What To Do When Things Go Wrong

Apr 30, 2024

You did everything right in purchasing your used car from a dealer. Despite this, before long, you start experiencing problems. First, it’s a check engine light, then next, it’s overheating, leaking fluids, or you hear a knocking noise from the engine. Your next steps at this point are critical if you want the dealer to make things right. 

1) Hit the brakes! Do NOT call the dealer yet

Your instinct may be to notify the dealer immediately, assuming they will make it right. But at this point, it’s not your best option. If your car is having problems so soon after purchase, it’s very likely that the dealer knew about the problem and covered it up to make the sale. If you contact them now, it creates an opportunity for them to evade responsibility.

2) Take the vehicle to a mechanic immediately

Take your vehicle to a mechanic that you trust as soon as possible after you notice the problem. Your best option is a general independent mechanic whom you can quickly book for a comprehensive inspection. You will want a record of the problem as quickly as possible. A specialist mechanic who only focuses on one part of the car (like Les Schwab, AAMCO, etc.) isn’t advised as they may miss problems outside their specialty. A comprehensive inspection (costing about $100-$300) is advised. While this expense can be a significant hardship, this step can offer peace of mind and help if you decide to pursue a claim.  

What to do at the mechanic’s:

  • Tell the mechanic about the problem you’re experiencing.
  • Have the mechanic inspect everything else to identify any other serious issues. 
  • Did the mechanic find a major problem? Ask if the problem likely existed before your purchase. 
  • Get everything in writing, with as much detail as possible in the report. 
  • Only minor vehicle problems? It’s best to get those fixed and be on your way.

3) Contact an Attorney

Suppose your mechanic found major problems, and they confirm that these problems existed at the time of sale. In that case, it’s now time to contact an attorney. Some attorneys charge a consulting fee, but others will talk to you for free. Ask the lawyer if they charge a consultation fee and if they take cases on contingency (meaning their fees depend on winning your case). Have your purchase paperwork, inspection report, a pen, and paper ready when you call a lawyer so you can take notes of the conversation. You will want to find an attorney who can talk to you about your case quickly. If you can’t find an attorney who can speak to you within a couple of days, it’s time to contact the dealer. Filing a case in small claims court can be tempting, but know that the odds are often stacked against the consumer in these cases.

    4) Contact the Dealer

    It’s a good idea to record your conversation when contacting the dealer, such as through text messages or email. If you need to contact the dealer by phone, record the phone conversation. If you are in Oregon and calling a dealer also in Oregon, you do not need to tell the dealer that you are recording the phone call. Test your recording system before calling the dealer. 

    Do the following when you contact the dealer:

    • Say what the mechanic found 
    • Share when you found out about the problem 
    • Tell the dealer what you want them to do (either buy back the vehicle or pay for the repairs) 

    The dealer will want you to bring it back to the lot without committing to doing anything. Bringing the vehicle back to the dealer under those conditions is not advisable. You want the dealer to commit to a favorable remedy before agreeing to bring the vehicle back. How the dealer will react is uncertain; an attorney can help you negotiate with the dealer. 

    *While contacting the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or writing a bad review on social media about the dealer might feel like a good option, it can also work against your interests. Dealers can use what you say in a review to claim you have defamed them.

    OCJ's Consumer Confidence Comics

    Issue No. 1—Purchasing a Used Car

    Available in English and Spanish, this comic will help you confidently tackle the complicated transaction of buying a used car.

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