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Car buying advice

Does a seller have to declare damage on a car?

What do (and don't) sellers have to tell you about any repairs made to your car?

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One of the most common complaints we get here at The Car Expert is that a customer has bought a car (usually a used car, but not always) and then discovered later that the vehicle appears to have suffered some sort of damage.

This is then usually followed by the buyer getting very upset, arguments with the seller and requests for help here at The Car Expert in order to get a refund/compensation/vengeance.

But what are the rules about any damage being declared on a car you’re buying? Well, it depends…

Buying a car from a private seller

If you’re buying a used car from a private seller, you’re always going to struggle to win any argument or court case unless you can conclusively show that the seller has lied to you or misled you about the car’s condition.

A private seller is not considered to be an automotive professional, so the argument of “I didn’t know it was damaged” is considered far more acceptable than it would be from a car dealer.

Unless you have proof to show that the seller declared the car was not damaged (such as email correspondence or the seller’s original advertisement for the vehicle) and proof to show that the seller was lying (like a receipt for repairs undertaken during the seller’s ownership of the vehicle), it’s a tough case to win any claim.

Buying a car from a car dealer

Car dealers, on the other hand, must abide by various laws, including the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. That means you do have some consumer protection, although it can still be difficult to win an argument to reject a car or claim compensation if you feel that you’ve been deceived into buying a damaged car.

The law does not specify what sort of damage must be declared by a seller. Instead, it talks about unfair trading practices, and the language is fairly broad and open to interpretation.

Basically, anything that would cause the average consumer to buy a car when they wouldn’t have otherwise done so is considered unfair. So a dealer failing to disclose damage could be seen as unfair if it means that you bought a car in the belief that it had not been damaged and repaired, and wouldn’t have bought the car if you knew it had been damaged.

But that’s not very clear. What sort of damage would cause the ‘average consumer’ to not buy a car, even if it was properly repaired? A small scratch? A dent? Mechanical damage?

If I told you that the used car you’re looking at had had a door repainted because of a minor dent, but that the damage was miniscule and the repair work was done by a manufacturer-approved body shop, would it stop you from buying the car?

There’s no clear line in the sand, and what will seem acceptable to one customer will be totally unacceptable to another. So the ‘average consumer’ definition is a lawyer’s delight but generally unhelpful to the rest of us.

Does it matter whether it’s a new car or used car?

In the eyes of the law, the principles of unfair selling are exactly the same whether you’re buying a new car or a used car. The only real difference is what level of damage should be disclosed to the ‘average consumer’, and obviously there will be far more leeway applied to a used car with previous owners and mileage.

Damage to a new car prior to sale

You’d assume a new car would have to be pristine and perfect when you first take delivery, with not a hint of repair work to be found. Well, you’d also be wrong.

New cars get damaged all the time as they are transported from a factory in one country to a dealership in another country. From the moment a new car rolls off the production line, it could end up being moved around on several trucks, trains and ships to get to the dealership where you get to see it for the first time. There are plenty of points along that journey where a new car can be damaged, and car manufacturers all have designated repair centres near their holding facilities just for new cars to be repaired and repainted because of damage in transit.

It’s actually really common for new cars to be damaged, which may sound surprising but is simply a factor of hundreds of thousands of cars being in transit at any one time. Plus cars get knocked or scratched at dealerships all the time, again simply because there are lots of cars in very close proximity being moved around in tight spaces.

Despite this, very few customers are ever told that their car has been damaged in transit and minor repairs are simply conducted without any disclosure. As with many aspects of the automotive supply chain, this allows for plenty of plausible deniabilty. So the sales executive selling you the car may genuinely not know that your brand new car needed a replacement wheel after it was crunched on a kerb, or that the bonnet needed replacing and repainting as a result of hail damage.

The good news is any damage is likely to be superficial and entirely cosmetic, rather than structural. In addition, the requirement to deliver a car to a ‘brand new’ standard means that there’s very little wiggle room for a dealership or manufacturer to allow a sub-par repair job.

Because buyers have higher expectations of the condition of a new car, you’d think that they would be more concerned about it. But the reality seems to be that it doesn’t even enter most buyers’ thoughts that their brand new car may have been damaged so they don’t think to ask about it.

New car sales collapse across Europe - March 2020
Thousands and thousands of new cars being moved around all day long in close proximity to one another. A lot of them will be damaged at some stage.

Damage to a used car prior to sale

It’s far more reasonable to expect that a used car will have suffered some form of significant damage and repair during its life, as a result of an accident, corrosion or mechanical failure. This awareness means that customers are more likely to expect a dealer to disclose any damage. It’s also more likely that any work will be done to a less-than-acceptable standard, depending on who paid for the repairs.

The same principles apply to used cars as to new ones, in that the law talks about principles of unfair selling rather than detailing what sort of damage must be declared. Again, minor damage won’t usually be declared upfront, but insurance write-offs must be declared.

As a buyer, you should be looking closely at a vehicle for any signs of repair work, rather than simply asking the salesperson if the car has ever been damaged and taking their word for it when you get an answer along the lines of “Not that we’re aware of” or “Not to the best of my knowledge”.

Insurance write-offs

It’s perfectly legal to sell certain cars that have been declared write-offs for insurance purposes, depending on the severity of the damage. We discuss the details of insurance write-offs here, but in a nutshell there are four levels of write-off and the lower two (Cat S and Cat N, previously called Cat C and Cat D) allow for a car to be repaired and returned to the road.

An insurance write-off must always be declared at point of sale and included in any advertisement. It will also be noted in a history check on the vehicle from CAP/HPI or other providers. It’s not good enough for the seller to only provide this information when asked about it.

car insurance write-off

Buyer beware

As with any any concerns you may have about a car you’re buying, it’s up to you to take all reasonable action to protect your money. If you’re looking at a car and the salesperson seems like they’re trying to hide something when you ask questions, take that as a sign to leave.

Ideally, you should get the salesperson’s email address and ask them in writing whether the car has had any repair work done – along with any other questions you have about the vehicle. That way, you have written correspondence you can refer back to at a later date if necessary. A verbal conversation is no guarantee of anything, and can easily be denied later.

It’s far better all round for you to be aware of any damage before you buy the car, rather than discover it later on and try to seek some form of redress from the seller.

But I’ve already bought the car!

If you’ve already bought your car and only noticed afterwards that there is evidence of damage and repair, you’re on the back foot in terms of any dispute with the car dealer. Once you hand over your money and take possession of the vehicle, you’re accepting it as-is unless you can prove that you’ve been treated unfairly in the eyes of the law.

Generally speaking, your chances of getting a refund or some form of compensation are going to be slim unless you have overwhelming proof that you’ve been deceived. Make sure you gather up whatever documentation you have to support your case. Ideally, you want a copy of the original advertisement for the vehicle – especially if it mentions that the vehicle is in excellent condition or something similar. If you have any correspondence with the dealer, dig that out as well.

You may also want a written report from a third-party body shop or garage to declare that, in their opinion, the car was clearly repaired and the damage would certainly have happened before you bought it.

If you have all of that information, you might have a reasonable chance of getting some redress. Legal assistance will help you, as a lawyer will almost certainly be able to make a better legal argument than you will. It doesn’t matter how obvious it looks to you, it has to be obvious according to the letter of the law.

Stuart Masson
Stuart Masson
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.

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