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7 Biggest Consumer Complaints When Buying A Car

By Aaron Crowe

As a professional negotiator who helps people buy cars, Mike Rabkin was surprised when a friend he was helping was unwittingly sold an extended service contract for a new Honda CRV.

The dealer’s finance department, not the sales department, sold the extended warranty for $1,500. After Rabkin called the sales manager to complain, the apologetic manager gave the car owner a $200 pity check and admitted he was embarrassed that the finance department would do such a thing.

“You know it’s bad when the dealership is refunding part of your money,” Rabkin says.

Being pressured to buy extras at a car dealership is one of the common complaints among car buyers. But there are many more, especially for used car buyers.

The Consumer Federation of America, or CFA, and the North American Consumers Protection Investigators, or NACPI, issued a report in July that looked at the top consumer complaints in 2012. It was based on surveying local and state consumer protection agencies on the types of complaints they receive.

Here are seven top consumer complaints listed in the report, along with tips on how to avoid them:

1. Warranty rights: Used car sales were the worst complaints to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office last year, often involving “as is” signs that are legal in the state. One Vermont man bought a used car that required more in repairs to pass a state inspection than the car was worth.

Selling cars “as is” is legal in some states such as Vermont as long as that’s clearly disclosed. The CFA recommends getting information about your warranty rights from your local or state consumer protection agency, and to have the car checked by a trusted mechanic before committing to buy.

For new cars, buying an extended warranty for a car that already comes with a warranty — such as three years or 36,000 miles — can be a waste of money at the dealership, Rabkin says. At the very least, the price can be negotiated down, or it can be bought later from the dealer or elsewhere.

2. Odometer rollbacks: The Georgia Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection found a used car company that was selling cars with the odometers rolled back and giving buyers the federally required Odometer Disclosure Statements with lower mileage stated than what the vehicles had. A total of 17 Georgia consumers were able to revoke the transactions or get money back for the reduced value of their vehicles, for a total savings of $155,887.

The CFA recommends checking a vehicle’s history through the National Motor Vehicle Administration, which most states use to give information about the title, if the mileage on the odometer is accurate, and if the car was previously declared a total wreck.

3. Mechanical problems with used cars: Used car sales were some of the fastest growing complaints to the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs in 2012, including mechanical problems. One consumer noticed problems with the muffler and catalytic converter after only having the car for a week. She returned it to the dealer, who claimed to fix it, but the problems only got worse and then continued with the alignment, brakes and ignition having problems.

The consumer affairs agency helped her by getting the dealer to agree to take the car back and refund her money. As with warranty issues, these problems can be avoided by having a mechanic you know check the car out before buying.

Problems can also happen with something as simple as a car’s paint. Stan Markuze, who owns a used auto parts marketplace called, says he bought a 1-year-old Volvo from a dealer in San Jose, Calif., about five years ago and he should have been wary when the salesman was jumpy during the entire sales process.

Shortly after Markuze bought the car, the paint on some of the panels began to fade and the car looked two different colors. Half was red and half was faded pink. He didn’t bother trying to return the car, partly because it was sold “as is” and because he lived three hours away.

4. Rogue auto dealer: A used car dealer in Maryland was found to be operating in 10 states without a dealer’s license. Unlicensed dealers sell cars in parking lots, on streets in driveways, at gas stations and online.

The sales may seem like good deals, but the cars are often unreliable and carry no warranties, according to the CFA, which recommends checking with your consumer protection agency about your rights if something goes wrong when buying such a car.

5. Repossession fine print in contract: When financing a car through the dealer, the CFA recommends not being rushed or pressured into signing the agreement right away until you’ve read it carefully and had your questions answered. Show it to someone you trust before signing and driving the car away.

Some contain repossession details that may not allow you to easily get the car back. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office found that one family’s car was repossessed after the breadwinner lost his job and fell behind on payments. The AG found problems with the original contract and convinced the car lot to return the car to the family and to renegotiate the terms of the contract, forgive all fees, and pay the consumer $200 for his inconvenience.

6. Buying from a stranger: Lemon laws don’t apply when buying a car from a private individual, requiring going to civil court to collect money if you bought a car that has problems.

Buying a car online can be especially risky, and the CFA recommends checking the website where the car’s being sold to see if it provides buyer protection. If it doesn’t and you can’t see the car in person and have it checked out by a mechanic, look elsewhere.

7. Bait and switch: In New Jersey last year, an elderly man saw a car dealer’s advertised promise of a $4,000 credit toward the purchase of any new vehicle for any car that was driven, pushed or pulled into the lot. The same ad listed a new car he wanted for $14,999.

When he arrived at the dealership, he was told that the car was no longer available but there was another one that was the same model. There wasn’t a Monoroney sticker — which is required by federal law and tells the full price and other information — and there wasn’t a price on the car, and the man believed it was the same price as the advertised car, according to the CFA report.

With the $4,000 credit and $2,000 he was going to use as a down payment, he would need to refinance the remaining $9,000. But by the time he left the lot he owed $46,000.

A consumer affairs agency in New Jersey that the man contacted was told by the car dealer that the Monroney sticker was in the car’s trunk and that the listed price was $20,000. The man’s deal was changed and he got the car for $14,999.

Federal law requires the Monroney sticker to be posted on a side window or windshield of all new cars for sale. It lists the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price, the price of optional equipment, miles per gallon, crash rating, and other information. The CFA recommends walking away from a car if you don’t see the sticker. If you suspect the dealer of using false advertising to lure you in and switch you to a more expensive car, don’t buy it and report it to your consumer protection agency.


Aaron Crowe is a reporter who specialize in personal finance writing and editing, and covers the auto industry for