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Considerations When Buying a Used Car

 In This Section

 Unlicensed Dealers
 Researching the Vehicle
 Inspecting the Vehicle
 Buyer Beware
 Implied Warranties
 As Is
 Limited Warranties
 Get it in Writing
 Service Contracts

Know Your Needs
The same general guidelines should apply when purchasing a new or used vehicle.  The following information is provided as a guide to your rights and responsibilities in our state's used car market.  To increase your chances of making the right purchase for your needs, please read our Buying a Car page for suggestions regarding general auto purchases. 

We encourage you to visit our Buying Precautions web page as well in order to get specific examples of sales practices that would violate the Washington State Consumer Protection Act

In addition, it is important to remember that you always have the right to shop and compare when making any purchase, especially when buying an item as costly as a new or used vehicle.  You will find the process much easier if you understand that you can shop and compare not only for your local auto dealers, but also your financing and warranty services as well.    

Beware of Unlicensed Dealers

If you respond to a classified ad and the seller has several cars for sale but does not have a car lot or showroom, you may be dealing with a “curbstoner,” who is an unlicensed auto dealer.  Under state law, anyone who sells five or more vehicles in a 12 month period must obtain a dealer's license (RCW 46.70.021). Licensing requirements exist to protect buyers from problems such as vehicle title transfer difficulties; buying unregistered, wrecked or rebuilt cars; and purchasing a car with a “rolled-back” od0meter.  Curbstoners do not become licensed as a dealer and often take advantage of consumers while trying to avoid detection from the violations they commit. 

Private sellers also often advertise in the classified sections of newspapers.  In the case of legitimate private (non-dealer) sales, you should put the purchase and sale agreement in writing.  It should include a description of the vehicle, the price, a statement that the seller has clear title to the vehicle and all other representations and promises.

No matter whom you buy from, insist on a thorough test drive and independent mechanical inspection before you negotiate the price and other terms.

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Researching the Vehicle

It is always a good idea to conduct some research before you buy a new or used vehicle.  By law, the dealer is required upon request to either display or disclose in writing a used vehicle's asking price (RCW 46.70.125).  The dealer must also provide the name and address of the former registered owner to a prospective buyer upon request if that owner was a business or government entity.  This disclosure allows you to ask questions about the use and maintenance of the vehicle, including any accident damage, repairs, and mileage (RCW 46.70.180(6)).

You may also want to find out if a vehicle was ever recalled by the manufacturer.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can be contacted at 1-800-424-9393 for this information. 

Each used vehicle offered by a dealer by law must have a Used Buyer's Guide posted in its window which gives information about the vehicle's warranty status as offered by the dealer.  If negotiations are in Spanish, then a copy of the Spanish version of the Used Buyer’s Guide must be provided to you. 

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Inspecting the Vehicle

It is a violation of dealer licensing regulations for a dealer to sell a car that cannot be safely operated on public highways (RCW 46.70.101(1)(b)(viii)).  This means that the car must at least have working headlights, taillights, brake lights, turn signals, brakes, wipers, a windshield without cracks that substantially obstruct the driver's field of view and tires with a minimum tread of 2/32 of an inch.  Because it is also illegal to operate an unsafe motor vehicle on public roads and highways, a vehicle owner also bears responsibility and liability for the condition of the car.

Prior to agreeing to buy a vehicle that meets your needs, take the used vehicle to a mechanic you trust to have the engine, other mechanical parts and safety equipment inspected and tested. When a dealer or private party is reluctant or refuses to allow an independent inspection of the vehicle, you should seriously reconsider whether this is the car or truck for you.  You may also consider the following actions before making a decision about purchasing a vehicle:

  • Test Drive First - Before you buy a used vehicle you should thoroughly examine the vehicle and go for a test drive. A valuable and informative test drive should be more than a demonstration drive where the salesperson explains the features of the vehicle.  A test drive should be a sampling of the vehicle's mechanical operating condition. This means that you should drive the vehicle as you would under every day driving conditions — freeway, in-city, hills etc
  • Check the Gauges - You should check the operation of all electrical and comfort amenities (windows, lights and turn signals, defroster, heater and air conditioner), blow the horn, check the brakes by coming to a controlled emergency stop, and listen to the engine accelerate when entering on to the freeway and on hills
  • Complete a Visual Inspection - Do a complete visual inspection of the vehicle; look under the vehicle for any signs of frame damage or collision repairs, any flood damage and any missing, loose or ill fitting body parts; check the engine compartment and trunk for fresh paint that might reveal prior damage or signs of flood damage
  • Check it out with Your Mechanic - If the vehicle passes your test, take it for an inspection by a qualified mechanic of your choosing. The mechanic should check the brakes, electrical system, compression, transmission, and every other system on the vehicle, especially any which caught your attention during the test drive. You should also consider an emissions control system inspection and test.  Inspections may cost you some money, but if the mechanic discovers a major defect, you have saved yourself a big problem and a lot of money.  When an inspection reveals only minor defects, you can use that information to negotiate either a lower purchase price or get the dealer to agree, in writing, to fix the items before purchase.

The more that you know about a vehicle before you buy, the greater the likelihood that you will have picked the best vehicle to meet your needs.  Before you buy is the time to test the vehicle!

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Buyer Beware

A thorough test drive and mechanical inspection are the only ways to make sure the vehicle you are contemplating buying is in good mechanical condition.  Verbal representations about the vehicle by a salesperson are not necessarily binding promises to help you with any problems that develop.  Many quality dealers will stand behind vehicles they sell and will work to solve problems, but a buyer should not expect that the dealer will always solve every problem.  If you buy it "as is," and it is defective, you cannot always expect the dealer to fix it.

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Implied Warranty of Merchantability

Every vehicle sold in Washington by a dealer has an "implied" warranty that the vehicle will be fit for ordinary driving purposes. That means the vehicle must be fit for ordinary driving purposes, free of major defects, reasonably safe, and of the average quality of similar vehicles available for sale in that price range.

The duration and extent of an implied warranty is conditioned on the age, mileage and price of the vehicle as well as the nature and timing of the problem.

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"As Is"

Most used vehicles are offered by dealers "as is."  If you explicitly negotiate and knowingly accept such an offer, you give up your implied warranty of merchantability.  Nothing in any law requires you to sign a waiver of your implied warranty rights under any circumstances.

You waive the implied warranty only if:

  1. The dealer explicitly discussed warranty terms with you
  2. You are accurately informed of the consequences of purchasing the vehicle "as is" (i.e. the waiver lists the particular qualities and characteristics of the vehicle that will not be covered)
  3. You do not purchase an extended service contract; and finally,
  4. You knowingly and voluntarily assume all risk for costs of repairs due to defects in the vehicle.

If you waive the implied warranty and the vehicle breaks down, you will be responsible for all repairs!  If the vehicle breaks down one minute or one mile from the dealership, you will still be responsible for all repairs!  Buying a vehicle "as is" means you are assuming all responsibility for the repair and maintenance of the vehicle! As an informed buyer, you should consider whether negotiating away your implied warranty rights is really in your best interests.  Buying a car "as is," you will not have any warranty and little if any recourse against the dealer if the vehicle turns out to have substantial problems.

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Limited Warranties

A dealer may provide you with a limited warranty that would pay a portion of the repair costs for covered components during the warranty period (typically 90 days or less).  Be sure you understand the coverage and exclusions.  You should insist that the dealer put all promises and representations as to quality and warranty in writing.  If the dealer gives you a limited written warranty, the implied warranty cannot be waived, and you will have both the limited and implied warranties on the vehicle. 

If you purchase a service contract on a used vehicle from the same dealer within 90 days of purchase, the implied warranty of merchantability cannot be waived, and you will have the protection of both the service contract and the implied warranty of merchantability (RCW 48.96.045(4)).  The availability of the implied warranty or a service contract does not eliminate the need for a thorough test drive and an inspection by a qualified mechanic.

When a vehicle is sold, the seller (this may be you if you have a 'trade-in') must accurately complete an odometer disclosure statement which will be submitted with an application to issue the new certificate of title.

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Get it in Writing

If you did not effectively or knowingly waive the implied warranty, or if the dealer made sufficient verbal promises about the vehicle's condition and what will happen if any problems arise such that an express warranty is created, you may be able to get the dealer to fix the vehicle at reduced or no charge.  But verbal promises are always difficult to prove and enforce.  When a dealer's salesperson or manager refuses to put important promises or representations in writing, you should consider buying elsewhere.  Further, since your signature on a document is very important, you must read everything before you sign making certain that any verbal promises are included.

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Service Contracts

You may be encouraged by the dealer to buy an extended service contract for the vehicle. If you purchase an extended service contract, the dealer is not allowed to disclaim the Implied Warranty of Merchantability; that is, the vehicle cannot be sold "as is" (see the notice requirements in RCW 48.110.075 (2)(e)(iv).

Before you visit a dealership, you should find out what service contracts are generally available in your area and compare the extent of coverage, the maintenance requirements to keep the policy in force and the cost.  You may request copies of various contracts offered by the dealership before you buy.  You may cancel any extended service contract at any time and receive a refund.  If you cancel within 10 days, you should receive a full refund.  A full refund minus a cancellation fee must be provided to you if you cancel more than 10 days but less than 30 days of purchase and have made no claims under the contract.  After 30 days from purchase, a pro-rated refund should be calculated on either time or mileage minus a cancellation fee. 

By law a company offering a service contract must be registered with the Office of the Insurance Commissioner.  The name and address of the service contract obligor, the policy number and how to file a claim under the service contract must be clearly stated on the contract.  When deciding on a service contract, examine the contract itself rather than making up your mind on the basis of a brochure or a salesperson's statements.  Check for overlapping or duplicate coverage in the service contract that you may already have under any remaining manufacturer warranty.  You should consider whether saving the price of the service contract and "insuring" yourself would be more cost effective.

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More Topics on Cars:

Buying a Car | Used Car Considerations|Buying Precautions | Leasing | Lemon Law | Auto Repair | Resources and Links

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