What to Look For In A Car Sale Contract

You found the car, negotiated the price, and are ready to grab the keys and go! First, review the car sale contract, here's what you should look for.


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You've found the car. You've negotiated the price. You're ready to grab the keys and go! But first, you'll need to get past the car sale contract, which is arguably the most intimidating part of the process.

A contract's endless pages of legal jargon can intimidate even the most diligent car buyer. It can be more than tempting to grab the pen and say, "Tell me where to sign." Please don't. Let's run through how to protect yourself from a fraudulent car sale contract and what to do if you find errors before signing.

What is a Car Sale Contract?

A car sale contract is a legal document containing all the relevant information about the sale. It will include all the vehicle information, your information, and the financial terms of the sale. During any dispute in the future, whether it is registering the car, selling the vehicle, or disputing the warranty terms, this document will be the final word. Thus, its information needs to be correct.

Protect Yourself Before the Contract

To prevent errors in your contract, you'll ideally start your work before the document is drawn. During the vehicle negotiations, be sure to write down as much information as possible. This includes the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), trade-in vehicle offer, interest rates (APR), and any charges that the salesperson mentions ahead of time.

Before You Sign

When the dealer puts the car sale contract before you, be sure to slow down, take your time to review all the information, including the following:

  • Incorrect personal information: your name and address may seem obvious to you. But if the contract gets it wrong, it can turn into a hassle at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Be sure to double-check it
  • Add ons: knowing that very few buyers check the contract, some particularly untrustworthy dealers may slip in necessary costs. Things like sealants, paint finishes, and maintenance are common inserts
  • Proper trade-in value: be sure that the amount quoted beforehand matches the number on the document
  • Interest rates (APR): they can change due to incentives or credit scores. Keep an eye on those numbers. You may just save yourself a significant chunk of change
  • Incentives or rebates: don't take anyone's word for it, be sure all of the savings are outlined in the fine print
  • Warranty info: protect your vehicle (and your wallet) by ensuring you get the proper coverage
  • Charging for free items: if you've checked the maintenance program and it says you have free scheduled maintenance for three years, why would you agree to pay for oil changes? Just an example, but you get the drift

After You Sign

Before you blaze into the sunset in your new ride, slow your roll. You'll want to check your copy of the contract against the original and make sure there are no discrepancies. If you find errors on the agreement, don't panic. There are two main things you can do:

  • Dispute it: people make mistakes. It could just be human error
  • Fight them: stand your ground if the dealer refuses to correct the inaccuracy. Show your notes, ask for evidence of an add-on, be your own best advocate

If You've Been A Victim

There are several recourses for the car buyer who an unethical dealership has unwittingly defrauded. Start by reporting the business to your state's DMV and perhaps your consumer protection office. Federal agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), also have divisions responsible for enforcing such violations. Finally, consider hiring an attorney to protect you if things get complicated.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
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Amelia Dalgaard
From reading my dad’s car magazines under the covers to writing in the automotive space, my job is a dream come true. I am the woman who took her toddlers to car shows and married the man that thought a test drive was the perfect first date. I love nothing more than helping all consumers find a vehicle that will enhance their lives.