Buying a Car

Learn what to do before buying or renting a car.

Buy a New Car

Whether you are buying or leasing a new car, consider these tips to get the best deal and avoid problems:

  • Compare car makes and models. Visit dealerships in person and manufacturers' websites to research car models.
  • Research the dealer’s price (or wholesale price) for the car and options. This price can help you negotiate the final price.  
  • Learn if the manufacturer offers rebates that will lower the cost.
  • Read car advertisements closely. Ads may over promise on the deals, or offer deals that apply to a small group of buyers. 
  • Get price quotes from several dealers. Ask if the prices quoted are before or after rebates are deducted.
  • Research financing options. You are not required to finance your car through the dealer.
  • Avoid low-value extras such as credit insurance, auto club memberships, or extended warranties
  • Get estimates for how much your auto insurance would cost for each model you are considering.

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Buy a Used Car

Consider these factors If you are buying a used car from a dealership.

  • Contact your state or local consumer protection office to learn your rights when buying a used car.
  • Find out from your state motor vehicle department what paperwork you will need to register a vehicle. 
  • Check prices of similar models with used car guides that you can find online or at your local library. 
  • Research the vehicle's history. Use the vehicle information number (VIN) to research past owners, use, and maintenance. Find out if the car has been damaged in a flood or crash, had its odometer rolled back, or been labeled a "lemon."  
  • Research the car's title history with your state motor vehicle department.
  • Find out if the car has any recalls, investigations or complaints searchable online database.
  • Verify that mileage disclosures match the car's odometer reading.
  • Check with the manufacturer to verify if the manufacturer's warranty is still in effect.
  • Get and read the seller's return policy in writing.
  • Have the car inspected by your mechanic. The mechanic should check the vehicle's frame, tires, air bags, and undercarriage, as well as the engine.
  • Examine dealer documents carefully. Make sure you are buying—not leasing—the vehicle. Leases use terms such as "balloon payment" and "base mileage" disclosures.

Buying a Car from a Private Owner

You may choose to buy a car directly from an individual, instead of a dealer. The purchase price is often lower and easier to negotiate if you buy a car from a private owner. You should still take the same steps as if you bought the car from a dealership. There are more factors to consider if you buy from a private owner.

A private owner sells the car "as is." If the car has defects when you buy it, the seller isn't required to repair them before you purchase it. Also, federal protections and rules, such as FTC's Buyer's Guide don't apply. If the seller is fraudulent, you can't complain to your local consumer protection office about them.

If you choose to purchase a car from a private seller:

  • Ask to get service records from the owner.
  • Verify that the seller actually owns the car and that the title and registration are in their name. 
  • Verify that there are no liens against the car, or if it is still under a finance agreement.
  • Ask the manufacturer if their warranty, or other warranty protection, transfers to you.
  • Meet the seller in a public place or busy area, especially if the seller is a someone you don't know.

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Video: Vehicle Financing

Learn about the options available for paying for a vehicle.

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Car Safety Information

Car Safety Tests

These organizations conduct automobile safety crash tests:

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):
    • Conducts new vehicle crash tests to determine the protection level for drivers and passengers during front and side-impact crashes.  
    • Evaluates vehicle air bags and safety belts. 
    • Determines the likelihood of a vehicle rolling over if involved in a single-vehicle crash.
  • The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety performs a test that uses offset-frontal car crashes to assess the protection provided by a vehicle's structure.

Safety Performance Reporting

These organizations report on or provide automobile safety information:

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Car Rental and Car Sharing Services

Even if you don't own a car, there are times when you may need one. When you rent a car, you're using a company's vehicle for a short period of time. Use these tips before signing the rental agreement to help you avoid unexpected problems and charges:

  • Fees: What is the total cost, after all fees are included? Will there be an airport surcharge or fees for car drop-off, insurance, fuel, mileage, taxes, additional drivers, an underage driver, or equipment rental?
  • Driving record: Ask whether the rental company checks customers' driving records when they arrive at the service counter. If there are problems with your driving record, the rental company could turn you away, even if you have a confirmed reservation.
  • Insurance: Be sure that you aren't duplicating coverage. You might have coverage through your personal auto insurance policy, a motor club membership, the credit card you used to reserve the rental, or your employer, if you're traveling on business. 
  • Damages: Before driving off, inspect the vehicle for dents, scratches, and marks and check the tires. Report any pre-existing problems and ask the company to note them on your rental agreement. Try to return the car during regular business hours so you and the rental staff can look at the car together to verify that you didn't damage it.
  • Fuel: Decide if you are going to refuel the car before you return it, or pay for the fuel options provided the car rental company.
  • Payment method: Pay with a credit card rather than a debit card to avoid holds on other funds in your checking account.
  • Rental deposit: Does the rental company require a deposit? If so, ask for a clear explanation of the deposit refund procedures.

Car Sharing 

If you’d rather rent a car on an hourly basis and have greater flexibility in where and when you can pick up a vehicle, you can join a car sharing service. You get the convenience of a car when you need one, without the costs of ownership.

  • Fees: What fees does the company charge (annual fees, application fee)? Are they refundable, even if you cancel or are denied membership?
  • Availability of cars: Are there cars available at times that you need one? How far in advance do you need to reserve a vehicle?
  • Attendants: Are there on-site staff present when you check out your car and return it? This can be very helpful when you need to verify that the car is returned in the same condition as when you borrowed it.
  • Fuel: Do you have to pay for gas out of your own pocket or does the company pay for it?
  • Extension of time: How easy is it to extend the length of your rental? Is it done through an app or is there a dedicated customer service hotline?
  • Cancellation: How far in advance must you give notice to cancel a reservation or your membership? Can the company cancel your membership without notification?
  • Damages: Are you responsible for damages, even if they were not your fault or they happened after you returned the car? This is especially important if you return the car to a lot that does not have on-site staff.
  • Insurance: Is insurance included? You may be insured by a personal policy or the credit card that you use to pay for this service.
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Last Updated: November 1, 2018