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Buying & Leasing a Car

Auto-Related Gripes Top List of Consumer Complaints

Bad deals and shoddy service abound, but there are ways to avoid problems with car repairs and sales.

Complaints related to auto repairs and sales once again came in it at No. 1 on a list of the biggest consumer gripes. Issues reported to state and local consumer-protection agencies ranged from odometers being rolled back on used cars to repair work that was paid for but not actually performed. The Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators, which together compile an annual list of the top ten complaints, based their latest on 360,538 reports received by 40 agencies in 2012.

Rounding out the list (in order) were complaints about home improvement and construction, credit and debt services, utilities, retail sales, services, door-to-door solicitations, landlords, Internet sales and household goods. Considering that auto complaints have been at the top of the list for the past several years, here are several things CFA and NACPI recommend that consumers do to avoid these common car-related problems.

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Faulty auto repairs. Check the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence's directory of repair shops where the technicians are ASE-certified, and get estimates for repair work in writing so there won't be any surprises. If you're unsure about what you're being told is wrong with your car, take it to another shop for a second opinion. You'll probably need to pay for the first mechanic's time, but it could be money well spent if it helps you avoid losing money on a shoddy repair. For more, see How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off on Auto Repairs.

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Car purchase problems. Whether you're buying a new or used car, there are several things you should do to make sure you don't end up with a lemon or get taken in by an unscrupulous seller. For starters, be wary of making purchases from individuals, either online or in-person. Dealers are regulated, but you may have little recourse if something goes wrong with a purchase from an individual. With used cars, check the condition by getting a vehicle-history report and an inspection by a trusted mechanic (see How to Check Out a Used Car). When shopping for a new car at a dealership, don't be rushed or pressured into signing an agreement -- read it carefully, ask questions and get help from someone you trust if there's something you don't understand. See How to Handle Car Dealers for more advice on buying a new car.

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Leasing disputes. Leasing a car can be confusing, so make sure you understand your contract before signing. When you turn in a car at the end of a contract, keep a copy of the lease agreement, note the mileage and take pictures to have proof of its condition in case disputes arise. For more on avoiding problems with leasing, see Five Myths About Leasing a Car and Smart Reasons to Lease Your Next Car.

If you have a consumer complaint, auto-related or not, and need help getting a resolution, follow these steps from the CFA:

1. Be prepared. Have documents, such as receipts, contracts, etc., to prove that you purchased a product or received a service. Know what type of resolution you would accept: replacement item, money back, store credit, etc.

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2. Contact the seller, service provider or manufacturer. Call first and ask for an appointment with the appropriate person who can hear your complaint. Explain the problem politely. If that person doesn't resolve the problem to your satisfaction, ask to speak to that person's supervisor.

3. Put it in writing. If the merchant doesn't resolve your complaint, write a letter with your name, address, phone number and brief statement of the problem and what you've already done to resolve it. Tell the merchant or service provider what you want done and give a reasonable time period for a response. Keep copies of all correspondence.

4. Get help from a government or nonprofit agency. The Better Business Bureau can help negotiate a solution (but it can't force members to resolve complaints). Or you could complain to the appropriate agency -- such as a contractors licensing board, state securities division or state insurance regulator -- local or state consumer-affairs bureau, or state attorney general's office.

5. Go to court. If all else fails, file a claim in small claims court or pursue a civil suit.

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