Buying a Used Car

Script 197 gives general information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call Lawyer Referral at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.

This script explains buying a used car in BC. Used cars are often expensive. Before you sign an agreement to buy a used car, read it carefully and think about it. There is no cooling-off period to change your mind and cancel the agreement.

Whom can you buy a used car from?
You can buy a used car from a dealer or a private seller. A dealer is anyone who sells or exchanges motor vehicles for profit. Dealers must be licensed by the Motor Vehicle Sales Authority of BC (the VSA) and follow certain rules. Whether you buy from a dealer or a private seller, there are usually no guarantees on used cars from dealers or manufacturers. So before you buy a car, it’s good to have a mechanic inspect it. That can protect you from buying a car with big problems.

Don’t buy from a “curber” – a person without a licence who is selling motor vehicles for profit. Item 2 below, in the section called “What should you always check and do before you buy,” has more on this. To see if a person or business is a licensed dealer, click “Consumer Resources” on the VSA website at www.mvsabc.com.

What information must a dealer give you?
The Motor Dealer Act and the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act require vehicles for sale to meet minimum safety requirements – unless they are marked not suitable for transportation. (Both laws are available at www.bclaws.ca.) 

A dealer must give you the following information about the car, in writing:

  • whether the car has had damages that, in total, cost over $2000 to repair 
  • whether it came from another province just to be sold here (because then it may have salt damage) or if it has been registered outside BC
  • whether it was ever used as a taxi, police car, emergency vehicle, a lease or rental vehicle, or in organized racing
  • whether the odometer accurately records the true distance the car has traveled
  • accurate mileage and model year

A dealer must also give you the following information, in writing, about all charges connected with buying a car:

  • dealer preparation costs
  • 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

What should you always check and do before you buy?

  1. See if the car has been in an accident – that can reduce its value and safety. The Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC) may have this information – see its website at www.icbc.com or call 604.661.2233 in Vancouver and 1.800.464.5050 elsewhere in BC. You'll need the vehicle identification number (the 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 the Verified BC report from CarProof (see item 4 below).
  2. Avoid “curbers” – people who sell motor vehicles for profit, but without a motor dealer license. By law, anyone selling motor vehicles as a business in BC must have a dealer license from the Motor Vehicle Sales Authority. Curbers operate illegally. They can cheat people by doing things such as turning back the odometer to make it look like a vehicle has lower mileage than it really has. Curbers get vehicles from BC and elsewhere in Canada and the US. They may hide the fact that a vehicle comes from eastern Canada or the US and has serious but hidden rust problems. And they may charge extremely high and illegal interest rates. There are many types of curbers. Some are mechanics who have repair facilities and also sell vehicles. Some curbers have 6 or 7 cars parked on their front lawn with “for sale” signs. To learn how to spot a curber, watch the videos at www.mvsabc.com. Click on “Consumer Resources” and then on “Buying Privately”. 

    It’s risky to buy from a curber. You may lose your deposit. The curber may lie about the vehicle’s condition. If you buy from a curber and then have a problem, you’re in a bad situation. You can try to sue in court, but that’s expensive and often futile. The VSA can investigate the curber, but it can’t help you get your money back.
  1. Make sure no one has any liens (claims) on the car. Check the car's serial number with the Personal Property Registry or any Driver Service Center. More information on the registry is available at www.bcregistryservices.gov.bc.ca. You can also look it up in the blue pages of the phone book – in the provincial government section. For Driver Service Centers, see the white pages of the phone book, under ICBC. Also, find out if the car has come into BC from another province or country in the past 60 days. If so, there may be secured claims against it in that other place.
  2. Check online at www.carproof.com to see if the car was registered outside of BC or if it was in an accident. There is a fee for this service. If you don’t have internet access, the VSA can do this for you over the phone. CarProof can also do a Canada-wide lien search for a fee.
  3. Get a written agreement whether you’re buying from a dealer or a private person – put in the terms and conditions you want.

What can you do if you have a complaint with a dealer?
Try to solve it with the dealer first. If that doesn’t work, you have the following options:

  1. Complain to the VSA. Go to www.mvsabc.com and click on “Consumer Resources” and then on “Consumer Complaints”. You can also email the VSA atconsumer.services@mvsabc.com or phone 604.575.7255 or toll free 1.877.294.9889. The VSA also runs the Motor Dealer Customer Compensation Fund. It reimburses people who have lost money because a motor dealer has gone out of business or failed to meet its legal obligations. The money in the Fund comes from contributions from all licensed motor dealers in BC. For more on the Fund, go to www.mvsabc.com. Click on “Consumer Resources” and then on “Compensation Fund”. This website explains who can apply for compensation, what losses the Fund covers, and how to file a claim. 
  2. Contact a lawyer for legal advice about your situation.
  3. Contact the Automotive Retailers Association (604.432.7987, www.ara.bc.ca). Only some dealers belong to this voluntary organization. If you bought an RV (recreational vehicle) you can contact the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, a national, voluntary organization. Its website is www.rvda.ca. If you bought a used vehicle from a franchise dealer, contact the New Car Dealers Association of BC – its website is www.newcardealers.ca.
  4. Contact the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org).

Summary and more information
Buying a used car can involve a lot of money and high risk. Investigate before you buy. For more information, see the following websites:

  • The Insurance Corporation of BC at www.icbc.com. Click on “Vehicle registration”, then “Buying, selling and importing a vehicle” and then on “Buying a used vehicle”. 
  • The VSA at www.mvsabc.com. Click on “Consumers Resources” and then on “Vehicle Buying Tips”.

[updated October 2012]


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