Kathleen G. Kane - Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General - Protecting Pennsylvanians

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ASK THE ATTORNEY GENERAL: What do I need to know before purchasing a car?

This is the time of year when many people think about buying a car, whether new or used.  Sales advertisements and dealer promotions provide a lot of reasons to stop by auto showrooms and vehicle lots.

For most consumers, buying a car is the second most expensive purchase they will make, other than the purchase of a home.  It is important to know your rights and understand the process so that shopping for and buying a car go smoothly.  Automobile advertising as well as automobile financing is regulated under state and federal law. Buying a car

What should I look for in sales advertisements and promotions?

  • Deceptive ads and promotions containing misrepresentations are prohibited by law.  For instance, it is illegal for an auto dealer to misrepresent their available inventory or to make statements about financing or other terms unless they are true and accurate.
  • Carefully review any advertisements, and make sure to read all the terms.

What should I consider before buying a car?

  • Research the car dealer with the Better Business Bureau and talk with friends and colleagues about their experiences with certain dealerships.
  • Think about your budget and whether you prefer a used car or new car.
  • Research the types of cars you are interested in.  You should look into the car's repair record, maintenance costs, safety and mileage ratings, as well as the blue book value.  Helpful resources include consumer magazines, the internet, and Kelly Blue Book (for used car values).
  • Think about the types of options you want in a car and how much those options are worth to you.
  • Think about whether you are interested in alternative fueled vehicles, especially if you do a great deal of city driving.  Consider the pro's and con's of these and hybrid cars.
  • Think about how much you are willing to spend before going to a car dealer.  Think about how much money you have available for the down payment and monthly payments, or to purchase the vehicle outright.  If you need financing, consider how the loan terms - including the number of payments you will be required to make - impact the overall amount you will pay.

 What do I need to know when I am ready to buy?

  • You can negotiate the purchase price.  Many times, sellers are willing to bargain with potential purchasers for a lower price.
  • If you are considering buying a used car, ask for the car's maintenance record and be sure to have the car inspected by a mechanic.
  • Remember, if you are buying the car "as is" you may have less protections than if the vehicle was covered by a warranty.
  • Sellers must disclose any known defects in the car's frame, block, or transmission, as well as any flood damage or an inability to pass state inspection.
  • If you need financing, remember that loans available through the seller may not be the best deal you can get.  Make sure you compare the financing they offer you with financing other lenders offer you. 
  • If you plan on trading in your current vehicle, check the Blue Book value of the car.  Do not discuss the trade-in until after you have agreed on a purchase price.  Also keep in mind that you may receive more money selling your present car privately than by trading it in.

What else should I keep in mind?

  • Always test drive the car.  Make sure you test it on hills, highways, and stop-and-go traffic.  Check out its heating, defrosting and air conditioning systems and make sure all electronic features are working well.
  • Do not sign any agreement with blank spaces.  Make sure all items are filled in correctly and that you receive copies of the paperwork.  In addition, make sure all oral promises are included in the written sale agreement.
  • If you are buying a new car, you may have protections for certain defects under Pennsylvania's Lemon Law.

If you have a problem or dispute involving the advertisement or purchase of a vehicle you can file a complaint with the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection at www.attorneygeneral.gov or call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-441-2555.