"I just got ripped off!"
Every car buyer will feels this way when they realize that a smiling little hyena just took them for a ride.
As a frequent buyer at wholesale auto auctions, I can tell you that some cars bought by dealers for the general public are just plain nasty. Electrical issues aplenty. Cars with blown head gaskets that have their coolant drained before they go into the lane. Frame damage and flooded vehicles that have essentially been rebuilt and concealed.
Wanna outsmart that crooked car dealer? Here's the quick and easy way.
1. Ask for an inspection
When it comes to cars, an ounce of prevention is worth 3500 pounds of cure. A thorough inspection by an experienced independent mechanic is an essential ingredient to your long term ownership experience and your dealings with unethical dealerships.
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To be brutally blunt, crooked car dealers look at independent inspections the same way that vampires look at cloves of garlic. Why? Because nothing exposes the true qualities of car quicker than a wise pair of eyes that has seen thousands of vehicles over the years.
You want to expose a crooked dealer before they take your money? Insist on an inspection. If they want to give you lip service instead, then walk. Problem solved.
2. Do Your Homework First
Crooked dealers love to sell their vehicles to the uninformed and clueless.
There is an old saying in the car business, "People buy with their eyes." As a long-time retailer and auction buyer, I can tell you that many of my peers simply buy what looks good because they have an operation that can conceal most abuse and neglect issues.
Often times a crooked dealer can sell the bill of sale you signed to an auto finance company well before that lemon of a car starts squeezing you for big money. So how do you stop them?
By performing diligent research on your car before ever setting foot at the dealership. This is more than just getting a Carfax. You should also visit sites like Carsurvey.org, and model-specific enthusiast forums to find out the weak points of the vehicle you want to buy. Kelly Blue Book, Edmunds, and NADA (if you finance), will also help you gauge the market value of the car you want to buy.
Crooked dealers hate fielding questions about a car's maintenance history or market value. So do your research and converse over the phone before they can ever have you in their clutches. Nothing pisses off the corrupt more than someone who can't be screwed over.
3. Drive it! Drive it! Drive it!
A crooked dealership will often encourage their salespeople to keep the test drive short. That way the check engine light and countless number of warning signs will never find their way into the buying process.
At least until the bill of sale is already signed.
You want to piss em' off? Or at least find out the truth? Then drive the car through a variety of environments for about 15 to 20 minutes. Does the transmission shift funny? Is that radio the salesperson turned on used to conceal noises that indicate abuse or bad repairs? You would be surprised the great lengths that are used to make a bad car seem good.
4. AS/IS is negotiable.
The one legal term a crooked dealership loves more than any other is AS/IS.
Why? Because AS/IS means, "As it is." in legal speak. You buy it the way it sits and whatever vital components fail, or fall off the vehicle, after the agreement is signed is your responsibility alone.
Want to upset a crooked dealer? Insist on a warranty. You are likely not going to be successful with seeking a bumper-to-bumper warranty on any used car. But at least you can get a basic one on the engine, transmission, and other major components like the electrical system if it is a newer vehicle.
An unethical dealer will always say no to that warranty. While a more reputable one will at least amend the contract in exchange for a slight price increase. If you decide to say no to the price increase, at least you get the peace of mind knowing that the dealer was willing to stand behind their product.
5. Certain paperwork is required by law.
A buyers guide is required in all 50 states along with a contract that clearly states the requirements of both parties.
There are also lemon law disclosures, finance-related documents, privacy stipulations, and... emissions. The last one is a particular sore spot for judges and those professional litigators who pursue lemon law issues.
If you live in a part of the country where emissions are required, a dealer is required by law to sell you the car with a current emissions sticker. No emissions equals no sale. End of story.
Did they lie to you? Call first and give them a chance to immediately fix the issue or undo the deal.
Then send them a certified letter as early as possible offering the dealer the opportunity to exchange keys for cash (not send) at a bank location of your choosing. Follow up with a call or two as well.
If they ignore you, then send the paperwork to your state's Used Car Licensing Board. This brings us to what we refer to as "The Big One" in the car business.
6. Crooked Dealerships Are In Mortal Fear Of State Inspectors
A complaint to a used car licensing board about paperwork and/or emission issues will result in a state inspector coming out and inspecting every document at the dealership.
Every single deal. Every single car. Crooked dealerships have been fined upwards of $70,000 for not having their deals go through with the right paperwork. An unethical used car dealership can also be given a "cease and desist order" in the more extreme cases.
Often times the threat of reporting illegal activity will be enough to get an unethical dealer to undo the deal. Keep in mind that the state board can't do anything if you simply got ripped off. It's your responsibility to do your due diligence and avoid that fate. However there is one other piece of ammunition that you can fire if that happens.
7. Hire A Professional And Be A Professional
Did you start having problems right after leaving the lot?
A mechanic with the right tools can scan the diagnostic system on your car and deduce whether the check engine light was intentionally reset beforehand.
Did it happen? If so, have it documented and give the dealer a copy. An honest dealer will take care of that specific issue. While a dishonest dealer will either give you lip service or simply say no. There are also specific state laws related to selling vehicles that are unsafe or have a prior salvage history.
Fax them a copy of the mechanic's paperwork on the day you receive it. If you don't get a good response, hire a lawyer to write what is commonly called "The angry letter." The serious threat of legal action, before it takes place, is enough to undo many deals.
Last but not least, you can make a public demonstration of your issues. But you have to be strictly factual and follow the laws of the land. Your local city or county will have specific rules to follow (permit, distance from property, placement of signs) and an advocate such as an attorney will let you know what you can legally display for others to read.
Will you get your point across? Sure! You can also legally film the event if you wish and publish your story wherever there is a free or cheap medium to do so. Youtube. Craigslist. The Better Business Bureau. Nothing upsets a crooked dealer more than bad public exposure.
Steve Lang has been in the automotive remarketing business since 1999. His work as an auto auctioneer, car dealer, wholesaler, and inventory manager for an auto finance company has taken him across the country and back. He's also a longtime columnist for The Truth About Cars.