Any fool can buy a used car and that's often where the problem starts. After all, you only get what you pay for. However, even when a buyer does beware, abiding by all the rules, what you see is sometimes not exactly what you get. And there is nothing worse than being misled or tricked into buying a car that is unsuitable, unreliable, or unsafe.

So, if you had access to a motoring legal eagle the moment your used car dream turned into a nightmare, what advice might you expect?

I've bought this car from a dealer and it has let me down. What's my position?

The Sale of Goods Act says products must be of 'merchantable quality', which means fit for their normal purpose. However, a car would need to be almost unusable for a full refund to be allowed on these grounds. A court would take into account all the circumstantial factors in deciding whether it was of merchantable quality; the test is one of reasonableness. So could you expect 12,000 fault-free miles from a pounds 500 used car? Probably not.

But I told the dealer I needed the car for towing, and it wasn't up to the job.

If you made your requirements known to the dealer, you have a claim.

What if I let the dealer repair the car?

By allowing the dealer to correct the fault, however small, you lose any right to reject the car. Alternatively, you could allow the repairs, but put it in writing that you are accepting them 'without prejudice' to your existing legal rights.

I remember the dealer hinting that the radio was faulty. Can I have it replaced?

You are under an obligation to examine the car as far as is reasonably possible to ensure that the car is fit to be used, hence the Latin adage, caveat emptor - buyer beware. A visual inspection and test drive are minimal requirements. So if any defects are brought to your attention the merchantable quality proviso is overriden and you are stuck with any faults.

What other options, legal and otherwise, do I have?

There may be a civil action for breach of contract if some term of the original agreement has not been met, such as delivery at the wrong time, or radio not fitted. That may entitle you to a small amount of compensation. A dealer who is a member of the Retail Motor Industry Federation may abide by its conciliation and arbitration procedures. You can further appeal to the Office of Fair Trading. A dealer also has obligations under the Road Traffic Act, meaning the car must be roadworthy, unless sold specifically for parts or breaking.

I paid more because the car was low mileage, now I'm not so sure.

Dealers are under an obligation to disclose any information they may have about a previous mileage reading, such as when the speedometer was replaced, and to try to ascertain the correct figure. Mileage disclaimers are effective provided they are not used to make a representation, such as 'the mileage is 20,000 but we cannot guarantee it'.

I'm now worried that the dealer lied about other aspects of the car's history.

Dealers must describe a car accurately, and cannot call it a 'great runner' if it is not.

Under the Trades Descriptions Act, the car must be described accurately to you either in conversation, or by advertisement. Once you rely on a dealer's description it becomes a term of the contract. So 'It's definitely an '89' is a term, whereas 'I think it's an '89' isn't. The OFT can make a criminal prosecution.

What are my rights buying privately?

None of the consumer legislation applies. But the Road Traffic Act makes it a criminal offence for anyone to sell an unroadworthy vehicle and there are provisions for taking civil actions under the Misrepresentation Act.

I think he may have been a trader working from home.

Tell your local Trading Standard Office. They can prosecute in such cases.

Do I have to go to court?

No. Often the small sums and time involved in pursuing an action hardly make it worthwhile. Where possible, try to negotiate a settlement. Most dealers are reasonable and do not want to lose their reputations . Writing to the managing director and setting out your complaints concisely and politely can be very effective. However, if the matter is more serious, contact a solicitor or Citizens Advice Bureau. Alert the Local Trading Standards Office, who can take apprpriate action.

How can I protect myself?

Always take a friend with you to viewing a car. That gives you a useful witness to promises and representations, as well as acting as a brake to your euphoria about buying a car. Get any promises and provisos put in writing so that there are no doubts.

Ensure the car is professionally inspected, and buy from a dealer for maximum legal protection. When paying extra for a warranty be aware of the limitations and read the small print. Most are insurance-based schemes that cover repairs up to a certain value and may exclude failure of particular mechanical and electrical parts.

Note down times, dates of conversations, promises, so that if there is a dispute, you will have all the salient facts to hand, which will help any legal action.


Retail Motor Industry Federation (complaints about member garages): Customer Relations, RMIF, 9 North Street, Rugby GV2I 2AB. (0798 576465).

Institute of the Motor Industry (complaints about individual members who are garage staff): Contact: Fanshaws, Bickendon, Hertford SG13 8PQ. (0992 86521).

Automobile Association (vehicle inspection for members and non-members): (0800 3336660).

RAC (free legal advice on motoring matters for members only): RAC Motoring services, RAC House, M1 Cross, Brent Terrace NW2 1LT. (081-452 8000).

Which? Personal Service (members only get legal help for a fee): Consumer Association, 2 Marylebone Road NWI 4DX. (071-935 3277).

HPI Autodata (computer records on whether a car is stolen, subject to a finance agreement, or written off. A charge is made for this service): HPI Information, Dolphin House, PO Box 61, New Street, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 2TB.

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