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The Most Important Car Buying Tip

07/22/2011 02:48 pm ET | Updated Sep 21, 2011

As an attorney, I've heard all the lawyer jokes but I take solace in the fact that there is one professional generally viewed with less respect than the attorney. I refer, of course, to the used car salesman. Perhaps then it makes sense that I have spent the last 20 years suing car dealers for the things they do to consumers. In that time, I have spoken to thousands of consumers who have been ripped off by car dealers and I have heard it all. I can often finish the stories told to me by new clients. I can also tell you some basic things you can do to protect yourself next time you go car shopping. Here is the most important.

Car sales are controlled by the purchase agreement you will be asked to sign once a deal has been struck. Most of these are pre-printed forms smothered in boilerplate legalese. Among the gibberish they ask you to sign is a sentence or two confirming that "verbal statements made by the sales person are not binding on the seller." Yes, that means the salesman can tell you anything he wants; it won't mean a thing legally. "This car is brand new." "This is a one-owner car." "This car has never been wrecked." "This car was not pulled from the bottom of a canal and refurbished after we pulled out all the dead alligators." My advice? Ignore everything the salesman says to you. EVERYTHING. None of it means a thing until it's reduced to writing. (In some states, you can argue that the salesman's statements meant something notwithstanding the disclaimer, but it is much harder to prove; written statements usually trump verbal ones.)

The flipside of this is fascinating. If it doesn't count until they write it down, what happens when you ask them to write it down? Watch and learn. When you talk to the saleswoman and she tells you something worthwhile like, "This car has a brand new engine," ask her to write it on the purchase agreement and let the fun begin. You will be told, "We're not allowed to write things on the purchase agreement," or "You don't need me to write that down, I'm giving you my word." If she won't write it down, refer to the previous paragraph and know this: The saleswoman is lying to you. There is no reason that a salesperson would hesitate to write a truthful statement down on a purchase agreement.

I've had a lot of clients who were harmed by broken promises of dealerships which could have been easily avoided. You take a car for a test drive and you love the car but you notice that the air conditioning is blowing warm air or the stereo cuts in and out. Other than the minor problem, the car is perfect. You say you'll buy the car if they fix the problem and they agree. "Sign here!" Don't sign anything yet. Why would you agree to buy a car in need of repair? This is actually one of the most common problems I encounter in my field: car buyers trust dealers to perform repairs after the purchase has been consummated. This is silly. Why not just say, "I'll sign that purchase agreement right after you show me that the car is fixed." I've heard of dealers who actually say, "Since we're fixing it for you, you need to sign." Huh?! It's their car. It's not yours yet.

People who foolishly agree to buy the unfixed car run into one of the following two scenarios. Often, the dealer simply refuses to repair the car after the purchase. Why should they fix it? Now, it's just money out of their pocket and there's nothing you can do for them at this point -- you're just costing them money. But wait! What if you were astute enough to make them put the promise of repair in writing on the purchase agreement? They can't refuse to repair the car outright, so what most often happens is that the dealer will simply drag its feet in making the repairs. "We'll get to it when we get to it." They might cut corners, installing used parts to "fix" whatever was broken on the car. Or, they might just do a shoddy job working on the car. I've seen used car dealers that had no mechanics on their staff still attempt to repair a used car. Hey, they never promised it would be fixed by a mechanic; they just said they'd "fix" it. Again, they have little motivation to repair the car now. All they wanted to do was make the sale and they did that back when you signed the purchase agreement for the defective car.

So, next time you go car shopping remember this: Ignore everything the salesperson tells you. It doesn't count until it's written on the purchase agreement. And if they won't write it there for you, walk away. Keep in mind how important that purchase agreement is. In fact, I wrote a whole chapter on it here.

Steve Lehto is the author of The New Lemon Law Bible: Everything the Smart Consumer Needs to Know About Automobile Law.

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