As a used car buyer in California, you may enjoy more protections from dishonest licensed car dealers than you would in any other state in the US.
However, some of your rights may be lost if you don’t ask the right questions, get the answers in writing when possible, and save all the related documents, texts and images from the dealership in case something bad happens.
The Auto Fraud Legal Center is a law firm that’s completely dedicated to helping car buyers who have been lied to, cheated, and taken advantage of by licensed California car dealers. Our motto is “Because no one deserves to be cheated.” And we help hundreds of families every year. This list is the result of decades of experience in bringing claims based on California, contract, and Common Law against car dealers large or small, their surety bond holders, and the lenders who approve your loans.
So before you head over to the lot to check out the cars, make sure to print out this list and, at the very least, write some notes on it.
Just the List for the TLDR Crowd:
- When may I test drive the car, preferably by myself?
- May I have my mechanic inspect the car?
- May I see a CURRENT car history report, such as Carfax? And do you have any reason to believe this is not updated and accurate?
- Has a qualified mechanic inspected the car, and may I see that report? Were there any mechanical issues found?
- Has the car ever been in an accident, flood, or had significant bodywork done?
- Has the car been used as a rental car, loaner, or for commercial use?
- Are there any signs that the miles displayed on the odometer and the wear and tear you observed in the inspection don’t match?
- Has the car always been registered and titled in California? If not, do past titles show any reason for concern such as salvage or loss warnings?
- Do you have the recent smog certificate?
- Do you have and may I review the car’s clear Title to the car? Is this car being sold on consignment for another party?
BONUS TIP: Snap pictures of every angle of the car ON THE LOT WITH ALL THE STICKERS in place, and make sure you get all the stickers and notices in your packet when you leave.
Explanation Included List for those that like to Read:
1. When may I test drive the car, preferably by myself?
As some dealers want to keep you in the dark about some very clear signs of trouble, like a Check Engine light being on ( watch our client’s sad story on the local news here ), you absolutely must insist on taking the car for a test drive. You should be in the driver’s seat and be able to pick a route that best matches your daily driving, not just their “regular route”. Be on the lookout for any unusual sounds, warnings, or other signs of trouble.
2. May I have my mechanic inspect the car?
You have a right to do this on a used vehicle purchase, and simply requesting and observing their reaction could be valuable. If they allow you, a small investment in an independent inspection is likely well worth your while, as you may get either a “heck no!” or some negotiation ammunition from the shop. If the dealer refuses to allow you to have the vehicle inspected, consider the possibility that the dealer may have something to hide.
AFLC Attorney Greg Babbitt, a 20+ year veteran in this area, says, “Ask for an inspection and do not to buy the car if the dealer will not allow one. And beware, some dealers have buyers sign disclosures at the end saying they were offered the right to get the car inspected but chose not to, which is often not true or a lie that will cost you.”
3. May I see a CURRENT car history report, such as Carfax? And do you have any reason to believe this is not updated and accurate?
In a perfect world, you will be able to watch them generate and print the report live, but be aware that even these reports are not perfect nor always timely. There are several reasons body shop or other work is not reported to the companies that collect this information, some of which the dealer may know about or have reason to suspect based on how they acquired it or who owned it prior.
4. Has a qualified mechanic inspected the car and may I see that report? Were there any mechanical issues found?
If they turn down your request in #2 above or you don’t want to invest the money in your own inspection, at the very least ask to review all the inspections that the seller and others have done on your target car. If the car was purchased at auction, there may be information you can review.
Be sure to ask if any issues were found and who performed the review, record their name, take a pic of the inspection, or ask for a copy.
5. Do you any reason to believe the car ever been in an accident, flood, or had significant bodywork done?
This is a specifically wide-ranging question that is vitally important. We have had 100s of clients find out way too late, such as when they are trading the car in and getting lowballed, that their car is simply not worth what they paid because they failed to get the truth. Try to get these answers in writing via email, text, or chat as you go through the sales process.
6. Has the car been used as a rental car, loaner, or for commercial use?
Simply put. The dealer has to alert you if a car was used as a rental, and it can make a huge difference in value. You are expecting use similar to yours, not that of a renter or a rideshare driver who pounded tons of miles on the car and are more likely to have had the miles turned down (#7 below), a huge problem made even easier in the digital era. You should be fully satisfied in your research before buying an abnormally high mileage call.
7. Are there any signs that the miles displayed on the odometer and the wear and tear you observed in the inspection don’t match?
“Turning back the odometer” to mislead buyers and increase values as been a part of used cars since its inclusion on our dashboards, but with digital odometer, it’s far worse and it happens A LOT. The DMV estimates 200,000 vehicles each year are tampered with in California alone, highest in the country.
8. Has the car always been registered and titled in California? If not, do past titles show any reason for concern such as salvage or loss warnings?
You can ask this question and use the vehicle report you have your eyes on to verify it all. Be on the lookout for areas of the country that have suffered severe rain, hurricane, flood or fire damage, as well as out of state auctions and retitling in new states, or so called “Title washing”, where a salvage titled car comes back to life without the warning to subsequent buyers.
9. Do you have the recent smog certificate?
California car dealers have to run a smog check on any vehicle before the sell it to you. So they should have one that covers you for some time, but you want to see a current one and be on the lookout for any issues related to transferring the car.
10. Do you have the car’s Title in your possession, and may I review it? Is this car being sold on consignment for another party?
Some dealers are taking shortcuts and reinventing the idea of a dealership, including various online business models and listing or having cars on their lots that are on consignment. The people that own these cars are still listed on the title, and who knows how well or honestly they are being treated. You don’t need to put your cash in the hands of a “middle-man” with a good story or a fancy showroom filled with other people’s cars. What you are looking for varies a bit but, generally, the prior buyer should be signed off and any liens released or no longer recorded on a fresh title.
With answers to these questions and either notes or dealer communication in hand, you are increasing your chances of buying the car you need and hope you have identified and not a money pit that you’ll regret for years.
But if it’s too late and you need help getting out of a bad deal that you suspect included some sort of auto fraud like our firm specializes in, please reach out for to see if we can help you out.