Car Buyers: The 3-Day Grace Period Is Just a Myth!

Many car buyers think they have three days after making a purchase to return a car. Here’s where they’re going wrong, and what they should do instead to get a decent used car.

A woman tentatively looks into a car with a for sale sign in the driver's side window.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Let’s say you purchase a used car from a dealership and later want to bring it back for a refund. Do you have the legal right to get your money back regardless of the reason? Does the “Three-Day Cooling Off Period” apply?

That’s what “Mack” thought.

‘I Looked Under the Seats and Found Drug Paraphernalia!’

“I bought a used SUV two days ago and want to take it back to the dealer for a refund, but when I told them why they laughed at me and refused,” Mack told me in a call recently.

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When I asked if there was anything mechanically wrong with the vehicle, he replied, “No, it drives fine, but it is what I found under the front seats that scares me: dangerous drug paraphernalia.” His tone of voice grew increasingly strident the longer we spoke.

And what was he looking for under the front seats?

“For money or jewelry sometimes that winds up there, but instead I found vaping equipment! That’s illegal! I don’t know what other illegal items are in the car, and I want my money back! Also, don’t I have three days to cancel the contract?”

I explained to Mack that while there is such a thing as a Three-Day Cooling-Off Rule, in most all cases – including this one – it doesn’t apply to car purchases. And besides, in his state, mere possession of vaping hardware is not illegal. Unless he had the right to bring the car back for a refund – spelled out in the sales contract – the dealership could decline his request.

Car Buyers Shouldn’t Believe the 3-Day Myth

“There is a mythical three-day return period on cars,” Michigan Lemon Law attorney and author Steve Lehto points out. He is also the host of the highly informative “Lehto’s Law,” YouTube channel. “Even though it doesn't exist, people are still adamant that they can return a car within three days for any reason. That right does not apply to motor vehicle transactions.”

The Three-Day Cooling-Off Rule is designed to protect consumers from high-pressure sales tactics more along the lines of door-to-door sales, or sales from a seller’s temporary location, such as a hotel room, fairground, restaurant or convention center, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

So, Mack is out of luck here.

Lehto’s Advice for Anyone Looking for a Used Car

I asked him to list the steps anyone looking for a used car should follow to reduce the chances of winding up with a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

1. Research is the most important thing you can do before taking a test drive.

Price, based on your location, model, mileage and vehicle equipment can all be researched online for free using a car’s VIN. Just type in the VIN and sites such as the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), or will tell you the car’s year, whether there are any open recalls and other data that should influence your decision to buy it.

2. Inspect the car yourself. Look for leaks!

Check the oil, radiator coolant level and its color to be sure it is clean and not contaminated. If the seller will let you, look at the brake fluid and the transmission fluid, checking for leaks. Gasoline, brake fluid, transmission fluid, steering fluid, engine coolant – none of that should ever be dripping from the car!

However, in a car with air conditioning running, water will drip off the condenser and that is normal.

3. Spring for a mechanic’s expert opinion.

If you are serious about buying the car, spend the money to have a mechanic check out the car before buying it. Most mechanics love doing inspections. They put the car up on a hoist, perform their inspection, drive it around the block, and tell you if they found something. It will be money well spent.

Do not put yourself in the position of buying the car and then a few days later discover that something is wrong and then taking it to a mechanic.

4. Do a thorough, practical test drive.

Don’t just drive it on the parking lot or around the block. Test drive the car the way that you normally would drive. Get it out on the road, up to your local speed limit. Does it vibrate? Does it make weird noises? Does it drive straight? If it doesn’t, this is one of the most obvious telltale signs of a real problem. Does it pull to one side?

It could be the tires. It could be the alignment. It could be a bent unibody.

5. While you are test driving the car, check everything.

The radio, the A/C, the heat, and spend the time in broad daylight. Never let them rush you! Never buy a used car at night, as you could easily miss body damage or scratches.

6. Never shop alone.

Do not be sucked into believing that the salesperson knows a thing about the car! It probably just came in to them two days ago. You must check it out yourself, or with the help of a knowledgeable friend or family member.

7. Be very careful with third-party, extended warranties.

Many are scams. If you want a warranty, those that come from the manufacturer are generally far better.

Concluding our chat, Lehto cautioned, “Don’t fall in love with a pretty face! There are lots of good used cars out there, and you will find another one.”

Threats of Blackmail Didn’t Pay Off for Our Car Buyer

So, what ended up happening to our car buyer, Mack? He didn’t appreciate the answer I gave him, and grew angry.

“Unless they give me my money back. I will bad-mouth them online and picket their showroom!” he yelled.

“Mack,” I said in a tone of voice leaving no room for doubt about my seriousness, “that’s blackmail, and when we hang up, I am calling the dealership and warning them of your threats. So, word to the wise, forget those ideas.”

He didn’t like that statement, not at all. “How can you do that?” he screamed. “This conversation is protected by the attorney/client privilege!”

“Mack, we have not established an attorney/client relationship,” I replied calmly. “Merely calling a lawyer and explaining your planned, illegal course of conduct does not create a professional relationship, and the lawyer may even be required to report the conversation to the appropriate people, including law enforcement.”

And that is precisely what I did, giving the dealership a heads-up. Fortunately, Mack followed my advice and backed off from his threats. He went back to the dealership, tail between his legs, to retrieve the SUV he had attempted to return, and his grandfather accompanied him to apologize for his 25-going-on-12-year-old grandson’s behavior.

Case closed, lesson learned.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."