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Ask the AG

Law protects buyers if used vehicle found unfit to drive

Consumer: I bought a used car a few weeks ago. The brakes failed and I was told the car isn't legal to drive. The salesman said the car didn't include a warranty and was sold "as is." Is there a state law that requires cars to be inspected before they're sold? Shouldn't the dealer be responsible for the repairs?

Attorney General Rob McKenna: Although there is no express requirement for a dealer to inspect a used vehicle before it is sold, the car must be safe and legal to drive. If you were sold an unsafe vehicle, you have rights under state contract law and can request that the dealer make the car roadworthy or refund your purchase price.

Every used car sold by a dealer in Washington for personal use has an "implied warranty of merchantability" under state law. This means that the dealer promises the used car will be fit for ordinary driving purposes, reasonably safe, without major defects, and of the average quality of similar cars available for sale in the same price range. (Cars sold by private owners or for business use aren't covered under this law.)

Another state law offers warranty protections for consumers shopping for a vehicle for a specific purpose, such as racing or towing a trailer, when the dealer is informed that the vehicle will be used for that purpose and the consumer relies on the dealer's assurance that it will meet the specific need. A car can be sold without the implied warranty, but only if you orally negotiated and knowingly agreed to waive the warranty and the dealer provided a statement of the particular characteristics or parts of the car that aren't covered. Absent the required disclosures and your explicit consent, an "as is" sticker in the window of a car or a signed waiver is not sufficient to waive the implied warranty. The implied warranty can't be waived under any circumstance if a written warranty is offered with the car or the customer purchases an extended service warranty from the dealer within 90 days of buying a used car.

Whatever the status of warranty, dealers shouldn't sell cars that, due to defective or missing safety equipment, aren't legal to drive on public roads. Safety problems not disclosed in writing, which exist at the time of sale, should be brought to the dealer's attention to be remedied.

If the seller refuses to resolve the problem or return your money, you should file a complaint with the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division. You can file your complaint on-line at www.atg.wa.gov or call 1-800-551-4636 to speak to a complaint analyst and request a form be mailed to you. You should also file a complaint with the Department of Licensing's Dealer Services Division; a form is available online at http://www.dol.wa.gov/forms/430110.htm.

The Attorney General's Office will try to resolve the issue through informal mediation. If mediation doesn't resolve the problem, you will need to file a lawsuit. This can be done without a lawyer in Small Claims Court if the amount involved is less than $4,000. Small Claims and District Courts can't order the seller to perform repairs, but can require payment to cover damages.

You may also want to contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at to find out if your car's specific make and model was ever recalled by the manufacturer. You can search for recall information online at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov or call 1-800-424-9393.

Keep in mind that buying a vehicle "as is" means that you're assuming responsibility for all repairs and maintenance. Always insist on a test drive and take a used vehicle to an independent mechanic for a thorough inspection before you buy.

More information about purchasing cars and implied warranties is available on the Attorney General's Office Web site at http://www.atg.wa.gov/consumer/cars.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna offers this public service to help consumers avoid fraud and to promote a fair and informed marketplace.

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