Returning a car you just purchased isn’t easy. In general, car dealerships don’t take returns or offer return policies. But there are a few exceptions, including some that are part of your rights as a consumer.
Written by Attorney Aan Malahia Chaudhry.
Updated November 6, 2021
Returning a car you just purchased isn’t easy. In general, car dealerships don’t take returns or offer return policies. But there are a few exceptions, including some that are part of your rights as a consumer. These rights protect you if you have been scammed or cheated in your car purchase. If you’re stuck with a car that you no longer want, read this article to see what your options may be.
Do Car Dealerships Accept Returns?
Most dealers won’t allow buyers to return cars they’ve recently purchased. Once you've signed a sales contract, the dealer usually isn’t obligated to take the car back or offer a refund or exchange. That said, there are some exceptions to this general rule. For instance, some dealerships may have a return policy that allows you to return the vehicle if you are dissatisfied or if the vehicle has mechanical problems. This is uncommon, though, and there are usually restrictions attached to these policies.
You may be able to return a new vehicle you purchased under your state's lemon laws. Lemon laws are federal and state consumer protection laws that protect consumers who buy defective vehicles or certain consumer goods. Specifically, if the defect affects the use, safety, or value of a vehicle and the vehicle can’t be repaired, then the manufacturer must replace it or repurchase it from the consumer.
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Why Return a Car to the Dealer?
There are several reasons you might want to return your recently purchased vehicle.
The Dealer Actually Has a Return Policy
If you simply don’t like the car or you’re dissatisfied with the purchase, you should check if your dealer has a return policy. Most don’t because the process can be time-consuming and costly. If you purchased the car through a service like CarMax or Carvana, there will likely be a return policy under some conditions. Some dealerships also have a limited-time exchange or car return policy.
It’s best to ask your dealer if they have a return policy before you make a purchase. Some may offer a return policy as a sales tool. If so, make sure you get it in writing since verbal promises can be hard to enforce.
You Have Buyer's Remorse
Buyer’s remorse can happen, especially after purchasing a big-ticket item. If you have changed your mind or no longer feel good about your purchase, it will likely be difficult for you to get the dealer to agree to take the car back. Once you sign the sales contract, you have a legal obligation to pay it.
You may have heard of the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) cooling-off rule. This rule gives you three days to cancel purchases of $35 or more that are made at your home, workplace, or the seller’s temporary location. Unfortunately, a vehicle purchase is an exception to that rule. Even if a dealer sells you a car at a temporary location, as long as they have one permanent location, they're still excluded.
That said, you may have a state grace period requirement. For instance, California state law provides a grace period to return a new car. This right must be exercised within two days and is only valid if you don’t violate contract standards, such as mileage limitations.
In the future, researching the vehicle you want to purchase can give you confidence about your decision. Start by researching the car's value, mileage, and financial impact. Then schedule a test drive, but make sure you give yourself a cooling period afterward to think about it. You should also ask yourself what your purpose for the car is, how often you will use it, and if it will meet all your needs. These questions can help you determine if you simply have car fever or if purchasing a car truly makes sense for you right now.
You Think the Dealership Cheated You
A dealer may cheat you in a few ways. First, they may have made false statements about the price of the. Maybe they told you one price but put a higher price on the sales documents. Or, they may have packed your contract with add ons and accessories that you didn’t consent to. If you buy a used car that was wrecked or had mechanical issues the dealer knew about, legally they must disclose this information to you.
If you think you were scammed, you can try meeting with the dealership to resolve the problem. It’s usually better to speak with the sales manager or general manager rather than your salesperson. Make sure you bring documentation to support your claim. Often, being prepared with a fair solution can show your good faith and help resolve the conflict.
To avoid paying a price well above market value, you should research prices of similar vehicles on online auto review websites, such as Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, and Carfax. They can provide an estimated car value based on the condition, year, make, and model of the vehicle. This will help you get an idea of the car’s value before you head to a dealership.
If the dealership chooses not to honor your claim, then your options may be limited.
You can leave a truthful online review explaining your situation and dissatisfaction with the dealer. In some cases, this compels the dealer to make the situation right. You are legally responsible for what you say in your review, so be truthful and accurate.
You can contact your state’s attorney general office. They can help you understand any additional options you have and may also investigate your complaint. They can also help car buyers connect with a lawyer if needed.
You can file a complaint at the federal level with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If your concern is primarily with false or deceptive advertisements, you will want to file your complaint with the FTC. If your concern is primarily with problems in your contract, then you will want to contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
You can file a complaint or post a review with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). The BBB works with both you and the dealer to come to a fair resolution. To start, you need to file a complaint with BBB either online or by mail. Once they process your complaint they will ask the dealer to respond within 14 days. The BBB will forward the response to you and the process will continue until the dispute has been resolved or the case has been terminated.
You can file a complaint with your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), through their business regulation section or licensing board. The DMV may be able to assist with general claims, as well as with specific issues, including title and lien issues or incorrect paperwork.
If your claim is still not resolved, you may consider hiring an attorney to sue the dealership. This is particularly true if the dealer didn’t disclose the condition of the car during your purchase. The National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) is a great source to find attorneys for your claim against the dealer. While NACA itself does not provide legal advice or representation, it can help connect you with attorneys through its online directory. You can also learn more about your consumer rights on the website.
You Can't Afford the Monthly Payments
If you are unable to make your monthly car payments because they are too high, then you may have a difficult time getting the dealer to agree to take the car back. The dealer is likely to argue that you’re responsible for your own financial decisions. But you can still reach out and see if the dealership is willing to work with you to make more affordable arrangements.
Your Car Has Serious Mechanical Issues
If your car has serious mechanical issues, the first thing you should do is gather all documentation showing the mechanical problems. You may have to visit the dealer's service department multiple times. During these trips, you should make sure that the mechanical issues are reported in detail on the repair orders.
If your vehicle is beyond repair, lemon laws may be able to help. Lemon laws vary from state to state, so research to see whether you can make a legitimate lemon law claim. If your claim is successful, you could get a full refund from the dealership or a comparable vehicle in exchange. If you hired an attorney to help you deal with the situation, you may also be able to recover those fees.
You may be able to return a used car under lemon laws if your state allows it. Currently, there are only seven states that have lemon laws for used cars. These states are Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York.
If the Dealer Won't Take the Car Back...
If you are unable to return the car and cannot find relief through filing a complaint, you still have a few options, though none are ideal. You could...
Sell the car. Since cars depreciate as soon as you drive off the dealership lot, you probably won’t be able to recoup your full purchase price by selling your car. Keep in mind that you’ll be financially responsible for any difference between what you financed when you purchased the car and the amount the buyer pays you for the car.
Refinance your car loan. There are two ways that you can refinance your car loan. First, you can extend the loan period. This will allow you to make smaller payments each month. But it may mean you end up paying more in interest in the long term. Alternatively, you may be able to get a lower interest rate which can result in a small decrease in monthly payments. Since refinancing means you are opening a new loan, you may also have to pay loan fees.
Voluntary repossession. If you are falling behind on car loan payments, you may consider a voluntary repossession as a last resort. This is when you turn over your car to the lender voluntarily. Your lender can repossess your vehicle because the lender secures your auto loan with the vehicle purchase. To voluntarily surrender your car you first need to call your lender and let them know that you are unable to make your payments. Then, you schedule a time and location to hand over the car.
When the car is later sold, the sale proceeds will go toward paying off the loan. If the car was sold for less than the loan balance you will owe a deficiency balance. Even though you are voluntarily handing over the car, your prior missed payments and repossession could still show up in your credit report, which can hurt your credit score.
Although there are certain exceptions, you can’t generally return a car you just bought to the dealer. Some dealers have a return policy, but most don’t. If you want to return a vehicle, in most cases the dealer will be the one who decides whether they’ll allow it or not. If the dealer won’t accommodate you, there are alternatives to returning the car to them.
The best strategy is to do everything in your power to avoid putting yourself in a position of needing to return a vehicle. Shop carefully and gather information on the vehicle you’re interested in before you make a purchase. Take a test drive, and have a mechanic you trust look at the vehicle. Finally, be sure to research the dealership’s policies before you make a deal.