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

There are some exceptions to this rule. Some dealerships may allow you to return the vehicle under specific circumstances. If the car has major mechanical issues, the dealership may be required by law to accept a return.

Still, it’s better 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 or mechanical issues. The dealership may be willing to work with you if you cannot make payments.

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 the car’s seller cheated you, you should consider meeting with the dealership manager. When you meet with the manager, bring documentation to corroborate your claim that you were wronged.

For example, if you believe the dealer overcharged, present evidence of the vehicle’s fair market value from a reputable source (like Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book) to support your argument.

Present your case to the manager calmly. Remember that since you’ve already signed the contract, your options are limited if the manager chooses not to honor your request.

You may also:

  • 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 Federal Trade Commission.
Bankrate tip
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.

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 determined whether you could afford the monthly payments before purchasing the car.

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, contact the sales manager or the dealership’s general manager.

Once you’ve exhausted those options, look into other methods to lower your monthly payments. Refinancing your auto loan with a lower interest rate or a longer term can lower your monthly payment.

Bankrate tip
Use an auto loan refinance calculator to see how much money you could save and compare different loan options.

Your car is a lemon

To build a case for returning a car that doesn’t run properly, first gather documentation showing the mechanical problems you’ve experienced. You may need multiple trips to the dealer’s service department. Ensure your complaints are noted in detail on all repair orders.

If the problem still hasn’t been fixed, you may determine your car is a lemon — a vehicle beyond repair. Since laws vary from state to state, you’ll have to research to see whether you can make a legitimate lemon law claim. In most states, lemon laws only apply to new vehicles with a serious defect impairing 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. You can research the laws in your state on The Center for Auto Safety’s website, which outlines each state’s required actions and timeline for returning a car under lemon laws.

Upon a successful claim, you’ll be able to secure a refund or comparable vehicle exchange.

Only seven states have lemon laws for used cars: Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York. Limitations apply, and these laws may not provide much relief in your situation.

Bankrate tip
You may be entitled to reimbursement of your attorney fees if you hire an attorney to help make your case. Be sure to keep track of your legal fees during the process.

You changed your mind

Dealers do not generally find buyer’s remorse persuasive. 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 among its exceptions. Even if a dealership sells you a car at a temporary location, the rule still applies as long as they have a permanent location.

Some states also have a “right to cancel” period that lets you return the car within a certain time frame without incurring any penalties or damage to your credit profile. However, the vehicle must be in the same condition as when you purchased it. Other limitations often apply.

Bankrate tip
Try and avoid this scenario by researching ahead of time. Follow these 10 steps to find the best car for you before signing off on a new vehicle.

Your dealer has a return policy

A few dealerships have return policies. For example, CarMax has a 30-day return policy. If you don’t like the car, you can exchange it for one you like or get a refund.

In addition, some dealerships have exchange programs where you have a limited number of days to exchange the vehicle.

Keep in mind that excessive depreciation or other stipulations could prevent you from being able to turn the car in. If you can turn it in, you will likely have to pay the difference between the current value and what the vehicle is currently worth.

Bankrate tip
Always get a dealership’s return policy in writing. That way, you’ll understand the terms and conditions and can navigate any attempt 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 to purchase a car. This process involves several steps.

Read car reviews about the make and model you are considering on websites like Consumer Reports. It’s also a good idea to perform price research using Kelley Blue Book or Carfax, compare auto loan rates, create a budget to see how much car you can afford and test-drive the vehicle.

It’s equally important to research dealerships in advance by reading online reviews. Use sites like BBB.com to ensure dealerships have a good reputation and exceptional customer service.

Finally, you’ll also want to spend some time researching the history and condition of the specific car you’re considering purchasing. You can begin by reviewing history reports for the vehicle via sites like Carfax or AutoCheck, where information on the vehicle can be accessed using its vehicle identification number. If you’re purchasing a car from a dealer, ask the dealership to provide the car’s history for your review. 

It’s also a good idea to take the car to be inspected by an independent, third-party mechanic who can provide an unbiased assessment of the car and any issues it may have. If the mechanic discovers mechanical problems, ask the seller to foot the bill for repairs.

Alternatives to returning your car

Can’t return your car? You still have options.

  • 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. You might be unable to recoup the full amount you paid the dealer because a car depreciates 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 eliminate your monthly payments, you should think twice before taking this action. A lender can still report the repossession to the credit bureaus. Repossession negatively impacts your credit score for up to seven years, 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. While taking this step will reduce your credit score slightly, the effects are only temporary. In fact, after just a few months of making payments, your credit score should rebound or even improve.

The bottom line

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

If you’re unable to return a car, there are other ways to get rid of it. You can sell it or file a lemon law claim under certain circumstances. Alternatively, if you have buyer’s remorse due to high payments but want to keep the car, you can refinance the auto loan to lower the payments.