Can you return a car you just bought?

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If you’ve purchased a new or used car and you’re having second thoughts about it, in most cases, you won’t be able to return the car. The dealer who sold you the car is usually not legally obligated to take the car back and issue you a refund or exchange after you’ve signed the sales contract.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule. Some dealerships may allow you to return the vehicle if you’re unsatisfied or if the car has major mechanical issues, but only under special circumstances. Because of this, it’s a good idea to do your best to avoid having to return a car in the first place.

Reasons to return your car

Besides buyer’s remorse, possible reasons to return your car include financial issues or mechanical issues. If you are unable to make payments, the dealership may be willing to work with you. With mechanical issues, whether you can return the car to the dealer depends on how lemon laws work in your state and the terms and conditions of the car return policy.

You got ripped off

If you feel like you’ve been ripped off after purchasing your vehicle, you should consider meeting with the dealership manager. When you meet with the manager, bring documentation with you to corroborate your claim that you’ve been wronged.

To research whether you’ve paid an unfair amount, you can look up the value of cars with the same make, same model and similar mileage on Kelley Blue Book or Carfax.

When presenting your case to the manager, do so in a calm manner. However, keep in mind that since you’ve already signed the contract, your options are limited if the manager chooses not to honor your request.

You may also choose to take the following actions:

  • Contact your state attorney general’s office to discuss your options.
  • File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
  • Hire an attorney to sue the dealership.
  • Leave a bad review on the dealership’s website.
  • File a complaint with your state’s consumer protection agency or the FTC.

Your car payments are too high

If you want to return your car because your monthly car payments are too high, you’ll have a more difficult time making the case to return the car. The dealership’s general manager could argue that you should have done a better job examining your finances to see whether you could afford the monthly payments before purchasing the car.

Still, it’s up to the dealership whether to allow you to bring back the car and exchange it for something more affordable. Speak with the salesperson who sold you the car first; if that doesn’t work, reach out to the sales manager or the dealership’s general manager.

Once you’ve exhausted those options, you’ll have to resort to other methods to lower your monthly payments. For example, refinancing your auto loan with a lower interest rate or longer term can lower your monthly payment. Use an auto loan refinance calculator to see how much money you could save and to compare different loan options.

Your car is a lemon

If the reason for wanting to return your car is mechanical problems, first gather all of the documentation showing the mechanical problems you’ve experienced. This may require multiple trips to the dealer’s service department. When you visit, make sure that your complaints are noted in detail on all repair orders.

If the problem still hasn’t been fixed, you may feel like your car is a lemon — a vehicle that is beyond repair. Since lemon laws vary from state to state, you’ll have to do some research to see whether a legitimate lemon law claim can be made. For example, in most states, lemon laws only apply to new vehicles that have a serious defect that impairs your ability to drive it.

Other lemon law requirements that vary from state to state include the length of time after purchasing the car, the vehicle’s mileage and the number of times the dealership attempted to fix the vehicle.

If you file a successful claim, you may be able to get a refund from the dealership or comparable vehicle exchange. In addition, you may be entitled to reimbursement of your attorney fees if you hired an attorney during the process.

You changed your mind

When you simply have buyer’s remorse after buying a car, you’ll probably have the hardest time getting the dealer to agree to a car return. That’s because very few dealerships have a return policy; once you sign the sales contract, you’re responsible for paying the note as promised.

Although the FTC has a Cooling-Off Rule — a rule where you have three days to cancel a sale made at your home, workplace or seller’s temporary location — a vehicle purchase is one of the exceptions to the rule. Even if a dealership sells you a car at a temporary location, as long as they have one a permanent location, the rule still applies.

Your dealer has a return policy

You may want to return your car simply because you don’t like it, and occasionally the dealership you purchased it from will have a return policy. For example, CarMax has a seven-day return policy. If you don’t like the car, you can exchange it for one you do like or get a refund.

In addition, some dealerships have exchange programs where you have a limited number of days to exchange the vehicle. Toyota of Cool Springs has a program allows you to exchange the vehicle within three days, as long as you haven’t driven over 100 miles.

If you happen to find one of the few dealerships that have a return policy, always get it in writing. That way you’ll understand the terms and conditions and force them to honor your car return request if they try to deny your claim.

How to avoid returning a car

If you want to avoid the difficult process of returning a car, you should properly prepare for purchasing a car. This involves reading reviews on websites like Consumer Reports, performing price research using Kelley Blue Book or CarFax, comparing auto loan rates, creating a budget to see how much car you can afford and test-driving the vehicle. To avoid purchasing a lemon, you could also bring along a trusted mechanic to inspect the vehicle.

In addition, to avoid potentially being overcharged by the car dealership’s financing department, it’s a good idea to get prequalified for an auto loan. That way you can compare the interest rates you get from multiple lenders with the rate the dealership gives you. Plus, this will give you an idea of how much your monthly payments will be, so you can decide whether the loan fits your car budget.

Alternatives to returning your car

Here are some alternatives to returning your car:

  • Sell it. By selling your car to someone else, you might be able to get out of being stuck with a car you don’t like. The downside of doing this is that you might not be able to recoup the full amount you paid the dealer, since a car depreciates in value as soon as it’s driven off the car lot. You’ll be on the hook for paying the difference between the dealership price and the price the buyer pays for the vehicle.
  • Ask for voluntary repossession. If you can’t afford the monthly payments, you could call the lender and ask for a voluntary repossession. Although this would get rid of your monthly payments, you should think twice before taking this action. A lender can still report this repossession to the credit bureaus, which will negatively impact your credit score, making it more expensive to take out a future auto loan.
  • Refinance your auto loan. If your monthly payments are too high, you can refinance your car loan by extending your term or securing a lower interest rate. Refinancing is a common tactic and won’t hurt your credit score in the same way as voluntary repossession.

The bottom line

Before you purchase a car, spend some time researching the price of cars you like, reading the dealership’s return policy and car reviews. Failing to do research could leave stuck with a car you don’t like. This is because in most cases, you can’t return a car you just bought — most dealerships won’t allow it.

However, if you do find yourself unable to return a car, there are ways to get rid of it. You can sell it, file a lemon law claim under certain circumstances or enter into a voluntary repossession with the dealership. Alternatively, if you have buyer’s remorse due to high payments and want to keep the car, you can refinance the auto loan to lower the payments.

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Written by
Jerry Brown
Contributing writer
Jerry Brown is a contributing writer for Bankrate. Jerry writes about home equity, personal loans, auto loans and debt management.
Edited by
Student loans editor