Tips for buying a vehicle

Learn what questions to ask the seller, and see what types of fraud you should watch for when you buy a vehicle.

Ask questions

Ask the seller the following questions:

  • Are you the owner of the vehicle?
  • How long have you owned it?
  • What's the vehicle's mileage?
  • How has the vehicle been driven (for example, around town vs. long trips)?
  • Has there been major work on the vehicle, and do you have receipts for the work that's been done?
  • Did you buy the vehicle new?
  • Has the vehicle ever had rust problems?
  • Has it ever been wrecked, had body repairs, or been repainted?
  • Do you have the title?
  • Are you a licensed vehicle dealer?

Have your mechanic take a look

Ask your mechanic to check:

  • The radio
  • The heater and air conditioning systems
  • The windshield wipers (front and rear)
  • All lights (interior and exterior) and turn signals
  • The brakes, front and rear: make sure there is enough brake fluid and there is no pulling
  • All tires: look for good tread and matching sizes
  • Under the hood: check for dirty oil, check all hoses, look for battery leaks, etc.

Make sure the vehicle meets California emission standards

Starting with 2009 models, all new cars, light-duty trucks, SUVs, and passenger vans must meet these standards. If your vehicle doesn't meet them, you cannot register, license, rent, or or sell it for use in Washington state.

If you're buying a vehicle with less than 7,500 miles, make sure it meets these standards. Ask the seller or check the Vehicle Emissions Control Information (VECI) label in the engine compartment. You can register the vehicle in Washington is it is certified for one of the following:

  • California emission standards
  • For sale in all 50 states
  • For sale in the northeast

For more information, see Clean Car emission requirements.

Check for liens against the vehicle

Even if the seller presents a title to you, you should verify the title is valid and clear of lien holders by calling us at 360-902-3770. We can verify the title, but we can't give you details about the vehicle.

Beware of curbstoners

A curbstoner is a person who makes money from buying used vehicles and reselling them. They're unlicensed dealers who don't comply with state or federal laws. You have no legal protection when dealing with them.

You may be dealing with a curbstoner if:

  • The vehicle is parked along the street or in a vacant lot
  • The seller asks you to meet them at a location other than their home
  • The seller wants a cash transaction and won't accept checks or money orders
  • The Certificate of Ownership (title) to the vehicle isn't in the name of the seller

Learn more about curbstoning.

Check the vehicle's history

If you have the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), you can check its ownership history and if it's had title problems, accidents, or repairs.

Watch for odometer fraud

To protect yourself from odometer fraud, check the odometer carefully.

  • Rolled back odometers often have misaligned numbers, so make sure the numbers line up
  • Have a mechanic check for signs of high use that seem inconsistent with the odometer miles
  • Check the wear on the pedals; If the odometer has low miles, the pedals shouldn't show signs of excessive wear

Don't sign the contract unless you've read and understand it

There's no 3-day cooling-off period to cancel a vehicle purchase from a licensed dealer. Once you sign, the car is yours and you're bound by the contract.

  • Get all verbal commitments for services, improvements, or changes in writing
  • Never sign a contract with spaces left blank; mark them out or fill them in appropriately
  • Before you sign, the dealer must disclose, in writing, all:
    • Finance charge(s)
    • Insurance costs
    • Taxes
    • Any other charges you'll pay under the contract

If anything on your sales contract is different than what you negotiated, insist the seller correct them before you sign.

Keep a written record of your purchase

Make sure to keep copies of:

  • All paperwork, including: your contract, purchase orders, canceled checks, warranty agreements, and timelines for completion
  • The names, phone numbers, titles, and business cards of the people you do business with at the dealership
  • The name of the company providing all warranty work
  • A copy of the underwriter's warranty agreement

Learn about the Lemon Law

The Washington State Motor Vehicle Lemon Law is designed to help people who have ongoing problems with their new vehicle warranty repairs. See the Motor Vehicle Lemon Law ( on the Office of the Attorney General's site.

Transfer the title into your name

It's important to be sure the title of your new vehicle is in your name. If you buy from a dealer in Washington state, they will transfer the title for you. If you buy from a private seller, you need to transfer the title into your name. Learn more about transferring a title when buying from a private party.

Replace the license plates, if necessary

You will need to replace the license plates on your new vehicle. The only exceptions to this are when:

  • You're removing a deceased spouse or domestic partner from the title
  • The vehicle is transferred:
    • Between spouse or domestic partner
    • By gift or inheritance to the registered owner's immediate family
    • Into or out of a trust in which the registered owner or their immediate family members are the beneficiary of the trust

Report any complaints

Let us know if you feel a dealer or manufacturer treated you unfairly by completing a Business and Professions Complaint form. Be sure to include all supporting documentation.

Get tips about buying a vehicle

Other resources

Brochure with tips for buying a vehicle:

Need additional help? Here's how to contact us:

call Phone: 360-902-3770
(TTY: Call 711)
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