You're thinking of buying a used car. There are steps you can take to help you avoid buying a car that’s been badly damaged, stolen or illegally altered. These steps will also help you get a car that doesn’t break down.
You are more protected if you buy from a car dealer
"I never thought of myself as someone who could fall for a scam. I saw an ad on Craigslist. A car dealership was selling the exact car I was looking for, at a great price. The dealer had a slick website, and listed an address in Nevada where the car could be picked up. I could fly to Las Vegas, pay for the car and still have money left over from what I had imagined spending. I paid a $1,000 deposit online. When I arrived at the Nevada address, it was an abandoned warehouse. There was no car dealership. My car didn’t exist.”
– Sam, Langley
There are laws that offer you protection if you buy a used car in BC from a licensed car dealer but not if you buy a car from a private seller.
Car dealers in BC must be licensed by the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC (VSA) and follow certain laws.
A significant percentage of ads that look like they are placed by private sellers are actually placed by "curbers". A curber is someone who sells cars to try to earn income but has not been licensed as a car dealer. Many curbers misrepresent the real condition of the car, hide major issues, or charge high and illegal interest rates. If you buy from a curber and have a problem, often your only option is to go to court.
Anyone selling 5 or more vehicles in a year is automatically deemed to be a car dealer under BC law. This law helps authorities take action against curbers, who are people who sell cars to try to earn income but have not been licensed as car dealers. Learn how to spot a curber with these tips from the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC.
The seller must not mislead you
Under BC law, sellers are not allowed to mislead you to convince you to buy something. In their advertising and in their conversations with you, a seller cannot say anything that has the capability of deceiving or misleading you.
For example, a seller must not advertise or tell you that:
- what they are selling has uses or benefits that it does not have
- what they are selling is of a particular standard or quality when it isn't
- they have an approval, status or connection that they don't have
- you are getting a special price or benefit when they are really offering the same thing that you can get somewhere else
There are also federal laws that prohibit sellers from advertising or saying anything that is false or misleading. For example, a seller must not advertise or tell you that:
- what they are selling is on "sale" or "special" unless the price is lower than the ordinary selling price (and they can't artificially increase the ordinary price)
- what they are selling performs at a certain level unless they can prove it (for example, saying the car they are selling "has the best gas mileage of any compact car")
- what they are selling is endorsed by someone when that is not true (that is, they can't make up a fake testimonial)
No one actually needs to be deceived or misled for a court to find that a representation is misleading. If the general impression given by a representation is misleading, that is enough.
Sellers who break these laws can be fined, jailed, or ordered to compensate consumers who suffer losses.
The seller must not act unfairly towards you
Under BC law, sellers are not allowed to act unfairly towards you or knowingly take advantage of you.
For example, a seller cannot charge you a price that is far more than what others are charging for the same thing.
A seller cannot subject you to "undue pressure" to force you to buy. An example would be if a seller tells you that you have to sign a contract immediately to get a “special price” they are offering.
As well, a seller is not allowed to knowingly take advantage of you. For example, they can't get you to buy something that they know you cannot afford.
Nor can they take advantage of any vulnerabilities that you may have that affect your ability to protect your own interests, such as any physical or mental disability, illiteracy or language difficulties. For example, a seller is not allowed to force a person whose first language is not English to sign a complicated contract that the person does not understand.
If the seller does something unfair, any agreement you sign is not binding on you.
You are protected by the legal warranty
- 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 gives you the right to get it repaired or replaced, or to cancel the contract and get a full refund (learn more about your options if you have a problem with a used car).
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 that 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.
The legal warranty can be waived for a used vehicle (the legal warranty applies to all new products, no matter what a seller says). Be cautious if you are asked to waive it (as in, agree to buy the vehicle “as-is”). You'll want to be sure you've done everything you can to protect yourself by following the steps below under "Prevent problems".
Any car you buy should be free from hidden liens
“When I bought a car privately last year, my sister suggested I do a lien check. I laughed. I had no idea what a lien was; why search for one?! I had found a Mazda on Craigslist. I took it for a test drive, my mechanic inspected it, the price was good. I bought it. It wasn’t until the car was towed by a bailiff that I learned the seller had used the car as collateral on a loan. The bank seized my car under the lien it held. I had no idea they could just tow away my car even though I didn’t owe them a cent.”
– William, Richmond
The law implies a warranty that anything you buy is free from any hidden charge or "lien" in favour of a third party.
A lien is a legal claim made on someone else's property to make sure they pay a debt. For example, a bank that loans money to help someone buy a vehicle may place a lien on the vehicle in case the owner fails to repay the loan. If the owner doesn’t repay the loan, the vehicle can be taken as payment.
Licensed car dealers are required to sell vehicles free of liens. Even though private sellers are required under the law to tell you of any lien on the vehicle, it’s always important to check for liens when you’re buying a used car. See below under "Prevent problems" for details on how to do a lien check.
Liens are attached to a vehicle, not to its owner. If you buy a vehicle with a lien on it and the previous owner doesn't pay a debt, the vehicle can be repossessed from you.
You cannot change your mind once you’ve signed a contract
In BC, there is no "cooling-off period" once you have signed the purchase agreement to buy a used vehicle. A particular car dealership may have a return policy, but there is no law requiring that dealerships have such a policy. This means that you will not be able to cancel an agreement just because you changed your mind or because your situation has changed.
But if there is something wrong with the vehicle, or with the way in which the vehicle was sold to you, you may be able to cancel the agreement. Simply because there is no legal right to return a vehicle does not mean that a vehicle cannot be returned under certain circumstances.
Careful with deposits
A top complaint heard by the BC Vehicle Sales Authority is about consumers losing their deposit. In BC, the general law on deposits is:
- Leaving a deposit is the purchaser’s commitment to complete the transaction.
- If the purchaser backs out of the transaction, the deposit is forfeited to the seller. The seller does not have to show or prove they have been “damaged” in any way.
- If the seller backs out of the transaction, the purchaser is entitled to the return of the deposit.
- If the transaction completes, the deposit must be applied towards the purchase.
- If the deposit is very high, the consumer may get it or a portion of the deposit back, but they have to request a court to relieve them from forfeiture (hich can be tricky, long and expensive!)
Generally speaking, good dealers will only ask for a deposit if:
- They are ordering a vehicle in for you, or
- They are doing work on the vehicle, like adding accessories, before they sell it to you.
If a dealer asks for a deposit outside these situations, consider another dealer. If you are asked to leave a deposit, get the terms of the deposit (is it refundable) in writing. Check out the Vehicle Sales Authority’s factsheet on deposits for more guidance.
Step 1. Make sure the seller is trustworthy
If you're buying from a private seller
If you're buying a used car from a private seller, these steps can help make sure the seller is trustworthy.
1. Verify the seller’s identity
Ask to see a piece of the seller’s ID such as a driver’s licence, as well as the original vehicle registration form (not a photocopy).
2. Check that the seller owns the vehicle
Check the owner and address information on the vehicle registration form. Does the owner name match the seller’s name on their ID? Does the address information match the location of the sale? If either doesn’t match, ask the seller why that is the case.
3. Be alert for signs the seller may be a curber
Does the seller not have the original vehicle registration form? Do they say they’re selling the vehicle for a friend or family member? Is their phone number listed in the ads for multiple cars for sale? Do they ask to meet at a parking lot or somewhere other than their home?
These are signs that the seller may be a "curber", someone who sells cars for income but is not licensed as a car dealer.
If you're buying from a dealer
If you're buying a used car from a dealer, these steps can help make sure the dealer is trustworthy.
1. Find out if the dealer is licensed
Car dealers in BC must be licensed by the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC (VSA) and follow certain laws. The VSA website features a public registry of licensed dealers. You can search the registry by dealership or salesperson.
2. Look into the dealer’s background and reputation
Does the dealer’s location look like a dealership? You can use Google Maps Street View to get a view of the address.
Does the dealer have a website? Is it professional?
What are others saying about the dealer? Try using Google to search for the dealer’s name combined with the word "reviews" or "complaints".
3. Beware of online scammers
Some people selling used cars online are looking to cheat you out of money. Search the list of online scam operators on the VSA website.
Step 2. Check the car’s history
Doing some simple checks will reduce your chances of buying a car that's being sold illegally or has had major repairs. You can also find out if the current owner still owes money on the car.
1. Get information about the car
To do these checks, you will need some information about the car. Ask the seller for the:
- Make, model, and year: It is a good idea to double check this information against the vehicle registration form.
- Vehicle identification number (VIN): All vehicles are assigned a unique vehicle identification number consisting of 17 characters. You can find the VIN on the car itself and on the vehicle registration form. On the car, the two most common places are on the dashboard on the driver’s side and the inside of the driver’s side door. Other places to find it are on the engine and inside the hood.
2. Check the vehicle's status with ICBC
For free, you can learn the status of the vehicle you're thinking of buying. ICBC's vehicle status describes the general state of the vehicle and if it qualifies to be on the road.
To check the vehicle's status, go to the Vehicle Claims History Report on the ICBC website, and enter the vehicle's VIN and year.
The vehicle status types are:
- Altered: The vehicle has been significantly modified and passed inspection since it first went on the market.
- Salvage: The vehicle has been written off as a result of a crash, but could be repaired.
- Rebuilt: This is a salvage vehicle that’s been repaired and passed inspection.
- Non-repairable: The vehicle has been written off and cannot be repaired.
- Normal: The vehicle doesn’t fall into one of the categories above. A normal status does not mean the vehicle has never been damaged or is in good mechanical condition.
3. Do a stolen vehicle search
For free, you can search the stolen vehicles database maintained by the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC). Enter the VIN to learn whether the vehicle has been reported stolen anywhere in Canada.
4. Do a lien search
A lien check is the most important check you can do when you're buying a used car, especially when buying privately. If you buy a vehicle with a lien on it and the previous owner doesn't pay a debt, the vehicle can be repossessed from you.
The law implies a warranty that anything you buy is free from any hidden charge or lien in favour of a third party. But to fully protect yourself, you should check for liens.
In BC, liens are registered in the Personal Property Registry in Victoria. If you have the car's VIN (vehicle identification number), for $10 you can do a lien search on the car by:
- submitting the request in person at a Service BC office,
- sending a letter to BC Registry Services outlining the details of the lien search, or
- online through BC Online (for account holders).
You can also use a private title search company (in the Yellow Pages, see "Title Service”).
You can get Canada-wide lien information, which includes BC results, by ordering a CarProof vehicle history report (see below).
5. Get a vehicle history report
Ordering a vehicle history report will give you valuable information about serious problems the car might have.
It’s a good idea to get a vehicle history report on the car—this will give you valuable information about serious problems the car might have.
A vehicle history report can tell you if:
- the car has previously been in an accident,
- the car has been reported stolen, or
- the car has been written off, repaired and then returned to the road.
Some vehicle history reports will also tell you if:
- the seller still owes money on the car, or
- the car is showing the correct mileage.
You can order a vehicle history report through ICBC (for $20) or a private company such as CarProof (for $40 to $70). You will need the car's VIN (vehicle identification number) to order a vehicle history report.
Vehicle damage claimed through ICBC
Accident information from
No information about money owed
Canada-wide lien information
No information about mileage
Lower Mainland: 604-661-2233
Step 3. Inspect the car and take a test drive
Give the inside and the outside of the car a thorough inspection and take a test drive to make sure the car is in the same condition that the seller is advertising.
You should arrange to view the car in daylight, preferably when it's dry; it's harder to spot damage to the car if it's wet. It's a good idea to meet at a private seller’s house so that if something goes wrong after you’ve bought the car you'll have a record of their address.
ICBC has a checklist of what to look for when inspecting a used car and taking it for a test drive. Here are a few key things to watch for.
1. Check the VIN
Make sure the vehicle identification number on the dashboard identification plate or inside door matches the number on the vehicle registration form. Check that the VIN has not been tampered with. Signs of tampering include loose or mismatched rivets, scratched numbers, tape, glue or paint. If the VIN has been tampered with, this may be a stolen vehicle.
2. Check for odometer rollback
Have a look at the actual odometer. Do all of the numbers line up? Is there any evidence of sabotage (scratches, cracks) in and around the odometer? Does the wear and tear of the vehicle show more use than the mileage would indicate?
3. Ask about the car's accident and service history
Ask to see the service records. Stolen vehicles usually do not come with maintenance records. You might want to call the repair shop to verify that the maintenance work was done.
Step 4. Get an independent inspection
If you're still not sure at this stage, get an independent, licensed mechanic to give the vehicle a detailed inspection.
By learning more about what's happening underneath the hood, you'll either feel more confident about your investment or you'll discover things that you should know about the car before deciding to buy it.
An independent inspection usually costs around $100 to $200, depending on the mechanic and the extent of the inspection. The mechanic will examine the exterior of the vehicle, the interior, under the hood and will also investigate the under carriage. The BC government's Commercial Vehicle Safety and Enforcement website includes a list of designated inspection facilities in the province.
As a consumer, it's your right to have an independent inspection. The seller may ask you to provide a deposit or sign an offer to purchase prior to having the car inspected. You can insist that any deposit you make be refundable and that any documentation you sign say that you are not bound to go through with the sale until you approve the results of the inspection.
Step 5. Negotiate the agreement
Once you've taken these steps to protect yourself when buying a used car, read about how to negotiate and finalize the sale.