Consumer Protection

Never Rely on Verbal Promises at an Auto Dealership

By Joela Qose, Policy Coordinator, Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of buying a car. When you see one that you like at a dealership, you may be willing to accept anything a salesperson tells you. And in your excitement you may end up paying more than you can afford, getting extras you don’t really need, and finding that the car isn’t in as good shape as you were led to believe. The next time you are in the market for a car, never rely on verbal promises. Get everything in writing to avoid unpleasant surprises later.

Here’s how to avoid falling victim to some common unfair auto sales tactics:

Condition of the vehicle: The salesperson may make claims about the vehicle’s quality, safety, and overall condition, but don’t take their word for it. Get a thorough inspection at an independent mechanic before sealing the deal. This inspection can either prove or disprove the salesperson’s verbal promises. If you find out that the car needs work and you’re still interested in buying it, ask the dealership if it will make the repairs as a condition of your purchase. Be sure to get any repair agreements between you and the dealership in writing before completing the transaction.

Adding extras to the purchase: One way that dealers try to add to their profits is by selling add-on products to consumers such as extended service contracts and optional insurance coverage called GAP insurance. Extended service contracts may provide an added layer of protection if your vehicle breaks down, and GAP insurance can save you money if your vehicle is deemed a total loss down the road, but there are always limitations and exclusions for what’s covered. Plus there may already be a warranty with the car that provides adequate coverage. Do some research online about these types of products and consider the pros and cons and the cost of purchasing them before you visit the dealership and are faced with a decision in the moment and under pressure. Carefully review the written terms of any extended service plan or insurance the dealer offers, including the extent of coverage and cancellation policy. Do not sign the documents if there is anything you do not agree with or have questions about.

Affordability: Driving off with an affordable car is just about as important as driving off with a reliable one. Prior to visiting a dealership, seriously consider your budget and stick to it. When establishing a budget, remember that the final purchase price may also include sales tax, administrative fees for title and registration, and document preparation fees. It is also important to think about your credit score and the interest rate. It could be helpful to visit your local bank or credit union to see if you can obtain financing from them for less than it would cost through the dealership.

Monthly payment amount and total price: If you decide to obtain financing from the dealership, clearly inform your salesperson what you can afford to pay at the time of the purchase. The salesperson may present you with a mock invoice that estimates your monthly payment or make verbal promises about what you can expect to pay. That is not necessarily the amount you will actually pay.  The interest rate that you’re presented with in the finance agreement may be very different from what you were promised, so carefully review the paperwork. It should outline your interest rate, finance charge, the amount you will finance, and the total amount that you will have paid for the vehicle at the end of the loan, assuming all payments are made on time. If you have any questions about any of the numbers or statements on the contract, do not sign it until you get clarification.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment when negotiating to buy a car. It’s up to you to be vigilant and make sure every verbal promise is supported by an outside opinion and included in any written agreement.  If something is not right, don’t be afraid to speak up, ask a question, or hit the pause button on the transaction.

This blog is one of a series of articles contributed by state and local consumer agencies in connection with the annual survey about consumer complaints conducted by Consumer Federation of America. The survey report provides “real life” examples of complaints and tips for consumers. Have a consumer problem or question? Find your state or local consumer agency at