You bought a used car. Just days later, it broke down. Your mechanic says the problem will cost a thousand dollars to repair. What can you do? Your legal rights and options vary depending on many factors, including who you bought the car from. Learn your rights and options if you bought from a private seller. (If you bought from a car dealer, see our page on if you bought from a dealer.)
When you’re not entitled to anything
Whether you bought from a private seller or a car dealer, you won’t be entitled to anything if:
- You’re just unhappy with how much you paid for the vehicle. In BC, there is no "cooling-off period" once you have signed the purchase agreement to buy a used vehicle. This means you will not be able to cancel an agreement just because you changed your mind or because your situation has changed.
- You inspected the vehicle 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 vehicle 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.
You are protected by the legal warranty
When you buy a used vehicle from a private seller, certain conditions are implied under the law.
- The seller must have the right to sell the vehicle. They must also tell you if there are any “liens” against the vehicle.
- The vehicle must be “as described” by the seller.
- The vehicle must be “durable for a reasonable period of time.”
These conditions are sometimes referred to as the “legal warranty.” They are established by a law called the Sale of Goods Act. They apply regardless of whether the seller mentions them. They are in addition to any warranty the seller or manufacturer provide.
The conditions that the vehicle be “as described” and reasonably durable can be waived for used goods. However, 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
“Right to sell the vehicle,” “as described,” "reasonably durable": what do these conditions mean?
What does “right to sell the vehicle” mean?
A private seller must have the right to sell the vehicle. This means they must have “title” to the vehicle, which makes them the rightful owner.
If the seller doesn’t have the right to sell the vehicle, they have breached the legal warranty.
As well, a private seller must tell you if there are any liens against the vehicle. 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.
What does “as described” mean?
The vehicle has to match the seller’s description in their advertising and any statements they made at or before the time of the sale.
For example, if a seller’s advertisement says the vehicle has all-wheel drive, when in fact it doesn’t, the vehicle wouldn’t match the description. The seller would be in breach of the legal warranty to provide the vehicle as described.
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 all that much. A used vehicle will not be expected to last as long as a new one. What is a reasonable time will depend on many factors, including:
- the age and condition of the vehicle,
- the price paid for it,
- the nature of the problem,
- the discoverability of the problem, and
- the use of the vehicle after the purchase.
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 condition 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.
The older a vehicle is and the more kilometres it has travelled, the more likely something will break down in the normal course of driving. Undetected problems that arise from the regular wear, tear and age of a used vehicle will not result in a breach of the implied warranty of durability.
The seller must not misrepresent the vehicle
In addition to the legal warranty, you are protected from any misrepresentations about the vehicle. That is, the seller must not tell you something about the vehicle which isn't true. This applies to their advertising and any statements they make at or before the time of the sale. For example, if you ask the seller whether the vehicle has been in an accident, and they say no, and it turns out they knew it had been in an accident, they would have misrepresented the state of the vehicle.
In order to show misrepresentation, you would need to show that:
- the seller made a representation that was untrue or misleading,
- they knew — or should have known — the representation was untrue or misleading, and
- you relied on the misrepresentation in buying the vehicle.
In showing the seller should have known their representation was untrue or misleading, you could say that:
- they were reckless in making the representation — they recklessly made it without knowing it was true or false, or
- they failed to use reasonable care to ensure the representation was accurate and not untrue or misleading.
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. (Generally, you won’t be able to ask for a repair if it’ll cost more than what you paid for the vehicle.)
- 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 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 vehicle 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 seller as soon as you notice the problem.
Clearly explain your problem. Let them know you understand what you’re entitled to. Let them know the outcome you’re seeking.
Depending on the situation, you might say something like this:
“Under the Sale of Goods Act, this vehicle should last for a reasonable period of time and be as described. My legal rights have been breached because the vehicle you sold me doesn’t meet these conditions. I would like you to put this right by giving me a refund or repairing the vehicle 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.
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 our template letter — it includes 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 the seller got it.
Step 4. Consider legal action
If you cannot solve the problem with the above steps, your next step may be to take legal action. Depending on the situation, you can consider suing the other party for breach of contract or misrepresentation.
If your claim is for less than $5,000, you can make a claim to the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This is an online system 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.
For claims of under $5,000, you can apply to work out your dispute with the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This is a cheaper and faster option than going to court.
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. It can also ground a claim that the seller misrepresented the vehicle.
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 vehicles to try to earn income but has not been licensed as a car dealer. Anyone selling five or more vehicles per year is usually automatically deemed to be a car dealer under BC law. Someone selling fewer than five vehicles per year may still require a licence if they are selling vehicles 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 vehicle from a curber and have a problem, often your only option is to take legal action. However, there is a way you can help future buyers. You can report the curber to the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC using their report a curber form. You may make the report anonymously.
What if I have a manufacturer’s warranty?
When you bought the used vehicle, if the vehicle was still covered under the manufacturer’s warranty, you may be able to claim on that to get any problems fixed. Any manufacturer’s warranty doesn’t affect your rights under the legal warranty.
The Civil Resolution Tribunal deals with disputes over used vehicles where the amount claimed is under $5,000. The tribunal website features tools to help parties resolve a dispute quickly and inexpensively.