now your responsibility since you are now in possession of the vehicle and the legal owner.

Used Car Return Policy
Very often, dealerships that have a large used car sales department make an effort to help consumers understand the advantages of buying a used car and want the consumer to be happy with their purchase. With a return policy firmly in place when you drive off the lot with your pre-owned car, you can usually have some amount of confidence that if the car dies when you reach the stop light at the corner, you will be able to have it towed right back to the dealership and return the car.

Another advantage of a used car return policy is that it is often representative of the integrity of the dealership. Unfortunately, many used car dealerships have suffered from terrible reputations over the years. One way of addressing this problem is that larger dealerships have turned to offering a used car return policy as a way to reassure consumers that they stand behind their vehicles and will make their best effort to resolve problems within reason.

While a used car return policy will not address every potential problem with a pre-owned vehicle, generally the primary mechanical and electrical systems will be covered for at least a short period of time after the purchase of the car.

Dealer Buyer Guide
The Federal Trade Commission does, however, make some attempt at consumer protection for used car purchases. Among those protections is the requirement that dealers post a Buyer Guide in the window of every used vehicle they sell—individuals who sell less than a total of six cars a year are not required to post this guide.

The Buyer's Guide includes the following information:

  • Whether the car is being sold "as is" or under warranty
  • Whether the car is being sold under warranty and the percentage of repairs that will be covered by the dealer
  • A statement that conveys that spoken promises may not be a guarantee and are difficult to enforce
  • A statement reminding consumers to get all promises in writing
  • A statement telling consumers to keep the Buyer's Guide as a reference
  • A list of the major mechanical and electrical systems of the car, highlighting systems that may be particularly problematic or of concern
  • A statement that consumers should have the vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic

Negotiated or Added Warranties
In some for cases, a used car dealer will be willing to negotiate or add an aftermarket warranty for a used vehicle as part of the purchase agreement. If this is the case, make sure that the entire agreement is written into the purchase agreement. Do not assume that simply because it was agreed to verbally that you can enforce a promise. Also include a note about the agreement on the original Buyer's Guide, which should be kept with your purchase documents. Should there be a problem, this will be your legal document to prove your case.

Unfortunately, a used car return policy is generally only available if you purchase a used car through a dealership. This means that if you buy a used car from an individual, chances are that once you drive off, you will be stuck with any problems that occur with the car, regardless of how persistent those problems are or how soon they appear after you drive away from the former owner.

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