Three months later my new car was hit from behind while I was stopped at a red light. I was unhurt and my car was driveable, so I went straight to the body shop for a repair estimate. The repair shop called me three days later saying the damage could be repaired, but added, "This car was in a pretty serious accident. Did you know that? The frame was bent and it's been straightened."
So that's why the seller had asked for cash, and why the paint job looked so new. He had crashed the car, fixed it, sprayed it and put it up for sale.
Why didn't I ask the seller if the car had been in an accident? Well, I had zero experience in purchasing something costing a lot of money. More importantly, I just figured the guy would lie to me anyway, so there was no point in asking. Or so I thought.
As it turns out, there are good reasons to ask probing questions of a dealer or private seller, and you should get the answers in writing. I spoke with Sergei Lemberg, a New York-based lawyer specializing in Lemon Laws, and he provided the following essential questions one should always ask a seller. Some of these apply to dealer sales only, but they are still great examples of how thorough you should be in grilling someone selling a car.
1. Do You Have The Repair History For This Vehicle?
"If the car is relatively new, or Certified Pre-Owned," Lemberg says, "A manufacturer's dealership should be able to look up the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and provide you with a record of the work that's been done on the car at various dealerships. While it won't include repairs by shops that aren't affiliated with the manufacturer, you could glean important information about problems encountered by the previous owner."
2. Where Is The Buyer's Guide?
"Federal law says that every used vehicle must have a Buyer's Guide conspicuously posted, typically on one of the rear windows," says Lemberg. "The Buyer's Guide will let you know if the dealer is selling the car 'as is' or if there is a warranty. If there's a warranty, the Buyer's Guide will let you know what's covered and how much the dealer will contribute for repair costs. If no Buyer's Guide is posted, turn around and go to another dealer."
3. What Is Your Return Policy?
Lemberg says it's a myth that the law mandates a cooling-off period, during which time you can return a vehicle if you change your mind. Nevertheless, some dealers have a return policy. "Find out what the return policy is," he says, "And get the policy in writing. Some states also have lemon laws for used cars, but it's an option of last resort."
4. Can I See The Vehicle's Title?
"Nefarious used car dealers may try and misrepresent vehicles," says Lemberg. "In many states, a vehicle's title must reveal if the car was a lemon buyback, a salvage, or a rebuilt vehicle. Check with your state Attorney General to see how titles are marked in your state. Keep in mind, though, that seeing a vehicle's title isn't a substitute for researching the VIN on your own. Some state motor vehicle departments offer this service online, but you can also use a service like CARFAX. Used car dealers sometimes engage in 'title washing,' whereby a lemon buyback or salvage vehicle from one state is transported to and sold in another state with less stringent titling requirements. Researching the VIN is the only way you'll know where the vehicle has been."
And a word of warning, do not rely on CARFAX or similar documentation provided by the dealer, as "it might be old or altered," Lemberg says.
5. Will You Put That In Writing?
"Dealers anxious to unload vehicles will often promise you the moon, whether it relates to financing, warranties, or vehicle repairs," Lemberg says. "Unless you get it in writing, as part of the contract, you'll have a hard time proving that the dealer engaged in misrepresentation. By the same token, do not leave the dealership without the financing arranged, agreed to and signed for."
6. Can You Substantiate The Odometer Reading?
"Odometer fraud is rampant," says Lemberg. "Most people think that electronic odometers make it more difficult to change the reading, but the opposite is the case. The dealer should be able to justify the odometer reading through the vehicle's repair history, present mechanical condition and title history."
7. Is There An Unexpired Manufacturer's Warranty On This Vehicle?
If the car you're purchasing is fairly new, it may still be covered under the original warranty. "If so," says Lemberg, "Make sure to get the warranty documents from the dealer. Before you buy, give the manufacturer a call, tell them the vehicle's VIN, and verify that the original warranty still applies."
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