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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. Ads may over promise on the deals, or offer deals that apply to a small group of buyers. 
  • Ask how long the manufacturer's warranty lasts and the repairs it covers.
  • 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.

Buy a Used Car

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 identification number (VIN) to research past owners, use, and maintenance. Find out if the car was damaged in a flood or crash, labeled a "lemon", or had its odometer rolled back.  
  • Research the car's title history with your state motor vehicle department.
  • Find out if the car has any outstanding recalls.
  • Verify that mileage disclosures match the car's odometer reading.
  • Check with the manufacturer to verify if their 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, undercarriage, and engine.
  • Examine dealer documents carefully. Make sure you are buying—not leasing—the vehicle. Leases use terms such as "balloon payment" and "base mileage".

Buying a Car from a Private Owner

You may choose to buy a car 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, the seller isn't required to repair them before you buy it. Also, federal protections and rules, such as FTC's Buyer's Guide, don't apply. You can't report a private seller to your local consumer protection office.

If you buy a car from a private seller:

  • Ask the owner for the service and repair records.
  • 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, and isn't 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.

Video: Vehicle Financing

Learn about the options available for paying for a vehicle.

Car Safety Information

Car Safety Tests

These organizations conduct automobile safety crash tests:

Safety Performance Reporting

These organizations report on or provide automobile safety information:

Car Rental and Car Sharing Services

When you rent a car, you're using a company's vehicle for a short period of time. Learn how to avoid unexpected problems and charges.

Traditional Car Rental Company

These tips can help your car rental experience go more smoothly.

  • Rental agreement: Read the rental agreement before you sign it.

  • Fees: What is the total cost, including all fees? There can be fees for:

    • Airport surcharge

    • Insurance Fuel 

    • Mileage

    • Taxes 

    • Extra drivers 

    • An underage driver

    • Equipment rental

  • Driving record: Many rental companies check customers' driving records. If your driving record includes violations, the rental company could cancel your 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 
    • Your employer (if you're traveling on business) 
  • Damages: Inspect the vehicle for dents, scratches, and marks and check the tires. Report any pre-existing damages and ask the company to note them on your rental agreement. 
  • Fuel: Decide if you are going to prepay the rental company for fuel or refuel the car before you return it.
  • Rental deposit: Rental companies hold a security deposit on your payment card. Find out the amount of the hold and when the company will remove it.
  • Payment method: Pay with a credit card rather than a debit card to avoid holds on other funds in your checking account.

Car Sharing 

Car sharing services allow you to rent a car on an hourly basis. They offer flexibility in where and when you can pick up a vehicle.

  • 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 staff on-site when you check out a car and return it? On-site staff can verify that you returned the car 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? 
  • Insurance: Is insurance included in the membership fee? 
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Last Updated: August 21, 2020