Nearly everyone has had an unpleasant experience in buying or maintaining an automobile or knows someone who has. Also, nearly everyone knows of cars that have given years and years of trouble-free service. To protect your legal rights and ensure that your purchase will meet your needs and provide minimal aggravation, you need to take certain steps both before and after the purchase.

As with any major purchase, the watchphrase is "take your time and do it right." Before you go into an automobile dealership, know just what sort of vehicle you need. If you need an all terrain vehicle, a sleek sports car will not serve your purpose, and vice-versa. Do you need the vehicle for family transportation? Is gas mileage a major factor? Consult Consumers Guide and other automobile magazines, which are available at the public library or at a newsstand, to get a basic price range. It never hurts to specifically ask the dealer if the car has ever been wrecked, particularly if it is a used car.

Comparison Shop

Be prepared to make a few visits to dealerships without committing to a particular deal. You may be overwhelmed with innumerable makes, options, financing deals and so on, so make certain you are comparing apples with apples. Remember that the salesman is in business to make sales, not to have you go home and carefully analyze your options, so be prepared to simply say you are not ready to buy yet. Here are some areas to give particular attention:

Window stickers - Federal law requires that new cars contain window stickers revealing both the estimated gas mileage and the number and costs of factory installed extras.

Usually the total sticker price will include a built-in profit margin recommended by the manufacturer, so the dealer may be willing to sell for less. It may be possible to have the car ordered with only the extras you want and no more, although this may take longer. If the window sticker has been altered or defaced, the dealer may be violating the law and may be trying to hide information. Beware of stickers that look like the manufacturer's sticker but merely add on items such as undercoating. These are products the dealer wants to sell at a higher cost. If the vehicle does not already contain such options and the dealer indicates that you must buy them, the dealer may be violating state law.

Financing deals - Often dealers advertise low Annual Percentage Rates or low monthly payments to encourage you to buy from that dealership. Make sure you understand the total amount you will pay. Never focus only on monthly payment. Low monthly payments may be no bargain if they are to be paid for a long time. Low interest rates are not bargains if another dealer will sell for a much lower cash price to begin with. Library publications will tell you exactly what the vehicle and various extras cost the dealer. Start with the dealer's cost and bargain up from that price rather than down from the dealer's sticker price. Remember that all extras, including insurance or service contracts, cost money. Also, review your credit report before you start shopping. You can check your report for free at

Advertisements - If an advertised special sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Advertisements may range from confusing to outright misleading with small print, as well as vacation offers and other "free" offers. Beware of the outlandish offer.

Warranties - Before you make a final decision, be sure you understand what the warranty covers, and more importantly, what it does not cover. On used cars, the law requires that a description of the warranty be disclosed on a window sticker. If the sticker says "as is" the dealer makes no warranty. He is not even guaranteeing you can drive it off of the lot. You may want to read Automobile Warranties.

If the salesman promises you anything, make sure he writes it down and it is signed by the dealership. If they will not write it down, the dealership likely will not honor the promise. Any sort of statements about the quality of the vehicle should also be made in writing, such as the car has never been wrecked, the mileage is correct and the car has only had one owner, etc.

By now you should have done your homework. Once you sign a contract, you have an obligation to pay. Although some people think so, there is no three-day right to rescind automobile sales. No such automatic rescission rights exist.

Many times a defect in a car will not show up until it has been driven for a while. If you believe your car is defective or that certain repairs need to be made, follow this procedure:

  • First, re-examine your warranty terms. The warranty will describe in detail your rights and those of the dealer and manufacturer. Sometimes dealers and manufacturers disagree on who has the responsibility to make a particular repair, and you may need to remind them what the warranty says.
  • Second, give the dealer a chance to correct the problem. Explain what is wrong with the car in as much detail as you can, but do not make assumptions about what is mechanically wrong unless you are sure you understand the problem. Do not act with anger or hostility. Just ask the dealer what he will do to fix the car and when it will be finished.
  • Third, keep a record of everything. This includes repair invoices, labor statements, letters and even old parts when practical. Be able to show all your efforts to get your car repaired and your complaint resolved.
  • Fourth, use the informal dispute resolution procedures that are available. These procedures are a special type of arbitration used to help resolve car problems. Check the phone book to see if your city has a Better Business Bureau to help you resolve complaints. Call the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs. The telephone number is 803-734-4200 in the Columbia area, or 1-800-922-1594 for other parts of the state. These organizations may be able to help resolve your complaint to your satisfaction.
  • Fifth, try a consumer action board. This board is another type of arbitration procedure. Your new car warranty should contain a toll free number for contacting the consumer appeals board to help settle disputes for your particular car. Such a board may be made up of a single arbitrator or a panel of three or more arbitrators. That is, they cannot work for the dealer or manufacturer. If the appeals board rules in your favor the ruling may be binding on the dealer, but if it rules against you it is not binding on you. However, you may be required to use such a board before you can pursue your other legal rights, so read your warranty information carefully.
  • Sixth, if necessary, consult a private attorney. Even if none of the above steps solves your problem, you may still have legal rights that can be used. If the dealership refuses to, or cannot repair the car, the dealer or the manufacturer may have violated the written warranty. The defect may also amount to a breach of the warranties implied under the law. Also, the salesman and the dealership may have defrauded you, or the defect may be caused by a misrepresentation about the condition of the car or an understatement of the car's actual mileage because the odometer has been tampered with. Your attorney can help you understand your legal options, but you will need to discuss the practical side of pursuing your remedies. Sometimes it is not worthwhile to pursue a legal remedy you may have, especially when your recovery will not exceed the expected costs. So, you should discuss this with your attorney.

This information was prepared to give you some general information on the law. It is not intended as legal advice about any particular problem. If you have questions about the law you should consult a lawyer. If you do not know a lawyer, you can call the South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The number is 799-7100 in Richland or Lexington Counties, and 1-800-868-2284 from other parts of the state.