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Can You Return the Car You Just Bought?

Under some circumstances, a dealer might take a car back but don't count on it

With new and used car prices at record highs and a nationwide inventory shortage, some shoppers might be tempted to rush through a deal without giving it much thought. But what happens if you later have buyer's remorse, whether it be from too high of a car payment, buying an overpriced extended warranty, or realizing your new car isn't actually what you wanted? Is it possible to cancel the deal and return your car?

Most retail stores will give you the option to return clothes and products for a refund if you regret the purchase. But that's almost never the case with new cars, for which return and refund policies and laws are notoriously strict. Even so, consumers with buyer's remorse ask us all the time: Can I cancel the transaction?

You might wish you could void your purchase contract and simply give the car back to the dealer. But unlike other consumer products, it's not easy to return a car.

You might wish you could void your purchase contract and simply give the car back to the dealer. But unlike other consumer products, it's not easy to return a car.

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 where 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. In other words, if you signed the sales contract, you own the car. And the law is on the side of the seller.

So, is there anything you can do? 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, canceling 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.

Can you unwind your purchase of a new car? The answers to that question are 'no' and 'maybe.'

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 seller 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 rescind the purchase agreement you've signed. 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 solely at the dealer's discretion whether to undo the purchase. Make your call on a business day as opposed to a weekend.

'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 the Edmunds suggested price as proof of the vehicle's market value and 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'

Sometimes a consumer quickly decides the car is defective and wants to exchange it for a different one or cancel the deal. But it takes time out of service and repeated visits to the repair shop — for the same issue — to legally establish that a car is a "lemon" and have a vehicle considered under the lemon law. If you purchased a used car that still has a manufacturer's warranty, the lemon law should still apply. Make sure you brush up on the lemon laws in your state to help determine if this is the proper course of action.

In situations in which there's a clear problem with a new car, the dealer will often 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 or her budget — Eleazer said that the dealer might be willing to place the person in a vehicle with a lower purchase price. 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.

See Edmunds pricing data

Has Your Car's Value Changed?

Used car values are constantly changing. Edmunds lets you track your vehicle's value over time so you can decide when to sell or trade in.

Price history graph example

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