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How to handle a dispute with a car dealer

We regularly get readers asking for advice on how to resolve their dispute with a car dealer. So let's look at the steps you should take to get your problem sorted.

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We regularly get readers asking for help in resolving their dispute with a car dealer. Most of their issues can be listed under three headings:

  1. I was promised something and the dealer is refusing to honour it
  2. I want to cancel my car order but the dealer won’t let me
  3. My car has broken and the dealer won’t fix it

Basically, the underlying issue is the same each time: “The dealer is being dodgy and not giving me what I am entitled to.” We will look at each of the three examples above, but there are many other reasons why car buyers and car owners get into arguments with car dealers.

Of course, these disputes play into people’s built-in distrust of car dealers anyway. We assume that all dealers are robbing us blind and dodging their legal responsibilities, so we’re starting with some very negative assumptions as soon as an issue arises.

While that does still happen far too often in the car industry, in most cases the dealer is not trying to screw you over. But that still doesn’t mean they are necessarily going to respond in the way you want.

To have the best chance of getting what you want, you need to clearly articulate the problem, state the outcome you are looking for and be able to explain yourself clearly and concisely.  If you are generally ranting or being vague and non-specific, you are likely to end up bogged down in an argument or going around in circles without resolving anything.

Broken down car

The other two qualities you will need in spades are patience and persistence. Resolving your issue could well be a slow process (sometimes deliberately so), which means you will probably need to keep chasing and keep restating your case to different people until it gets resolved.

Step back and summarise your dispute

To be able to successfully resolve your issue with the dealership, you need to make sure you are being very clear about what the problem is and what outcome you are looking for.

In a single sentence, summarise your dispute with the dealer. It should look something like the three examples at the top of this article.

Now, in another single sentence, summarise what outcome you want.

These two steps sound obvious, but it is amazing how many people get so caught up in their argument that they lose sight of what they’re trying to achieve in the first place – especially if the dispute drags on for any length of time.

Imagine you’re presenting your case to a judge

It can be tricky if you feel like you’re being messed around by the dealer, but try to imagine you are pleading your case to an impartial and unemotional judge, presiding over your dispute in a courtroom (and hopefully it won’t ever get to that point!). This will help you prepare your case when you are asking the dealer to resolve your problem, and to anticipate the dealer’s response.

A judge would listen to both sides of the dispute and ask for evidence to back up any claims you make. So you need to be clear in explaining your problem and you need to provide evidence to prove your case. You also need to understand the dealer’s position – because a judge obviously would.  Regardless of how inconvenienced you are by your problem, there is almost always an opposing point of view.

It’s all about the paperwork

I’ve said it many times before and I will probably be saying it forever: verbal promises are worthless because you have no proof of anything. A judge wouldn’t simply accept your word over a dealer’s, and would ask you to present evidence to back up your claim. This is what you need to be referring to when you are disputing a problem with a dealer:

  • contract (vehicle order form, finance agreement, repair work agreement, etc.)
  • pre-contract finance information
  • policy documents (for finance agreements, warranties, insurance, etc.)
  • receipts
  • written quotations (on company stationery, not a blank piece of paper)
  • letters or emails from the dealership
  • advertisements, offers or vouchers
  • brochures

The key items are those in the top line of that list: the official contracts you and the dealer have signed regarding your vehicle order, car finance or repair/maintenance work. These are legally binding agreements between you and the dealer and form the crux of any dispute.

The vehicle contract spells out exactly what you are getting for your money. Every relevant piece of information should be included in this document. If the dealer offers you a free service or tank of fuel, have it written into the contract. If you are signing an order subject to a satisfactory inspection or repair, make sure it’s written down and worded in a way that you agree to. If you need a specific delivery date, or are making any particular arrangements for collecting the vehicle, have it written into the contract. No exceptions, no excuses.

The same applies to your finance agreement and any service/workshop agreement. Most people do not bother reading these documents in detail, which is a mistake when you are signing your agreement to any terms and conditions contained within. If you don’t read the document before signing it, you lose the right to complain about whatever’s in it. If you read it and don’t like what you find, either don’t sign it and leave, or make amendments as necessary and make sure the dealer signs off on it.

If your issue is not covered by the relevant contract, then you will need to show other written evidence to back up your claim. The other items in the list above are what you need to be referring to, and you will need to show clear evidence to support your case.

Keep all the paperwork relating to your car and your finance agreement; you may need it if you have any problems.

Understand the different parties involved

Cars are complex things, but the way we buy and run them can be complicated as well. This can mean that what you think is a simple issue for the dealer is actually a more difficult matter that involves the manufacturer, the finance company, the warranty provider or another third party.

The dealer sells new cars on behalf of the manufacturer, finance on behalf of the finance company, and other aftermarket insurances and warranties on behalf of those providers. Any issues involving anything beyond the specifics of the sale will usually involve another party, and the dealer will usually need to consult with them before agreeing to anything. This is normal, but don’t allow them to use it as an excuse to do nothing.

Escalate the matter to the next person

There is often a temptation to go “straight to the boss” and bypass lower levels of an organisation to get a problem solved. The problem with that approach is that the boss usually has no idea who you are and will simply bounce the problem back down to the bottom of the chain to get it sorted. So summon all your levels of patience and start at the bottom, working your way up as necessary.

Your first point of call at the dealership is usually the sales executive or service advisor. It is highly likely that they will need to go and get more information and authority to fix your problem from their manager. This is perfectly normal – sales execs and service advisors rarely have any authority to do anything except take your money.

If the salesperson or service advisor can’t sort your problem, you will need to escalate the matter to more senior people until it gets resolved. The next port of call is the sales manager or service manager. This person at least has control over a budget to fix problems and can usually authorise fixing yours.

If the sales/service manager can’t/won’t help, the top person at the dealership is the general manager or dealer principal. This person can authorise any action that falls under the control of the dealership. If you can show that you have spent time trying to get your matter resolved and are coming to the general manager as a last resort, they will quite often cooperate simply to get the problem resolved and make it go away, regardless of whether or not they agree with you.

Often, an individual dealership is part of a larger group of dealers owned by a large company. If so, you can take the matter up with the dealer’s head office.

If you are dealing with a franchised dealership representing a manufacturer (as opposed to an independent used car dealer) and are not happy with how the dealer is handling your problem, you can also take your issue to the manufacturer’s customer service department at their head office. To an extent, this means starting again at the bottom of another chain, but manufacturers are able to exert pressure on a dealership to get problems sorted, so by all means make use of it.

If you have failed to get anywhere with the dealership, and the manufacturer if appropriate, you can then take your case to the independent Consumer Ombudsman (or Financial Ombudsman Service if it relates to your car finance) or take legal action against the dealer.

Fortunately, if you have followed a logical process and been diligent in escalating the matter, it should have been sorted long before reaching this point.

What if the dealer still refuses to cooperate?

Even if you have a clear-cut case where you have the law on your side and the dealer is in the wrong, it doesn’t mean they will play nicely and give you what you want.

Many of the comments on our articles will testify that dealers will sometimes simply refuse to comply with their legal obligations. Unfortunately, all you can really do is engage a lawyer and take them to court – and they are betting on you not wanting to go to that level of cost and effort.

Understand that you may not get what you want

If a dealer is prepared to defend itself from legal action or an Ombudsman’s inquiry, then the management obviously feel that they have a very strong case and that you are in the wrong.

Regardless of how aggrieved you feel about your problem, there is always a strong chance that you won’t get your problem resolved the way you want it. You need to be prepared to accept that the dealer may have no obligation to fix your problem, even if leaves you with a broken car or a large bill.

I was promised something and the dealer is refusing to honour it

This problem can easily summed up in the section “It’s all about the paperwork” above. If you don’t have a written promise, then it doesn’t exist. If you do have it set out in writing, you should be able to get what you are entitled to without many problems. If you have a written promise that’s not being honoured, you will need to escalate the matter until it is resolved.

I want to cancel my car order but the dealer won’t let me

When you sign a vehicle order form, you are signing a legally-binding contract to purchase a car and the dealer is signing a legally-binding contract to supply it. In most cases, there is no legal provision for cancelling your purchase, so the dealer is under no obligation to let you walk away from your contract.  

Usually, these matters end up being resolved with the dealer agreeing to cancel the order in return for keeping the buyer’s deposit. For more information, read our in-depth article about cancelling a vehicle order.

Once you have taken delivery of the vehicle, trying to hand it back for any reason is usually complicated and expensive, even more so if you have taken out car finance to purchase it.

My car has broken and the dealer won’t fix it

Angry customer with mechanic at dealership

Vehicle faults are often the most difficult issues to resolve. As already mentioned, cars are complicated machines and they operate in very harsh environments. It is entirely likely that something will go wrong at some stage, and fixing problems can be tricky.

A vehicle fault may be covered under its new car warranty, which is provided by the vehicle manufacturer. A used car warranty is usually provided by a third party on behalf of the dealer or manufacturer and underwritten by an insurance company. The dealer generally does not provide the warranty and requires approval from the warranty provider to carry out any work under warranty.

One of the issues with disputes over vehicle faults is that is can be difficult to show how the fault was caused, and owners will often refuse to accept that they may have actually caused the problem themselves.

Used cars are especially difficult in this regard, as the car was not new when purchased and will have already experienced wear and tear. Indeed, a fault may have been caused by a previous owner and gone completely undetected until the new owner has a problem. Tracing problems can be expensive and time-consuming, and dealers will inevitably be wary that customers will sometimes never be happy with the result.

Be patient, be persistent and appreciate the effort that goes in on both sides to sort out a problem, and you are likely to get there in the end.  If you rant or are unreasonable in your demands to the dealer, they are unlikely to cooperate.

Of course, you could do what this customer did and trash the dealership, but it’s not recommended…

This article was originally published in March 2016. Last updated December 2019.

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Stuart Masson
Stuart Massonhttps://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/
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.