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Looking for a used car, what does the dealer have to tell me about it?

Philadelphia, PA |

Hey, I’ve been looking around for a used car. I’ve looked at a few that clearly had more problems than the seller was willing to tell me about unless I asked. Do they legally have to tell me anything about the car or is it my responsibility to check the whole car?

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The law can be a little different in every state but the general rule is that a car dealer has to honestly answer your questions and not hide anything from you that they know (or should know) you would want to know about. If they give you a warranty, they have to live up to it. If a motor vehicle has to pass an emission test to be able to get it licensed, then they have to make sure it will before they sell it to you or they may have to take it back and cancel the sale or fix it so it passes the test. They have to give you a clean title or else warn you in advance of any title problem, such as a branded title for a lemon law buyback or a salvage vehicle, etc. If the dealer sets up the loan for you, depending on the paperwork used they may also have to comply with cost of credit disclosures. The actual odometer reading has to be honestly disclosed to you in writing and if the dealer doesn't know what it really is then they have to mark the odometer disclosure statement form that way. Depending on your state laws, they could have to do more too. Now, there are some things to watch out for too. Not every car dealer is crooked, but not every one is straight either so be careful. First tip, never buy a car that has something wrong with it. The dealer will promise almost anything to get you to take the car home "today" including that they will repair it tomorrow and when tomorrow comes the runaround may start. They want your money now so make them fix what is wrong first. Also, make sure that any promises or guarantees are written down on the sales contract. An oral promise or guarantee is worthless in a courtroom and car dealers know it. Don't sign any arbitration agreement - it means you give up your right to go to court no matter what the dealer does to you even if you don't know it is happening (that should make you wonder why they are afraid to go to court). Remember that car dealers make money off of everything that happens at a dealership, the vehicle itself, the loan they set up for you, the theft guard etching (what a ripoff, you can buy that on the internet for a tiny fraction of what car dealers charge), disability insurance, Gap insurance - all of the soft add on's are huge money makers for car dealers. It is widely reported in the industry that car dealers make more money off everything else in a sale than they do off of the actual vehicle itself. The interest rate on the loan the dealer sets up for you is negotiable - even if they say it isn't (that just means they won't take less profit from your deal - no that they can't). And never buy a car "as is." Always get some kind of written warranty (not oral) and make sure it is from the dealership (and not some third paty warranty company) - even if it is only a 24 hour guarantee because most states automatically give you other legal rights if you get any kind of written warranty at all. Never go to a car dealer's "tent sale." Those are almost always set up and run by out of state sales "slashers" who swoop into town, run the ads, do and say anything to sell the cars, and promptly leave afterwards - it is only later that you realize what happened to you in your sale and the dealer will likely blame it on the out of town sales staff that wasn't really employed by them (never mind the legal aspect of the dealer being responsible anyway). The last bit of advice? Make sure you get a copy of every piece of paper that you sign in a sale, no matter how trivial or meaningless it may look to you. In a used car sale your legal rights are mostly determined by that paperwork and whether or not the dealer lied to you when making the sale. Other things count too, but that sales paperwork is critically important. And if problems happen, act fast. Don't put up with any runaround. If this answer was helpful, please give a “Vote UP” review below. And be sure to indicate the best answer to your question so we can all be sure we are being helpful. Thanks for asking and Good Luck.

This answer is for general purposes only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. The law in your state may differ and your best answer will always come from a local attorney that you meet with privately. If you need a Consumer Law attorney, click the link above to find a Consumer Law attorney near you.


Three basic rules on your question:
1- They need to tell you the truth, so, if you ask, they must respond truthfully.
2- They generally need to disclose material and/or safety defects. Not disclosing is the equivalent of not telling the truth or hiding something.
3- You should always have someone independent check it out PRIOR to signing any papers for purchase. Do not depend on a dealer being honest or truthful, as that will tend to backfire on you.


The requirements vary from state to state. As always, Mr. Burdge gives useful and accurate advice.

You should always ask questions about the car's condition, prior use and title history. You are entitled to honest answers, and not misleading or deceptive ones from a dealer. When you decide on a car to make an offer on, tell the dealer that you want to have it inspected by a mechanic, PRIOR to your purchase, and that if it passes inspection, that you buy it. The dealer may not like this, but you should be given the opportunity to do this. If the dealer balks at this idea, move on.

I am an attorney who is only licensed in the State of Florida. My answer is general legal advice based upon what I perceive your question to be, and should not be relied upon because every person's facts and circumstances are unique, and because specific laws vary from state to state. To completely evaluate a legal issue requires reviewing and evaluating all relevant facts, applicable laws and other information. My answer does not create an attorney-client relationship, and offered for informational purposes only.

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