Can You Return the Car You Just Bought?

Car Buying Articles

Can You Return the Car You Just Bought?

Under Some Circumstances, a Dealer Might Take a Car Back, but Don't Count on It


It's the morning after your big new-car purchase and you wake up with a knot in your gut. The car suddenly seems like too much 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 new cars, for which return policies and laws are notoriously strict. Nevertheless, people with buyer's remorse ask us all the time: Can I unwind the deal?

When it comes to new cars, the answers are "no" and "maybe." (If you're a used-car buyer, you might have better luck returning the car, but it all depends on the state in which you live and the individual dealership's policies.)

For new cars, 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."

The Federal 'Cooling-Off Rule'
You might have heard there is a federal cooling-off rule for some purchases. There is such a rule, but it is primarily meant to protect consumers from high-pressure door-to-door sales tactics. It explicitly 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 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 dealership publication, F&I and Showroom, written by 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 overpromised and underdelivered on the deal.

Obviously, unwinding a deal is a gray area, and you must carefully approach the dealer with such a request. Although each situation is different, let's look at three common scenarios.

'I Have Buyer's Remorse'
The vast majority of car dealers have no written policies that allow you to return a new vehicle you've bought. This means your only recourse is to plead your case. You can say that you have discovered 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 in dealership management, such as the sales manager, general manager or owner. It's at the dealer's sole discretion whether to undo the purchase.

'I Got Ripped Off'
If the car salesperson you worked with didn't keep 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 True Market Value (TMV®) pricing as proof of an acceptable price.

Consumers who cry foul on price are at least partially to blame. Preparation and research are essential for such a large purchase, and if you're on the brink of a deal in the showroom and think you don't have sufficient information to proceed, don't. It's better to not buy the car than to argue — after the fact — that you paid too much. Your best bet is to do your pricing research online and work out a nearly painless deal with the dealership's internet sales manager.

'I Got a Lemon'
It takes time and repeated visits to the service bay to legally establish that a car is a lemon. Sometimes a buyer quickly decides the car is defective and wants to return it or exchange it for a different one.

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 to make such repairs is to build goodwill 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. Eleazer told Edmunds: "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 added: "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 said 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 have 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 website for your state's Department of Motor Vehicles to see if there is a way to file a complaint.

Your state attorney general's office is another place to look for information on how to file a complaint against a car dealership. The National Association of Attorneys General lists the state attorneys general and their offices' websites. From there you can find information on 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' 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 give a dealer a bad rating or review online, or on a manufacturer's post-purchase survey, might carry some weight.

Avoid the Problem
While you might be able to pressure a dealership into taking a car back, it's far better to avoid such difficulties in the first place. If you're unfamiliar with the sales contract, ask to have it emailed to you before taking delivery. Even if the finance manager snaps a photo of the pricing page of the contract and emails or texts it to you as an image, it gives you a chance to review it and all the prices. Then, you can plug the numbers into the Edmunds 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 the car before taking ownership.


To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.

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