Auto Loans

Can You Return a Car After Signing?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

There are very few instances in which you can back out of buying a car after signing the paperwork, whether it’s new, used or leased. While the Federal Trade Commission does allow a 72-hour “cooling off period” for some types of purchases, it doesn’t apply to vehicles in most cases. In some states, car dealers are required to offer a right to cancel. Other states allow dealers to choose whether they offer this option, and under what conditions. We compiled a map showing what each state offers and tips if you’re stuck with an unwanted car.

You could return a car in these conditions

Here are some situations in which you may be able to return a car to the dealer. And if you have any major questions or problems, or something just seems super fishy to you, you could always contact your state’s attorney general office or local consumer protection bureau. For instance, the cooling-off period may apply if you bought a car at a dealer’s temporary location or after receiving a promotional mailer.

You have a written return policy from the dealer.

Some dealers may provide a money-back guarantee, a new car return policy or something similar. For example, Carvana gives a seven-day money-back guarantee on all of its cars if you change your mind after buying.

If the seller doesn’t advertise one, you could also ask about it or request a grace period. If the dealer does have a return policy or grants you a grace period, make sure it is in writing and that you have a copy before you sign anything else. Even if the dealer doesn’t have such a policy — or you failed to get it in writing — dealers usually value community reputation and want repeat and referral business, so they may be willing to work with you and unwind the deal.

You signed, but haven’t driven the car off the dealership lot.

Some states require that to officially buy a car, you must sign the purchase order and/or financing contract and take delivery. The latter is defined as the buyer driving the car off the dealership lot. So if you signed the papers in the office, step out to see your new car and change your mind, you don’t have to take the car. You could back out of buying the car.

For example, in Texas and Rhode Island, a buyer in this situation could receive a full refund, as well as the return of their trade-in vehicle or its value. If the dealer isn’t allowing you to back out of buying a car after signing and you haven’t taken delivery, don’t drive the car. Call your state’s attorney general or consumer protection bureau, tell them you haven’t taken delivery of the vehicle and ask if you can back out.

The vehicle is a lemon car.

If you buy something, you expect it to work. If there is a major problem, or a string of problems, with a car you just bought, you may have a lemon car. Besides asking the seller to fix the car, you could use state or federal law to back your case.

The definition of a lemon car depends on your state. For example, Alaska’s lemon law defines it as a new car with a problem that hasn’t been solved despite three repair attempts by the seller, so a used car can’t be considered a lemon in Alaska. The Better Business Bureau tracks state lemon laws. If your car does fit the definition and the dealer refuses to work with you, contact your local consumer protection bureau or state attorney general.

If common sense says your car is a lemon, but it isn’t covered by state law, it could be covered by the federal Magnuson Moss Warranty Act, which regulates consumer warranties, including vehicle warranties.

You have military orders to move or deploy.

Active-duty service members with orders to move or deploy may be able to terminate an auto lease and return the car to a dealer under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) without paying early termination fees.

Yet SCRA doesn’t cover auto financing in this way. It does cap interest rates in certain situations, but it doesn’t allow for a car loan cancellation. If you need to move or deploy overseas and you’re financing a car, check with your lender on whether you could bring the car with you. However, you may ultimately have to leave it stateside and continue making payments.

Why sellers usually don’t have to accept returned cars

If dealers had to allow three days for buyers to potentially return major purchases, major purchases that could be crashed, dinged and scratched, prices would most likely go up.

An institutionalized, three-day return period would throw a major wrench in the car sales process. A car couldn’t be counted as truly sold until days after it was bought, which would cause chaos not only in dealers’ inventory count, but also in lenders’ and insurance companies’ accounting ledgers.

How to get rid of an unwanted car

Whether you can’t afford it or you just don’t like it, here are some ways you could deal with an unwanted car that you can’t return.

Talk with the dealer — nicely.

Don’t walk in with hellfire and brimstone — go to the dealership, ask to speak with a manager and explain why you don’t want the car. A big negotiating point in your favor is if you still want to buy a car from them, just not that particular model. If you had financing, it can be more complicated. Once all the paperwork is submitted to the lender and your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), it’s hard to get it back. You would need both the dealer and the lender to be willing and able to stop the process.

Trade in the car.

You could use the car as a trade-in to get the car you want. Whether you’re after a less expensive car or just a different car, you could trade in the one you just bought and don’t want in order to get the car you do want.

The downside of this is that a car’s trade-in value is less than its retail value, which means you’re likely to lose money. You’ll have to make the call whether the financial loss is worth it. To make sure you are getting the top trade-in value, you could use a free, online industry guide like Kelley Blue Book or NADAguides to see what the car is worth.

Sell the car.

If the financial loss of trading in the car is too big, you could try selling it to another person. A car’s value in a private sale is usually more than its trade-in value. You could potentially sell it to a friend or family member, or post it for sale on a site like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist. Here’s how to sell your car on Craigslist.

What to do if you can’t return a car

If it looks like you’ll be stuck with the car for the time being, here are 11 hacks to pay it off faster. And if you just don’t like the car, you could try to make it more palatable in small ways, such as using an auto air freshener you like or adding accessories.

In most cases, once you’ve signed the paperwork and driven the car off the dealership lot, then the car is yours. You’ve bought it, and the dealer doesn’t have to take it back — and laws saying a dealer has to take a car back are few and far between. But if you think your car is a lemon or feel that you’ve been lied to, seek help from your state attorney general’s office.

 

Compare Auto Loan Offers