Buying a Used Car (No. 197)
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Ian Christman, Vehicle Sales Authority of BC in June 2018.|
Buying a used vehicle can be risky. The vehicle might have hidden problems or the seller might be dishonest. Learn what to watch for and how to deal with any problems.
Understand your legal rights
Who you buy a used vehicle from affects your rights
You can buy a used vehicle from a dealer or a private seller. A dealer is anyone who sells or exchanges motor vehicles to try to earn income. Dealers must be licensed by the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC and follow certain laws.
Be on the lookout for curbers. A curber is someone who sells vehicles to earn income, but has not been licensed as a dealer. Many curbers misrepresent the real condition of the vehicle, hide major issues, or fail to disclose liens. The section below on “Prevent problems” explains these risks and how to minimize them.
A dealer must give you certain information
Under the law in BC, a vehicle for sale must meet minimum safety requirements. Dealers have to say on the purchase agreement whether a vehicle meets these safety requirements. And dealers must mark vehicles for sale that do not meet minimum safety requirements as “not suitable for transportation”. Private sellers don’t have to do these two things.
As well, under BC law, a dealer must give you the following information about the vehicle, in writing:
- Whether the vehicle has sustained damage requiring repairs costing more than $2,000.
- Whether the vehicle has been brought into BC just to be sold here (in which case it may have salt damage, for example), or if it has been registered outside BC, and where, if known.
- Whether the vehicle has been used as a taxi, police or emergency vehicle, a lease or rental vehicle, or in organized racing.
- Whether the odometer accurately records the true distance the vehicle has traveled.
- The mileage and model year of the vehicle.
A dealer must detail all charges connected with the sale
A dealer must also give you the following information, in writing, about all charges connected with buying a used vehicle:
- dealer preparation costs
- documentation and administrative fees
- sales tax
- license and insurance fees (separate from ICBC charges)
- interest costs if the dealer arranges financing for you
- costs of any repairs
- costs of any options
- your total cost
If you’re buying from a dealer, ask about their return policies. There’s no automatic right to return a motor vehicle. Many people assume there is, as they’re used to generous return policies of some retail stores.
You are protected by the legal warranty
Under the law in BC, a level of quality, performance and durability is implied into every sales contract. When you buy a car from a dealer, it has to be:
- fit for the purpose you bought it for (that is, it has to function as a vehicle)
- of “merchantable” quality (it has to work)
- durable for a reasonable period of time
- “as described” (it has to match the dealer's advertising and any statements or representations made by the dealer at the time of the sale)
These conditions are sometimes referred to as the "legal warranty", as they are established by a law called the Sale of Goods Act. This legal warranty applies regardless of whether the dealer mentions it. It is in addition to any warranty the dealer or manufacturer provide.
If the car is faulty or not as described, the legal warranty can give you the right to get it repaired or replaced, or to cancel the contract and get a full refund.
The legal warranty is more limited if you buy privately
If you buy privately from an individual, the legal warranty is more limited than if you buy from a car dealer. If you buy a used car from an individual, it has to be durable for a reasonable period of time and match the description. The conditions that a used car be fit for the purpose you bought it for and of "merchantable" quality apply only when you buy from a car dealer.
When a car is sold "as is"
Sometimes, a seller will say a car is sold "as is". This suggests you won't be able to expect help with any repairs or service if there are problems. In fact, the legal warranty applies to all new products, no matter what a seller says. However, the legal warranty can be waived for a used vehicle. Be cautious if you are asked to waive it.
Curbers are people who sell vehicles to earn income, but without a motor dealer licence. By law, anyone selling motor vehicles to earn income in BC must have a dealer licence from the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC.
Curbers operate illegally and cheat buyers. They do things such as turning back the odometer to make it look like a vehicle has lower mileage than it really has. Many curbers get vehicles from elsewhere in Canada and the US. They may hide damage and lie about a vehicle’s history, including its mileage and where it came from. They may charge extremely high and illegal interest rates or ask you to lie about the sale price for tax purposes.
There are many types of curbers. Some are mechanics who have repair facilities and also sell vehicles. Some curbers have several cars parked on their front lawn with “for sale” signs.
A common myth is that you can sell up to five vehicles a year privately without registering as a motor dealer. That’s not true. If you sell even one vehicle to try to earn income, then you must register as a motor dealer.
It’s risky to buy from a curber. You may lose your money and get an unsafe vehicle. You can sue, but that’s expensive and often futile. The Vehicle Sales Authority of BC can investigate the curber, but it won’t help you get your money back.
To see if a person or business is a licensed dealer, do an online licensee search on the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC website. You can search by a dealership or a salesperson.
Get an inspection
Have a licensed mechanic check the vehicle to see if it’s in good shape and if it needs any work. The BC Automobile Association (BCAA) provides Vehicle Inspection Services. They include pre-purchase inspections, safety inspections, and out-of-province-vehicle inspections.
Get a vehicle history report
See if the vehicle has been in an accident — that can reduce its value and safety. You can buy a vehicle history report from ICBC or from CARFAX Canada. See the ICBC website, or call them at 604-661-2233 in Vancouver and 1-800-464-5050 elsewhere in BC.
You'll need the vehicle identification number (VIN), the make, model and year. Many vehicles are in the ICBC database, but not all of them. If a vehicle was ever insured and registered outside of BC, the ICBC report will not show the vehicle history outside of BC.
Consider getting a comprehensive vehicle history report such as from CARFAX Canada.
Do a lien search
Check if there are any liens on the vehicle. A lien is a legal claim made on property to make sure money is paid back. Liens are attached to a vehicle, not to its owner. If you buy a vehicle with a lien on it, the lien holder can take the vehicle from you as payment for the debt.
Get your agreement in writing
Get a written agreement whether you’re buying from a dealer or a private seller. Put in the terms that you want.
If you are buying from a private seller, you can use People’s Law School’s document template to create a draft agreement.
Deal with any problems
Step 1. Contact the seller
If you have a problem as you are buying a used vehicle, try to solve it with the seller first. If you are buying from a dealer, ask to speak to someone with authority, such as a manager or owner. Clearly explain your problem. Let them know the outcome you’re seeking.
See People’s Law School information on problems with a used car for tips on how to explain your problem to the seller, as well as a template letter you can use.
Step 2. If you are buying from a dealer, file a complaint
If you are buying the vehicle from a dealer, you can file a complaint with the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC. You can also email the Vehicle Sales Authority at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone them toll-free at 1-877-294-9889.
The Vehicle Sales Authority also runs the Motor Dealer Customer Compensation Fund. It reimburses people who have lost money because a dealer has gone out of business or failed to meet its legal obligations. The money in the fund comes from contributions from all licensed dealers in BC. The authority’s website explains who can apply for compensation, what losses the fund covers, and how to file a claim.
Step 3. Contact a consumer agency or industry association
Contact the Better Business Bureau, which receives complaints about local businesses.
Contact the Automotive Retailers Association at 604-432-7987. Only some dealers belong to this voluntary organization.
If you bought a recreational vehicle, you can contact the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association of Canada, a national, voluntary organization.
If you bought a used vehicle from a franchise dealer, contact the New Car Dealers Association of BC.
Step 4. Consider legal action
If you can’t solve the problem with the above steps, your next step may be to take legal action. If you don’t have a lawyer, there are options for free or low-cost legal help.
If you buy from a dealer
The Vehicle Sales Authority of BC helps resolve complaints with licensed car dealers.
- Toll-free: 1-877-294-9889
- Web: mvsabc.com
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