Buying a Used Car
The Dial-A-Law library is prepared by lawyers and gives practical information on many areas of law in British Columbia. 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 the Lawyer Referral Service 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 make sure you understand 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 to try to earn income. Dealers must be licensed by the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC (VSA) and follow certain laws.
Don’t buy from a “curber”—a person without a licence who is selling motor vehicles illegally. 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, do an online licensee search for dealership and salesperson.
What information must a dealer give you?
The Motor Dealer Act, the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act, and the Motor Vehicle Act require vehicles for sale to meet minimum safety requirements. But these laws don’t say how sellers must ensure vehicles meet those requirements. Sellers, including dealers, don’t have to do a safety inspection of a vehicle before selling it. Dealers have to say on the purchase agreement whether a vehicle meets safety requirements. And dealers must mark vehicles for sale that do not meet minimum safety requirements as “not suitable for transportation”. Private sellers don’t have to do these 2 things.
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 or state just to be sold here (because then it may have salt damage) or if it has been registered outside BC, and where, if known
- 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
- documentation and administrative fees
- 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?
Have a licensed mechanic check the vehicle to see if it’s in good shape and if it needs any work. The BC Automobile Association (BCAA) provides Vehicle Inspection Services. They include pre-purchase inspections, safety inspections, and out-of-province-vehicle inspections.
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 or call 604.661.2233 in Vancouver and 1.800.464.5050 elsewhere in BC. You'll need the vehicle identification number (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).
Avoid “curbers”—people who sell vehicles for profit, but without a motor dealer licence. By law, anyone selling motor vehicles as a business in BC must have a dealer licence from the 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 damage and lie about a vehicle’s history, including its mileage and where it came from. And they may charge extremely high and illegal interest rates and ask you to lie about the price for tax purposes. There are many types of curbers. Some are mechanics who have repair facilities and also sell vehicles. Some curbers have several cars parked on their front lawn with “for sale” signs.
A common myth is that you can sell up to 5 vehicles a year privately without registering as a motor dealer. That’s not true. If you sell even one vehicle to try to earn income, then you must register as a motor dealer.
To learn more, check “How To Spot A Curber” and “Buying Privately”. It’s risky to buy from a curber. You may lose your money and get an unsafe vehicle. You can sue, but that’s expensive and often futile. The VSA can investigate the curber, but it can’t help you get your money back.
Check if there are any liens (claims for money owed) on the car. Check the car's serial number with the Personal Property Registry. CARPROOF can do a Canada-wide lien search for a fee.
Buy a vehicle history report from ICBC or CARPROOF. Find out if the car has been in an accident. (As of September 2018, CARPROOF will be called CARFAX Canada.)
Get a written agreement whether you’re buying from a dealer or a private person—put in the terms that you want.
Ask a dealership about their return policies before you buy. There’s no automatic right to return a motor vehicle. But many people think there is because they are used to generous return policies of some stores.
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:
- File a complaint with the VSA. Check its fact sheet on the complaint process. You can also email the VSA at email@example.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. The fund website explains who can apply for compensation, what losses the Fund covers, and how to file a claim.
- Contact a lawyer for legal advice about your situation.
- Contact the Automotive Retailers Association (604.432.7987). Only some dealers belong to this voluntary organization. If you bought an RV (recreational vehicle) you can contact the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association of Canada, a national, voluntary organization. If you bought a used vehicle from a franchise dealer, contact the New Car Dealers Association of BC.
- Contact the Better Business Bureau.
Summary and more information
Buying a used car can be expensive and risky. Investigate before you buy. For more information, see the following websites:
[updated June 2018]
The above was last reviewed for accuracy by Ian Christman and edited by John Blois.
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