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Buying a Car: Who Is Responsible for a Defect You Find After You Buy?

Here’s a scenario: You buy a product from a store and take it home, only to discover it doesn’t quite work as advertised. In most instances, you can return the item for a refund with no questions asked. But what about when you buy a used car with problems from a dealer?

If you just purchased a vehicle and have found a significant defect, it’s essential to understand your options.

Warranty or No Warranty?

If you bring your new car home and discover it has a major flaw, the first question you’ll need to answer is whether or not you have a car warranty. If you have a warranty, you have a decent chance the problem will be covered, depending on the defect or flaw. Most warranties cover parts designed to last the car’s life, such as suspension parts, engine components, and electronics. Generally, warranties do not cover items that wear down, like brake pads or tires.

You may be out of luck if you don’t have a warranty. Used car sales without a warranty are often clearly labeled “as-is.” This indication means the buyer accepts the car “as it is” on the lot in its current condition. It doesn’t mean the vehicle is a clunker, but the sale does not include a warranty to cover any mechanical problems. When you sign the paperwork for an as-is car, it’s yours — regardless of what happens after you drive off the lot.

RELATED ARTICLE: Extended Car Warranty: Do You Really Need One? 

What Recourse Do You Have?

If you’ve discovered a severe flaw in an as-is car, you’re at the mercy of the dealership or private owner who sold you the vehicle. The dealership or the individual has no legal obligation to help you. After all, you knowingly agreed to purchase the car without a warranty or service contract. This result is the risk you run when you buy a used car as-is.

However, some private sellers may feel responsible and give you some money back to fix the issue. Additionally, some dealers don’t want to risk damaging their reputation, leading them to offer you a goodwill gesture. They might provide financial compensation or offer reduced labor charges to fix the problem. However, they don’t have to do this, and you can’t count on receiving any sympathy, cooperation, or relief.

You’ll find many exceptions throughout auto warranty contracts. If the car you bought from a dealer has a problem you think should be covered by its warranty, follow the contract’s instructions for service. Disputes can happen, and you have options when you cannot reach a resolution with the dealer regarding warranty service and repairs.

  • Contact your state’s attorney general office. Its consumer protection division handles complaints around automobiles, among many other things.
  • Seek mediation using a dispute resolution organization. Many warranties require mediation before taking steps to file a suit against a dealership or manufacturer. Look to the National Automobile Dealers Association if you purchased the troublesome car from a franchised dealership. It coordinates the Automotive Consumer Action Program (AUTOCAP) for dispute resolution. Check with your region’s dealer association to find out about its mediation program.
  • Consult your local small claims court clerk to learn how to file a suit and the dollar limits. You might be able to resolve disputes for small amounts of money without the expense of hiring an attorney.

How to Prevent the Problem

Buying a vehicle is a big event for most people. Discovering a defect soon after you buy a car can be frustrating, disheartening, and downright stressful. Always follow our primary tip to help avoid the problem: Obtain a complete mechanical inspection before buying a used car. The service might cost you a few hundred dollars, but consider it an insurance policy that might fend off many future headaches.

A mechanic’s thorough inspection may uncover potential problems or existing defects with the vehicle before you sign the paperwork. A pre-sale inspection may steer you away from a purchase that leaves you with an expensive repair bill after driving the car home.

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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was initially published.


What does "as-is" mean?

In general, the term “as is” means that a certain car is available in the condition as it is on the lot. This means that any defects or flaws with the car will be your responsibility as the buyer and won’t be covered by a warranty. The phrase “as is” is usually used in conjunction with the term “no warranty,” to be sure that the buyer knows he or she is buying a used car as it sits on the lot without any warranty coverage. Dealers are legally obligated to explain to the customer whether a car is being sold “as is” or with a warranty.

Can a new car battery be defective?

A new car battery lasts up to four years. However, you can let a car with a new battery sit for around three months before you start experiencing damage or deterioration.

What to look for when buying a used car?

Check the vehicle history report and review the car’s repair record. Read consumer and expert reviews for that car’s make and model, so you have a better idea of how reliable it’s been for other drivers. It’s always a good practice to have a mechanic do a thorough pre-purchase inspection for any major issues or hidden problems before buying a used car.

Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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  1. Sorry, but AS IS Doesnt mean that car is your baby. If the dealer knows the frame is bad,brakes are bad, and knows the tranny is bad, that no, HE CANT sell that car as is until its road worthy. Also its against the law NOT to have the sticker on the window showing this. Sticker must be on the window of EVERY used car or dealer can be fined. If dealer also lies about the price of the car on the title, to get you to buy the car, he can lose his license. Not my say so, its the law, ALSO, DOC FEE IS A farce,, thats pure profit, YRS ago that was called ” writing up a sale. Dont let dealer lie to you by saying, its the law that a doc fee gets put on,, or thats to pay for the ” girl’ to do the paper work. I already nailed a dealer in PA.. Had a $1,000 doc fee on a new sports car.Told the mgr, if he didnt put the right fee on i would report him and i’ll be back in a few days to check on that car. TYPE IN ” DOC FEE’ on cars for every state, i.e. Ohio is $250.00 meaning they cannot try to charge anything higher than that. DOC FEE.. PURE B.S.

  2. Your advice to have a mechanic check it out beforehand is good but there are some problems that escape such a check. A car with intermittent electrical problems can run fine for weeks, then die constantly, perhaps revived by disconnecting and reconnecting the battery, then die again after a few days. I had such a car — Honda CRV. A top garage with all the latest tools couldn’t find the problem. They replaced the battery and alternator with no success. I researched the issue and found that replacing the entire wiring harness might be required.

    I came to the conclusion after this experience that the next time I buy a used car I would only do it if I could achieve one or two things from the dealer:
    1> Get the owner’s name and phone number so that I could call them. Or —
    2> Make a rent to own deal. Drive it for a couple of months to make sure the electrical is ok.

    It seems that electrical issues are the bane of modern cars and often impossible to spot on first inspection.

  3. Before I bought a car 3 weeks ago, I checked CARFAX it is shown has service report, after 3 weeks drive it has engine problem we sent to mechanic shop they find out needs a engine. also they recommend you hire inspector for this issues. Can I return back the Car to dealer? or push the previus owenr to fix this issues? Please advise. Thanks

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