Using A CARS Rebate? Know Your Rights First

Jim decided to take advantage of the Cash For Clunkers program and trade his Crown Victoria in on something a little more fuel-efficient. Unfortunately, the dealership where he bought the car wasn’t quite ready to handle one of the most frightening of all creatures: an informed consumer. They counted on their customers to not fully understand all of the program’s rules.

Having had a 1998 Ford Crown Victoria, I heard about the CARS program and started my research. My commute daily is 40 miles each direction and being the only working member of my 4 person family, the gas money was starting to wear on us and there were maintenance and repair costs right around the corner. Of course, in order to qualify for the maximum rebate, I needed to locate a vehicle that got a combined EPA estimate of 28mpg.

After test driving a handful of compact cars, I decided on a 2009 Nissan Sentra SL. The lucky salesperson was a young kid who was way into Madden football and the lucky dealership was the only one within fair driving distance that was open on a Sunday. It was a good atmosphere and for a Sunday, not many people were looking to buy. We haggled on price, decided on a color, and a Friday 2pm pickup.

Friday came and everything was prepared properly. I had written proof that my Crown Vic had been insured continuously for over a year, my up to date registration, license, title, and for overkill, past insurance cards, emissions papers, and even all my registrations for the life of the car. I got to the dealership at 2pm and noticed that the quiet dealership was bustling with activity… so much so, that I couldn’t find a parking place immediately. Inside were a plethora of people looking to take advantage of the CARS program, and my salesman was helping a woman who was also picking up her car.

I waited patiently for about a half hour when I submitted my CARS documents to the business office, and waited another 45 minutes until it was my turn in front of the business manager to finalize paperwork. Everything was going smoothly and I was asked to sign some forms. Instead of just signing away, I recalled a few tricks I had heard dealers were pulling and started examining the documents carefully. He suggested that I could “just sign this page” and he’d fill in the rest later. I relayed that I was uncomfortable with that, considering he could write in whatever he wanted to and it had my signature on it, so he agreed to have his assistant fill it out before I signed it. Most of the other pages were fine, until I reached a carefully worded statement regarding specifically the CARS program. If I signed this page, the language was as such that if for whatever reason the government didn’t provide the dealer with the proper refund, I would be held accountable for the $4,500.

This was a deal breaker and things quickly became heated. While my car was old and needed some work, it was drivable and I was perfectly willing to leave without the Sentra. He informed me that he had to protect his dealership, in case the money from the hundred or so cars he already sold didn’t come in. I thought to myself, while that is fair, why are you selling cars under this program if you’re uncertain about the refund? Thankfully, the http://www.cars.gov website was at my fingertips and I was able to quote, verbatim, the language indicating that they could not make me sign this form. I’m not sure if he didn’t believe me, but he still refused adamantly. I informed him I would leave with my money and I was expecting my deposit back as well… then I mentioned I would tell people about my experience at his dealership and what he was expecting people to sign.

That when things got nasty as he grew visibly angry. At that moment pushed my documents to me, and started putting things away. I reiterated that I expected my deposit back, to which he agreed, and I packed my bag. He accused me of “threatening his dealership” (which wasn’t completely false) and closed up a folder he had for my deal.

Realizing what was about to happen, and the sale that was being lost, he started to calm down as I was leaving. To nail home the error of their way, I asked him to open a browser and goto the Cars.gov website to see for himself. Annoyed still, but willing, he found the language and clearly had a change of attitude when he decided he would get a “second opinion.” I returned to the showroom to wait while he conferred with some people. Finally, the decision was made that I would not be required to sign this page.

The rest of the transation went smoothly with some comments to try and maintain a professional rapport, and he brought up “I’ll talk” comment from before. “Do I have to worry about you telling your friends?” I replied simply, “Don’t worry about it,” which is the only thing keeping me from relaying the name of this dealership at the current time. I jumped into my lovely new Sentra, cranked the stereo, said goodbye to my Crown Vic of 8 years, then drove home and removed the dealer’s emblem from the paint.

The moral here is, be sure you read the entire Cars.gov website if you are planning on taking advantage of this deal. Go in armed with complete knowledge and be prepared to walk away. Don’t be taken, and don’t be on the hook for something you shouldn’t be.

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports warned readers of this scenario a few weeks ago, when the CARS program was first running low on funds.

How many other dealers are asking their customers to sign similar documents? How many signed it, just at the dealership where Jim purchased his car? It’s a scary thought, and a good reminder to learn about your rights before all purchases, large and small.

Helpful Q&As for Consumers [CARS.gov]
Cash for clunkers [Consumer Reports Cars]

(Photo: kodiax2)