It's the morning after your big car purchase and you wake up with a knot in your gut. The car you bought suddenly seems like too much car for your needs, the monthly payments are high and you bought an expensive warranty. Long story short, you want to return the car.
Most stores let you return clothes and products if you change your mind. But that's almost never the case with cars, where return policies and laws are notoriously strict. Nevertheless, car buyers with buyer's remorse ask us all the time: Can I unwind the deal?
The answers are "no" and "maybe."
Your legal rights can be summed up in the one sentence that's posted on the wall of many dealership sales offices: "There is no cooling-off period."
There is a federal cooling-off rule, which is primarily meant to protect consumers from high-pressure door-to-door sales tactics. It doesn't apply to automobiles. If you signed the sales contract, you own the car. And the law is on the side of the dealer.
So, what can you do about that knot in your gut? Here's where the "maybe" comes in. Essentially, it is up to the dealer's discretion whether to unwind the deal. While business owners clearly want customers to be satisfied, undoing a car purchase is a costly headache for a car dealer. But there are times when it's the right thing to do. That's the viewpoint laid out in "Unwinding a Deal," an article in a dealer publication, F&I Showroom. The author is Marv Eleazer, finance director at Langdale Ford in Valdosta, Georgia.
Addressing other car-selling professionals, Eleazer writes: "There are situations where we must swallow our pride and endure the hassle of unwinding a deal." He goes on to address several specific situations: if the car doesn't perform as promised, if the buyer has misrepresented his credit score and if the salesperson has over-promised and under-delivered on the deal.
Obviously, unwinding a deal is a gray area, and the buyer must carefully approach the dealer with such a request. While each situation is different, let's look at three common scenarios.
"I Have Buyer's Remorse"
In recent years, some manufacturers such as Chevrolet have offered car-return programs. But the vast majority of dealers have no written policies allowing vehicles to be returned. This means that your only recourse is to plead your case. You can say that you have discovered that you don't like the car or that it will stretch your budget and put you in dire financial straits.
If you have buyer's remorse, you can call the salesperson first as a courtesy, but be prepared to contact someone higher up the dealership food chain, such as the sales manager, general manager or owner. It's in the dealer's sole discretion to undo the purchase.
"I Got Ripped Off"
In "Confessions of a Car Salesman," undercover car salesman Chandler Phillips recalls that a couple appeared in the showroom yelling and waving their sales contract. A group of sales managers surrounded the two and escorted them to the back of the dealership.
Apparently, they had bought a car the day before, Phillips writes. They went home and reviewed the contract and felt they got ripped off. "I heard one of the sales managers say: 'Buying a car is like going to Vegas — sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.'"
This is a harsh response that is probably not indicative of what most dealers would tell a customer. But it does underscore how difficult it is to get a deal reversed just because you think you paid too much.
If, however, the salesman didn't keep his promises, or you suspect fraud, you might have a case. But don't make wild, unfounded accusations. Instead, use any documentation you can find. If you feel you paid way too much, reference Edmunds.com True Market Value (TMV®) pricing as proof of an acceptable price.
Consumers who cry foul on price are at least partially to blame. Perhaps a pushy salesman exploited their lack of knowledge. Preparation and research are essential for such a large purchase and, clearly, these two were unprepared to enter the arena. Once at the dealership, they should have simply walked out rather than buying the car and then arguing — after the fact — that they'd paid too much.
"I Bought a Lemon!"
It takes time, and repeated visits to the service bay, to legally establish that a car is a lemon. However, buyers may quickly feel their car is defective and want to return it or exchange it for a different one. This is particularly true in the case of used cars.
In situations where there is a clear problem with a new or newly purchased used car, the dealer will probably fix it under warranty. If no warranty exists, as with many used cars, you can still lobby to have the car fixed. The dealer's incentive is that by doing so, he'll build good will and attract repeat customers.
The Dealer's Perspective
It's helpful to understand the dealer's point of view to reach an acceptable solution to this problem. Responding to Edmunds questions by e-mail, Marv Eleazer writes, "There is no problem that can't be resolved when people take a mature approach. Dealerships really are looking for repeat business and make great strides to create an environment that promotes long-term relationships with their customer base."
He adds: "The best way to resolve these misunderstandings is to simply return to the dealership and ask to speak to the manager in a calm tone. Drama and shouting does not impress. Asking for help does."
In cases of buyer's remorse — perhaps if a person bought too much car for his budget — Eleazer writes that the dealer might be willing to place him in a more affordable car. But dealers are "under no obligation to do so either legally or morally."
If You Still Don't Get Satisfaction
If your grievances are deep, or you complained to the dealership to no avail, there are still a few things you can do. Obviously, you can hire a lawyer and sue the dealership. But this is costly and time-consuming. So let's look at other options.
You can register a complaint against the dealership through local and state agencies. Go to the Web site for your state's department of motor vehicles to see if there is a way to file a complaint.
Your state's attorney general's office is another place to look for information on how to file a complaint against a car dealership. The attorneys general Web site for your state will provide information on local laws and the complaint process.
Another avenue is the Better Business Bureau. Ideally, the time to check the dealership for consumer complaints is before you buy a car. The same goes for Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings & Reviews and other online reviews such as those posted on Google or Yelp. But after the fact, you might be able to get the BBB to bring some pressure on the dealership to resolve a dispute. Short of that, threatening to write a nasty online review or give the dealership failing grades on a manufacturer's post-purchase survey might carry some weight.
While a consumer might be able to force a dealership to take a car back, it's far better to avoid such difficulties in the first place. When we buy cars for the Edmunds long-term test fleet, we usually ask to have the contract faxed or e-mailed to our offices before we take delivery. This gives us a chance to review the contract and all the prices. We plug the numbers into our own calculators and make sure everything adds up correctly.
When the responses to your plea to unwind a deal are likely to be "no" or "maybe," it's best to never put yourself in the position of asking. Avoid the unwind bind by being a prepared car buyer who knows a car's pricing, reads the sales contract carefully and fully inspects a new or used car before taking ownership.