You bought a used car two weeks ago. It has already broken down twice. Your mechanic advises the engine now needs rebuilding or replacing. 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 car dealer — someone who sells vehicles to try to earn income. (If you bought the car privately, see our page on if you bought from a private seller.)
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 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 car dealer, certain conditions are implied under the law. The vehicle must be:
- “fit for the purpose” you bought it for,
- of “merchantable” quality,
- “durable for a reasonable period of time,” and
- “as described” by the dealer.
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 dealer mentions them. They are in addition to any warranty the dealer or manufacturer provide.
When you buy a used vehicle, you can agree to give up (waive) these conditions. But any attempt by a car dealer to have you waive these conditions must be done in clear and unambiguous language.
What the conditions making 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 vehicle 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 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.
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 or before the time of the sale.
For example, if the dealer’s advertisement says the vehicle has all-wheel drive, when in fact it doesn’t, the vehicle wouldn’t match the description. The dealer would be in breach of the legal warranty to provide the vehicle as described.
The dealer must not misrepresent the vehicle
In addition to the legal warranty, 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. This applies to their advertising and any statements they make at or before the time of the sale. For example, if you ask the dealer whether the vehicle has been in an accident, and they say no, and it turns out the dealer knew it had been in an accident, they would have misrepresented the vehicle.
In order to show misrepresentation, you would need to show:
- the dealer 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 dealer should have known their representation was untrue or misleading, you could point to:
- 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.
The dealer must not use unfair practices to get you to buy
“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 the discounted price would expire at midnight. So I signed the agreement. Later, I learned 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 I was getting a special price when the offer was in fact the same thing I could get anytime. Thankfully, I learned 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 the vehicle is of better quality than it really is
- tell you 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 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 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 they know you cannot afford
If the dealer does something “unconscionable,” any agreement you sign is not binding on you.
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 damages 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.
Understanding your options
If a car dealer has breached the legal warranty or misrepresented the vehicle, you have options:
- You can ask for the dealer to pay for any repairs. You can either take the vehicle back to the dealer to have them do the repair or have the repair done by a third party and ask the dealer to pay for the repair. (Bear in mind you won’t be able to ask for a repair if it’ll cost more than 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 dealer for a discount instead.
Step 2. Contact the dealer
Contact the dealer as soon as you notice the problem. 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.
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 dealer 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 vehicle 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 dealer doesn’t resolve the problem, the next step is to send a complaint letter to the dealer. You can use our template letter — it includes legal terminology and may help them 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 dealer got it.
Step 4. Try a dispute resolution scheme
If the letter doesn’t resolve the problem, ask the dealer 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 dealer 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 the 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 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. File a complaint with the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC
When buying a used 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.
To file a complaint with the VSA, complete their consumer complaint form.
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 business 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. Explore filing a compensation fund claim
If you bought from a dealer, you can explore filing a compensation fund claim. The Vehicle Sales Authority of BC 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 vehicle you agreed to buy and the dealer has no legal right to keep the money you paid
- there was an unpaid lien on the vehicle you bought and you have to pay an amount to clear the title of the vehicle
- 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 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 to respond.
The next step is to complete and sign the claim application form.
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. Depending on the situation, you can consider suing the dealer 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 a dealer 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 licence suspended or cancelled. It can also ground a claim that the dealer 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.
If you think a dealer has rolled back the odometer, you can file a complaint with the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC. For details, see above under “Deal with the problem.”
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 dealer tried repairing the vehicle 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 vehicle. 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 vehicle.
I’ve heard about a “lemon law”; what is that?
Canada doesn’t have “lemon laws” for faulty vehicles 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 is Canada’s key law that protects buyers who have problems with defective vehicles they’ve bought.