You bought a used car two weeks ago. It has already broken down twice. Your mechanic advises that the engine now needs rebuilding or replacing. What can you do? Your legal rights and options vary depending on whether you bought the car from a private seller or from a dealer (a person or business that sells cars to try to earn income). But in either case, you may have a legal right to have the car repaired, have the seller pay for the cost of a repair, or get some or all of your money back.
When you’re not entitled to anything
Whether you bought from a car dealer or a private seller, you won’t be entitled to anything if:
- You’re unhappy with how much you paid for the car. In BC, there is no "cooling-off period" once you have signed the purchase agreement to buy a used vehicle. This means that you will not be able cancel an agreement just because you changed your mind or because your situation has changed.
- You inspected the car and should have spotted the problem—for example, a dent that was clear to see. The test of whether you should have spotted the problem is whether the average person would spot it.
- You were told about the problem when you bought the car and someone fully explained what the problem meant.
- You caused the problem.
In BC, there is no general legal right to return a vehicle once you have taken possession of the vehicle.
If you bought the used vehicle from a car dealer
Under BC law, when you buy a used vehicle from a car dealer, the vehicle must meet certain conditions. It has to be:
- fit for the purpose you bought it for
- of “merchantable” quality
- durable for a reasonable period of time
- “as described” by the dealer
These conditions are sometimes referred to as the “legal warranty”, as they are established by a law called the Sale of Goods Act. They apply regardless of whether the dealer mentions them. They are in addition to any warranty the dealer or manufacturer provide.
When you buy a used car, you can agree to give up (waive) these conditions. But any attempt by the seller to have you waive these conditions must be done in clear and unambiguous language.
What the conditions that make up the legal warranty mean
"Fit for the purpose", "merchantable quality", "reasonably durable": what do these conditions mean?
What does “fit for the purpose” mean?
A used vehicle is “fit for the purpose” if it is in roadworthy condition and fit to be driven on the road in safety. It doesn’t have to be in perfect condition.
Fit for purpose can also matter if you buy a vehicle based on the dealer’s advice that it is suitable for a particular purpose. For example, a dealer who suggests you buy a specific vehicle for hauling a trailer is promising that the vehicle will be suitable for that purpose.
What does “merchantable” quality mean?
“Merchantable” means usable condition, not perfect condition. So long as a used vehicle can be reasonably used, it is of merchantable quality. Breakdowns and other problems after the sale don’t prove the seller breached the condition that the vehicle be of merchantable quality. If the car runs, it will likely be seen to be usable.
What does “durable for a reasonable period of time” mean?
In the case of a used vehicle, “durable for a reasonable period of time” does not mean much. A used vehicle will not be expected to last as long as a new one. What is a reasonable time will depend on factors such as:
- the age of the vehicle
- the mileage at the time of purchase
- the price paid for it
- the use of the vehicle
- the cost of repairing any defect
If the engine fails completely a week after the purchase, while you are driving it normally, that may very likely be a breach of the legal warranty of durability—but not necessarily. For example, in one case an 8-year-old car with 140,000 kms, bought for $5,700, was found to be durable for a reasonable period of time even though its engine failed after one month of normal driving.
What does “as described” mean?
The vehicle has to match the dealer’s advertising, the description of the vehicle in the purchase agreement, and any statements or representations made by the dealer at the time of the sale.
If the vehicle doesn’t match the description, the dealer has breached the legal warranty.
If you were misled or pressured into getting the vehicle
“The Mini Cooper was nice, but I wanted to sleep on it. It was my first car, and I wanted to be sure it was the right one. But the salesperson insisted that the discounted price would expire at midnight. So I signed the agreement. Later, I learned that the dealer was advertising the same discounted price on its website. The salesperson had pressured me into buying the Mini using an 'unfair practice', telling me that I was getting a special price when the offer was in fact the same thing that I could get anytime. Thankfully, I learned that I was entitled to return the Mini and get out of the agreement.”
– Gabriela, Vancouver
Under BC law, dealers are not allowed to use "unfair practices" to convince you to buy a vehicle. Unfair practices include making statements, verbally or in writing, or any conduct that could deceive or mislead you.
For example, dealers must not:
- tell you that the vehicle is of better quality than it really is
- tell you that the vehicle is only available for a limited time if that is not true
- tell you that you are getting a special price or benefit when they are really offering the same thing that you can get somewhere else
Another type of unfair practice is when a dealer does something “unconscionable”. Examples of unconscionable practices include:
- taking advantage of 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
- charging far more than what is reasonable for the vehicle
- pressuring you to buy a vehicle that they know you cannot afford
If the dealer does something “unconscionable”, any agreement you signed is not binding on you.
What if the dealer tells you something that isn’t true?
In addition to the protection against unfair practices, you are protected from any misrepresentations about the vehicle. That is, the dealer must not tell you something about the vehicle which isn't true. For example, if you asked the dealer whether the vehicle had been in an accident, and they said no, and it turned out they knew it had been in two accidents, they would have misrepresented the vehicle.
What a car dealer must tell you
BC law requires a car dealer tell you in writing a number of things about the vehicle:
- the model and year of the vehicle, and its odometer reading at the time of the sale
- whether the odometer accurately records the true distance travelled by the vehicle
- whether the vehicle has ever had damage that cost over $2,000 to repair
- whether the vehicle is from out of British Columbia
- whether the vehicle has ever been used as a taxi, police car, emergency vehicle, a lease vehicle, or a rental vehicle, or in organized racing
- everything about the cost of buying the vehicle, including any dealer fees, documentation and administrative fees, licence and insurance fees (separate from ICBC fees), the interest costs if you are financing the vehicle, the cost of necessary repairs, the cost of any options you choose, and the total cost
As well, a dealer must guarantee that the vehicle is free of liens. 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.
If you bought the used vehicle from a private seller
You have fewer rights when you buy from a private seller, and key parts of the Sale of Goods Act don’t apply.
If the seller breaches the legal warranty
For example, there is no legal requirement for a used car you buy privately to be “fit for the purpose” or of “merchantable” quality.
But in a private sale, the vehicle must still be reasonably durable and “as described”. That is, the vehicle has to be “durable for a reasonable period of time”. And it has to match the seller’s advertising and any statements the seller made at the time of the sale. As well, the seller must have the legal right to sell the vehicle.
If any of these conditions are not met, the seller has breached the legal warranty.
For example, if the seller said in their advertisement that the car’s engine had been rebuilt, when in fact it was not, the car wouldn’t match the description. The seller would be in breach of the legal warranty to provide the car as described.
In considering the condition that the vehicle be “durable for a reasonable period of time”, determining what is a reasonable time will depend on many factors. The older a car is and the more kilometres it has travelled, the more likely it is that something will break down. Also relevant is the price paid for the vehicle, the use of the vehicle, and the cost of repairing any defect.
The conditions that the vehicle be reasonably durable and “as described” can be waived for used goods. However, this must be done using clear and unambiguous language.
If the seller misrepresents the vehicle
Whether the car is being sold by a dealer or a seller in a private sale, the seller must not tell you something about the car which isn't true (misrepresent the vehicle). For example, if you asked the seller if they were the only owner of the car and they said yes, when in fact there were two previous owners the seller knew about, they would have misrepresented the vehicle.
Lastly, the seller in a private sale must tell you if there are any liens against the vehicle, which are legal claims made on the vehicle to make sure a debt is repaid.
Understanding your options
If the seller has breached the legal warranty or misrepresented the vehicle, you have options:
- You can ask for the seller to pay for any repairs. If the seller is a dealer, you can take the vehicle back to the dealer to have them do the repair. Alternatively, you can have the repair done by a third party and ask the dealer to pay for the repair. (You won’t be able to ask for a repair if it’ll cost more than you paid for the car.)
- You can cancel the agreement, return the vehicle, and ask for your money back. Act immediately if you want to pursue this option. If you wait, it gets more difficult to prove that a fault is the cause of any problem, and and not just normal wear and tear.
- You can ask for a discount if you still want the vehicle.
You are also entitled to other expenses that “directly and naturally result” from any breach of the legal warranty or the misrepresentation. For example, if you had to pay for the car to be towed after it broke down, this would be an expense that directly and naturally resulted from the breach of the legal warranty.
Step 1. Decide what outcome you are seeking
Once you understand your legal rights and options, decide what outcome you are seeking. Do you want the vehicle repaired? Do you want to return the vehicle and get a refund? Is either outcome acceptable?
When you’re deciding whether you’d rather get a repair or a refund, think about whether the problem is likely to lead to bigger issues.
If the problem doesn’t need fixing (for example, there’s a problem with a feature you don’t use, say the radio), you might want to ask the seller for a discount instead.
Step 2. Contact the seller
Contact the dealer or private seller as soon as you notice the problem. If you bought from a dealer, ask to speak to customer service or someone with authority, such as a manager or owner.
Clearly explain your problem. Let them know you understand what you’re entitled to. Let them know the outcome you’re seeking.
If you bought from a dealer, you can say something like this:
“Under the Sale of Goods Act, this car should be fit for purpose, be of merchantable quality, last for a reasonable period of time, and be as described. My legal rights have been breached because the car you sold me doesn’t meet these conditions. I would like you to put this right by giving me a refund or repairing the car at your cost.”
If you bought from a private seller, you can say something like this:
“Under the Sale of Goods Act, this car should last for a reasonable period of time and be as described. My legal rights have been breached because the car you sold me doesn’t meet these conditions. I would like you to put this right by giving me a refund or repairing the car at your cost.”
Take the time to think about any offers before accepting or rejecting them.
If there are discussions about getting the vehicle repaired, consider getting three quotes for the repair work. This may make you feel more comfortable than letting the seller choose someone.
Keep a record of your conversations and correspondence. Make sure to get all verbal agreements in writing—including when you can expect the car to be ready if you’re asking for a repair, and whether they’ll offer you a courtesy car in the meantime (they’re not obliged to do this but you could ask).
Step 3. Send a complaint letter
If discussing the situation with the seller doesn’t resolve the problem, the next step is to send a complaint letter to the seller. You can use one of our template letters: complaint letter if you bought from a car dealer or complaint letter if you bought from a private seller. These templates contain legal terminology and may help the seller realize you know your rights.
Keep a copy of the letter for yourself. If you can, send the letter by registered mail or courier. That way you will have proof that the seller got it.
Step 4. Try a dispute resolution scheme
If the letter doesn’t resolve the problem, ask the seller whether they would consider an alternative dispute resolution scheme. This is a way of solving disagreements without going to court. A third party will help you and the seller try and reach a solution.
An example of an alternative dispute resolution scheme is the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan (CAMVAP). If your vehicle was made in last four years, you may be eligible for this free program. It can help you resolve disputes with automobile manufacturers about vehicle defects or a manufacturer’s warranty.
Most vehicles purchased or leased in Canada are covered by the program; a list of participating manufacturers is at www.camvap.ca.
If your dispute qualifies for the program, you and the manufacturer would make presentations to an arbitrator who then makes a decision. The arbitrator can order the manufacturer to repair the vehicle, reimburse you for repairs, or buy back the vehicle from you.
If the seller doesn’t respond to your inquiry about using alternative dispute resolution, or they say no, keep a record of the fact that you asked them (and the date). This information will be helpful if you end up in court.
Step 5. If you bought from a car dealer, file a complaint with the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC
If you bought the vehicle from a car dealer, one option to explore is filing a complaint with the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC. The VSA licenses and regulates car dealers in BC.
The VSA only investigates complaints if the vehicle was bought for personal use. Their ability to investigate is also limited to certain types of complaints. For example, they will investigate where:
- the dealer’s conduct was deceptive or unconscionable,
- the dealer failed to provide required disclosures, or
- the dealer is alleged to have committed odometer fraud.
The VSA will not investigate complaints about:
- the quality of a vehicle after it has been purchased, such as mechanical parts failing—unless specific representations were made, or
- dealership service standards, such as rude or slow communications and repair services.
To learn more about the kinds of complaints that have been resolved by the Vehicle Sales Authority, you can search over decisions made by the VSA.
If your complaint is one the VSA has authority to deal with, they will send your complaint to the dealer. The dealer will have 10 days to respond. The VSA will share the dealer’s response with you.
The VSA may schedule a hearing to resolve the complaint, and will make a written decision on your complaint.
Step 6. If you bought from a car dealer, file a compensation fund claim
If you bought from a dealer, you can explore filing a compensation fund claim. The Vehicle Sales Authority of BC (VSA) runs a compensation fund program that compensates consumers who have lost money because a dealer has gone out of business or failed to meet certain legal obligations. Examples of what types of losses are covered by the compensation fund:
- the dealer refuses to deliver the car that you agreed to buy and the dealer has no legal right to keep the money you paid
- there was an unpaid lien on the car you bought and you have to pay an amount to clear the title of the car
- you purchased an extended warranty from the dealer but are later unable to use the warranty because the dealer went out of business
To file a compensation fund claim, you must first complete a Demand Letter to Motor Dealer to officially demand that the car dealer return the vehicle or money that is the subject of your dispute. The dealer has 30 days from the date of your demand letter to honor your demand.
Claims are considered by the Motor Dealer Customer Compensation Fund Board. They may schedule a hearing to consider the claim, and will make a written decision.
Step 7. Consider legal action
If you cannot solve the problem with the above steps, your next step may be to take legal action. You can consider suing the other party for breach of contract.
If your claim is $5,000 or under, you can apply to work out your dispute with the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This is an online system that you can use without the help of a lawyer.
If your claim is for less than $35,000, you can sue in Small Claims Court. It’s faster and less complicated than suing in the British Columbia Supreme Court.
If you decide to sue, note that there are time limitations on filing lawsuits. There are steps you can take to extend these time limits and preserve your rights.
A lawyer can explain your options, and help you decide on the best course of action. If you don’t have a lawyer, there are options for free or low-cost legal help.
What if I think the seller rolled back the odometer?
If an odometer is altered, disconnected or replaced in order to mislead a buyer about the vehicle’s mileage, this is called "odometer fraud". It is a criminal offence. If a car dealer is found guilty of odometer fraud, they can also have their license suspended or cancelled.
Note that it is legal to replace a damaged odometer. However, the odometer reading needs to be recorded before it is replaced or repaired.
What if I bought from a seller who I think might be a “curber”?
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. Anyone selling 5 or more vehicles per year is automatically deemed to be a car dealer under BC law. Someone selling fewer than 5 vehicles per year may still require a licence if he or she is selling cars for income.
These tips on spotting a curber can help you figure out if you bought from a curber.
If you did buy a used car from a curber and have a problem, often your only option is to go to court.
However there is a way you can help future buyers. You can report the curber to the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC using the form Report an Unregistered Motor Dealer “Curber”. You may make the report anonymously.
What if I have a manufacturer’s warranty or a dealer’s warranty?
When you bought the used vehicle, if you purchased a dealer’s warranty or the vehicle was still covered under the manufacturer’s warranty, you may be able to claim on that to get any problems fixed. In either case, the dealer’s or manufacturer’s warranty doesn’t affect your rights under the "legal warranty".
What if the seller tried repairing the car and it’s still not fixed?
You don’t have to accept a second repair if something goes wrong and you’d rather not keep the car. You can ask for your money back if the repair hasn’t solved the problem.
You could also ask for a discount if you still want the car.
I’ve heard about a “lemon law”; what is that?
Canada doesn’t have “lemon laws” for faulty cars the way the United States has. Many US states have laws that give buyers legal options if they buy a vehicle that later turns out to be substantially defective, or a “lemon”. However, the legal warranty explained above under "Understand your legal rights" is Canada’s key law that protects buyers who have problems with defective vehicles they’ve bought.