Tips for buying a vehicle

Ask questions

Here are some helpful questions to ask when buying a car, motorcycle, or other vehicle from a private party or dealership:

  • Are you the owner of the vehicle? How long have you owned it?
  • What is the vehicle’s mileage?
  • How has the vehicle been driven? (Around town vs. long trips)
  • What major work have you done on the vehicle? Do you have receipts?
  • Did you buy the vehicle new?
  • Has the vehicle ever had rust problems?
  • Has it ever been wrecked, had body repairs, or been repainted?
  • Does it have a valid emission inspection certificate?
  • Do you have the title?
  • Are you a licensed vehicle dealer?

Have your mechanic take a look

  • Make sure everything works, including the radio, heater, windshield wipers, lights, and turn signals.
  • Check the brakes — make sure there is enough brake fluid and there is no pulling.
  • Check the tires — look for good tread and matching sizes.
  • Check under the hood — look at the battery for leaks, check for dirty oil, check the hoses, etc.

Make sure the vehicle meets clean air requirements

Starting with 2009 models, all new cars, light-duty trucks, SUVs, and passenger vans must be certified to California emission standards. Vehicles that don’t meet these strict clean air standards cannot be registered, licensed, rented, or sold for use in Washington. If you are buying a new vehicle, or a used vehicle with less than 7,500 miles on the odometer, make sure it meets California emission standards before you buy:

  • Ask the dealer or individual selling you the vehicle if it’s certified to California emission standards.
  • Check the Vehicle Emissions Control Information (VECI) label in the engine compartment. If the label shows the vehicle is certified for California emission standards, for sale in all 50 states, or for sale in the northeast, it meets emission requirements and you may register it in Washington.

For more information, see Clean Car emission requirements.

Check for liens against the vehicle

Even if the seller presents a title to you, you should verify the title is valid and clear of any lien holders. You can do this by calling us at 360.902.3770. Please note that we can only verify whether the title is valid and clear — we can’t give you any details about the vehicle.

Beware of curbstoners

A curbstoner is a person who makes money from buying used vehicles and reselling them. They’re unlicensed dealers who don’t comply with state or federal laws. You have no legal protection when dealing with them.

You may be dealing with a curbstoner if:

  • The vehicle is parked along the street or in a vacant lot.
  • The seller asks you to meet them at a location other than his or her home.
  • The seller wants a cash transaction and won’t accept checks or money orders.
  • The Certificate of Ownership (title) to the vehicle isn’t in the name of the seller.

To learn more about curbstoning, visit www.stopcurbstoning.com.

Check the vehicle’s history

If you have the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), you can check the vehicle’s ownership history and find out about any past title problems, accidents, or repairs. For example:

  • National Motor Vehicle Title Information System is a database of vehicle history information maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice. The system is designed to help protect consumers from fraud and can provide odometer, theft, title brand, and salvage information about individual vehicles.
  • Your local law enforcement can tell you if the vehicle has been reported stolen.

Watch for odometer fraud

Even though it is illegal, each year the odometers on 3 million used vehicles are rolled back an average of 30,000 miles each. To protect yourself from odometer fraud, check the odometer carefully:

  • Check to see if the numbers line up. Rolled back odometers often have misaligned numbers.
  • Have a mechanic check your vehicle for signs of high use that seem inconsistent with the number of miles.
  • Check the wear on the pedals. If the odometer reads very low miles, the pedals shouldn’t show signs of excessive wear.

Don’t sign the contract unless you’ve read and understand it

There’s no 3-day cooling-off period allowing you to cancel a vehicle purchase from a dealer at a licensed location. Once you sign the contract, the car is yours and you’re bound by the contract.

  • Get all verbal commitments for services, improvements, or changes to the product in writing.
  • Never sign a contract with spaces left blank. Mark them out or fill them in appropriately.
  • Before you sign the contract, the dealer is required to separately disclose in writing the finance charge, insurance costs, taxes, and other charges you’ll pay under the contract. If they’re different than what you negotiated, insist they be corrected.

Keep a written record of your purchase

Make sure to keep copies of all the following for your records:

  • All paperwork, including your contract, purchase orders, canceled checks, warranty agreements, and timelines for completion.
  • The names of all points of contact, such as the people you do business with at the dealership. Keep their names, phone numbers, titles, and business cards.
  • The name of the company providing all warranty work and a copy of the underwriter’s warranty agreement.

Find out about the Lemon Law

The Washington State Motor Vehicle Lemon Law is designed to help new vehicle owners who have ongoing problems with warranty repairs on their vehicle. Visit the Office of the Attorney General’s website for information about the Motor Vehicle Lemon Law.

Be sure to transfer the title

For information on how to transfer a title when you buy a vehicle, see Transfer ownership into your name.

Report any complaints

Let us know if you feel a dealer or manufacturer treated you unfairly by completing a Vehicle Dealers and Manufacturers Complaint Form. Be sure to follow the instructions on the form and include all supporting documentation.

See also:

Washington Healthcare Finder
Access Washington