Consumer Guide to Buying a Used Car in California

Lemon Law Attorney Serving Los Angeles, Riverside, Ventura and San Bernardino and Other Areas in California

Buying a Used Car in California - Tips, CA Laws and More

8 Secrets of Getting a Good Deal When You Buy a Used Car

Secret #1: Before you go to the first dealer, try to arrange financing with your bank, credit union, or other financial institution. Compare finance charges to find the best deal. Beware of buying a car with a salvage title, which means the car has been declared a total loss by an insurance company. Some lending institutions will not finance a salvage vehicle.

Secret #2: Before you buy the car, make sure you know what the total cost will be, including the price, down payment, interest rate and monthly payments.

Secret #3: When you are ready to actually go look at cars, take someone with you whose experience and judgment you trust. Even if you know a lot about cars, a second person might catch things that you overlook.

Secret #4: Do not sign any documents until you read and understand them. Make sure the contract contains NO blank spaces. Make sure all of the salesperson's verbal promises are written into the contract. Make sure that the type of warranty that comes with the car is spelled out.

Secret #5: If you are required to make a deposit, ask whether it is refundable and under what circumstances. Make sure the terms of the deposit are written into the contract because the contract may be your only receipt.

Secret #6: Before you buy the car, make sure your own technician or mechanic inspects it. A used car may have major mechanical or structural problems. Replacement parts may be hard to find. The seller may misrepresent the car's mileage or condition. And warranty coverage may not be available.

Secret #7: Verify that the vehicle's California registration is current. If not, you may have to pay late fees and penalties to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Also, the registration will tell you if the manufacturer repurchased the vehicle under California's warranty (Lemon) law.

Secret #8: Make sure you look at the seller's title and registration before agreeing to buy the vehicle. These documents will tell you if the car has a "salvage" title. If it does and you're still interested in buying the vehicle, proceed with caution because structural or frame damage can affect the vehicle's safety. You may also get the printed history of the vehicle's ownership from your local Department of Motor Vehicles.

Back to the Top

2 Important Points to Consider Before You Buy a Used Car

Used Car Fraud Attorney | San Bernardino, CAPoint #1: The California Lemon Law applies only to new cars or relatively new used cars that are still covered under the manufacturer's original warranty. Therefore, if the used car you're buying does not meet this criteria, make sure it comes with a warranty from the seller. If the used car cannot be repaired pursuant to the seller's warranty, like the lemon law, you may be entitled to your money back or another vehicle.

Point #2: A dealer must make sure a used car is in safe working order before it leaves the dealer's lot. This means the car's brakes, lights, and other equipment must be in working order.

Back to the Top

6 Key Steps to Help You Guard Against Buying a Used-Car Lemon

Step #1: Make sure you and the seller enter into a written purchase contract. Make sure you have a written purchase contract to buy any car. If the deal is verbal, and  you have a dispute with the seller, it's your word against his. You're in a far better position if you have a written purchase contract that contains all the promises made by the seller and you.

Step #2: Make sure you know whether the vehicle comes with a warranty. Most private sales in California are not covered by a warranty. As a result, private sales are usually "as is", meaning you get no warranty when you purchase the vehicle.

Step #3: Make sure your contract includes specific warranties provided by the seller. If you and the seller agree that the seller will provide certain specific warranties, then make sure those warranties are spelled out in detail in your written purchase contract or the buyer's guide.

Step #4: Make sure you know whether the car comes with the manufacturer's warranty. Depending on the car's age, the car may be covered by the original manufacturer's warranty. If this is the case, make sure that the manufacturer's warranty is transferable to you and check to see if there are any costs to transfer it. Also, make sure you find out whether the warranty contains any limitations, and if so, what they are. Before you buy the car, make sure you read and understand the warranty that comes with the vehicle.

Step #5: Make sure you know whether the car comes with a service contract or another type of third-party warranty. If the car is covered by a third-party service contract or some other warranty, make sure you read the service contract or warranty before you buy the car. See if the seller is permitted to transfer the service contract or warranty to you – and check to see what costs may be associated with the transfer. Also, find out whether the service contract or warranty contains any limitations, and if so, what they are.

Step #6: Make sure you know the laws relating to California's emission control equipment. When someone buys a used car in California, the seller is legally responsible for providing a smog certificate. The seller must ensure that the vehicle's emission (smog) control equipment complies with the state's requirements. However, even when a smog certificate is supplied, beware – because you may be buying a vehicle that is not in compliance. As a precaution, I suggest you pay for your own independent inspection. Also, check under the hood for a label showing whether the vehicle was manufactured to meet either California or U.S. emissions standards.

Back to the Top

9 Vital Areas on a Used Car to Check Before You Buy It

Vital Area #1: Body.

Look for rust, particularly at the bottom of fenders, around lights and bumpers, on splash panels, under doors, in the wheel wells and under trunk carpeting. Small blisters may indicate future rust sites. Check for paint that does not quite match, gritty surfaces, and paint overspray on chrome – all possible signs of a new paint job, attempting to cover up body problems. Look for cracks, dents, and loose bumpers – all warning signs of a past accident.

Vital Area #2: Tires.

Uneven wear on the front tires usually indicates either bad wheel alignment or front suspension damage. Don't forget to check the condition of the spare tire.

Vital Area #3: Doors, windows and the trunk lid.

Look for a close fit and whether they are easy to open and close. A door that fits unevenly may indicate that the car was involved in a collision.

Vital Area #4: Window, glass and lights.

Look for hairline cracks and tiny holes.

Vital Area #5: Tailpipe.

Black, gummy soot in the tailpipe may mean worn rings or bad valves – and expensive repairs!

Vital Area #6: Shock absorbers.

Lean hard on a corner of the car and then release. If the car keeps rocking up and down, you may need to replace the shock absorbers.

Vital Area #7: Fluids.

Oil that is a whitish color – or contains white bubbles – can be a sign of major mechanical problems. Check the radiator fluid; it should not look rusty. With the engine idling, check the transmission fluid; it should not smell bad or look dark brown. Check for leaks and stains under the car, on the underside of the engine, and around hoses and valve covers.

Vital Area #8: Lights and mechanical parts.

Make sure all headlights, taillights, brake lights, backup lights, and direction signals work properly. Also, test the radio, air conditioner, heater and windshield wipers.

Vital Area #9: Interior.

Check the upholstery for major wear and tear. Don't forget to look under the floor mats and seat covers. Check the steering wheel. Unlocked, with the engine turned off, the steering wheel should have no more than two inches of "play." A car that has low mileage, but with a lot of wear on the driver's seat or on the brake and accelerator, may indicate someone has tampered with the odometer. A musty smell inside the vehicle could mean that the car was damaged in a flood or that rain leaks inside the car.

Back to the Top

6 Costly and (Dangerous!) Mistakes to Avoid When Road Testing a Used Car

Costly Mistake #1: Failing to listen for engine noise.

Advice: The car should start easily and without excessive noise. Once the car has warmed up, listen for engine noise as you drive. Unusual sounds may be signs of major trouble.

Costly Mistake #2: Failing to drive over rough roads.

Advice: Drive the used car over rough road surfaces, paying attention for unusual vibrations, noises and odors.

Costly Mistake #3: Failing to make several stops and starts at varying rates of speed.

Advice: On a clear, level surface, start and stop the car several times, at varying speeds. The car should accelerate smoothly and should brake without grabbing, vibrating, or pulling to one side. When you step firmly on the brake pedal, it should feel firm, not spongy.

Costly Mistake #4: Failing to turn the used car at varying speeds.

Advice: Try turning the car at various speeds. Too much sway or stiffness can mean bad shocks and/or front-end problems. Turn the wheel all the way from one side to the other. The power steering should feel smooth and you should hear little or no squealing.

Costly Mistake #5: Failing to check for "dog-tracking."

Advice: Ask someone to stand behind the car as you slowly drive away. If the back wheels go slightly to one side, this means the car has major frame problems.

Costly Mistake #6: Failing to watch for signs of odometer tampering.

Advice: Look for these signs of odometer tampering: white lines between the numbers that do not line up, or vibration of the one-tenth-mile numbers while the car is moving.

Back to the Top

10 Critical Ways Your Technician Should Test the Used Car

Take the used car to a diagnostic center or repair facility so a technician can inspect it before you buy it. If the used car dealer refuses to let you take the car to your technician, look in the yellow pages for a mobile diagnostic service so the car can be inspected on the car lot.

The cost of this service varies, but the money you invest up front may save you many more dollars down the road. Ask for a written estimate of the costs to repair any problems the technician finds, and use that estimate to negotiate with the seller if you decide to make an offer on the car.

If you can't find a way to have the vehicle inspected by a technician, consider taking your business to another dealer.

Ask the technician to:

  1. Perform an engine compression test.
  2. Check the spark plugs and ignition system.
  3. Perform a contamination diagnosis of oil and fluids.
  4. Check the transmission fluid.
  5. Check the fan and belts, charging system, power steering and air conditioner.
  6. Check the cooling system, including the radiator, heater and by-pass hose.
  7. Check the braking system, including the lining, wheel and master cylinders, drums and front disks, hoses, bearings and grease seals.
  8. Check the suspension, including the ball joints, tie rod ends and idler arms.
  9. Remove the differential plug and check the lubricant.
  10. Test drive the vehicle.

Back to the Top

What's the First Step?

Fortunately, with more than 25 years of experience representing consumers, Howard Silver has built a strong record for clients cheated by automakers, retailers and repair shops.

If you got a lemon, turn it Silver. Call the Law Offices of Howard D. Silver today at 818-597-2610 or fill out our confidential online case evaluation form for a no-obligation consultation with Howard Silver.