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Tips for buying a vehicle

How COVID-19 affects auto dealers

Governor Inslee issued updated guidance on January 11, 2021. It affects how auto dealers may conduct sales and leasing activities.

You can report violations of the Governor's orders.

When buying a vehicle, ask questions

  • Are you the owner of the vehicle? How long have you owned it?
  • What's the vehicle's mileage?
  • How has the vehicle been driven? (Around town vs. long trips)
  • Has there been major work 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?
  • Do you have the title?
  • Are you a licensed vehicle dealer?

Have your mechanic take a look

Have your mechanic check:

  • The radio, heater, windshield wipers, lights, and turn signals.
  • The brakes — make sure there is enough brake fluid and there is no pulling.
  • The tires — look for good tread and matching sizes.
  • Under the hood — is the battery leaking, check for dirty oil, check the hoses, etc.

Make sure the vehicle meets California emission standards

Starting with 2009 models, all new cars, light-duty trucks, SUVs, and passenger vans must meet these standards. Vehicles that don't meet the standards can't be registered, licensed, rented, or sold for use in Washington.

If you're buying a vehicle with less than 7,500 miles, make sure it meets these standards. Ask the seller or check the Vehicle Emissions Control Information (VECI) label in the engine compartment. If it shows the vehicle is certified for California emission standards, for sale in all 50 states, or for sale in the northeast, 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 lien holders by calling us: 360.902.3770. We can verify the title — we can't give you 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 their 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.

Learn more about curbstoning, visit www.stopcurbstoning.com.

Check the vehicle's history

If you have the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), you can check it's ownership history and if it's had title problems, accidents, or repairs:

Watch for odometer fraud

To protect yourself from odometer fraud, check the odometer carefully:

  • Do the numbers line up? Rolled back odometers often have misaligned numbers.
  • Have a mechanic check for signs of high use that seem inconsistent with the odometer miles.
  • Check the wear on the pedals. If the odometer has 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 to cancel a vehicle purchase from a licensed dealer. Once you sign, the car is yours and you're bound by the contract.

  • Get all verbal commitments for services, improvements, or changes in writing.
  • Never sign a contract with spaces left blank. Mark them out or fill them in appropriately.
  • Before you sign, the dealer must 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 paperwork, including your contract, purchase orders, canceled checks, warranty agreements, and timelines for completion.
  • The names, phone numbers, titles, and business cards of the people you do business with at the dealership.
  • 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 people who have ongoing problems with their new vehicle warranty repairs. See the Motor Vehicle Lemon Law (atg.wa.gov) on the Office of the Attorney General's site.

Be sure to transfer the title

To see how to transfer a title when you buy a vehicle: Transfer ownership into your name.

When is a license plate required to be replaced?

When a vehicle changes ownership, the new owner will need to replace the plates.

There are exceptions — Plates don't need to be replaced if:

  • You're removing a deceased spouse or domestic partner from the title.
  • The vehicle is transferred:
    • between spouse or domestic partner.
    • by gift or inheritance to the registered owner's immediate family.
    • into or out of a trust in which the registered owner or their immediate family members are the beneficiary of the trust.

Report any complaints

Let us know if you feel a dealer or manufacturer treated you unfairly by completing a Dealer, Manufacturer Services and For Hire Complaint form. Be sure to include all supporting documentation.

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