Chances are you rely on your vehicle to get you where you need to go — and when you need to go — whether it’s to work, school, the grocery store, or the soccer field. But if you’re late with your car payments, or in some states, if you don’t have adequate auto insurance, your vehicle could be taken away from you.
When you finance or lease a vehicle, your creditor or lessor has important rights that end once you’ve paid off your loan or lease obligation. These rights are established by the contract you signed and the law of your state. For example, if you don’t make timely payments on the vehicle, your creditor may have the right to “repossess” — or take back your car without going to court or warning you in advance. Your creditor also may be able to sell your contract to a third party, called an assignee, who may have the same right to seize the car as the original creditor.
The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that your creditor’s rights may be limited. Some states impose rules about how your creditor may repossess the vehicle and resell it to reduce or eliminate your debt. Creditors that violate any rules may lose other rights against you, or have to pay you damages.
Seizing the Vehicle
In many states, your creditor can seize your vehicle as soon as you default on your loan or lease. Your contract should state what constitutes a default, but failure to make a payment on time is a typical example.
However, if your creditor agrees to change your payment date, the terms of your original contract may not apply any longer. If your creditor agrees to such a change, make sure you have it in writing. Oral agreements are difficult to prove.
Once you are in default, the laws of most states permit the creditor to repossess your car at any time, without notice, and to come onto your property to do so. But when seizing the vehicle, your creditor may not commit a “breach of the peace.” In some states, that means using physical force, threats of force, or even removing your car from a closed garage without your permission.
Should there be a breach of the peace in seizing your car, your creditor may be required to pay a penalty or to compensate you if any harm is done to you or your property. A breach of peace also may give you a legal defense if your creditor sues you to collect a “deficiency judgment” — that is, the difference between what you owe on the contract (plus repossession and sale expenses) and what your creditor gets from the resale of your vehicle.
Selling the Vehicle
Once your vehicle has been repossessed, your creditor may decide to either keep it as compensation for your debt or resell it in a public or private sale. In some states, your creditor must let
Before you start shopping for a used car, do some homework. It may save you serious money. Consider your driving habits, what the car will be used for, and your budget. Research models, options, costs, repair records, safety tests, and mileage — online and through libraries and bookstores.
Whether you buy a used car from a dealer or an individual:
- Test drive the car under varied road conditions — on hills, highways, and in stop-and-go traffic.
- Ask for the car’s maintenance record from the owner, dealer, or repair shop.
- Determine the value of the vehicle before you negotiate the purchase. Check the National Automobile Dealers Association’s (NADA) Guides, Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, and Consumer Reports. Some of these organizations charge for this information.
- Research the upkeep costs for models you’re interested in, including the frequency of repairs and maintenance costs.
- Examine the car using an inspection checklist. You can find checklists in magazines, books, and on websites that deal with used cars.
- Check whether there are any unrepaired recalls on a vehicle. Start by asking the dealer if the vehicle you’re considering has a recall. You also can check yourself by entering the VIN at safercar.gov, or by calling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236. If there is a recall, ask the dealer to fix it, or to give you information showing it was fixed. Keep in mind that federal law doesn’t require dealers to fix recalls on used cars, so you might need to get the repair done yourself. But don’t wait — according to NHTSA, all safety recalls pose safety risks and, left unrepaired, might lead to accidents.
- Get an independent review of a vehicle’s history. Check a trusted database service that gathers information from state and local authorities, salvage yards, and insurance companies. For example, the Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) offers information about a vehicle’s title, odometer data, and certain damage history. Expect to pay a small fee for each report. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) maintains a free database that includes flood damage and other information. You can investigate a car’s history by its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). You also can search online for companies that sell vehicle history reports. If the report isn’t recent or you suspect that it has missing or fabricated information, verify it with the reporting company. The information in the reports may not be complete, so you may want to get a second report from a different reporting company. Some dealer websites have links to free reports.
- Consider hiring a mechanic to inspect the car.
You have two choices: pay in full or finance over time. Financing increases the total cost of the car because you’re also paying for the cost of credit, including interest and other costs. Consider how much you can put down, the monthly payment, the financing term (such as 48 months), and the