WWYD: The Car Sale

In this installment of “What Would You Do?,” selling something that has problems with it. Here’s P.

What if you had a car you wanted to sell, but there was something wrong with it? Do you tell the buyer? Does it depend on what the problem is?

What if you weren’t selling it to an individual, but trading it in? Is it different to screw over the car dealership, than to screw over an individual? For a lot of folks, that might muddy their ethical river. — P.

I’m the son of a blue-collar, car-fixin’ Ford employee who would be disappointed in me if I wasn’t upfront about what I was selling. Yes, I would tell the buyer about any and all problems I was aware of. I would expect someone selling me a used car to tell me if there was something wrong with it, so I would want to extend him or her the same courtesy. It doesn’t matter what the problem is—if the bulb in the trunk needs to be replaced, I’d tell potential buyers, “The bulb in the trunk needs to be replaced.” I’m not an auto expert, so I can’t identify all the problems, but I can describe what I know (“The windshield wipers make a funny sound when you turn them on—I’m not sure why”).

As for car dealerships, they’ve driven around this block many times, so it’ll be hard to fool them. They’ll take the car for a test drive, look under the hood, and will ask all the right questions. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m a terrible liar. I’d accept and sell the car for what it is, and move on to other wheels.


Email me your WWYD experiences to me with “WWYD” in the subject line. See previous installments.



18 Comments / Post A Comment

lhorntx (#2,302)

I would be up front with any interested buyers because I feel that’s a pretty sizable investment (and I’m a bad liar). In a different situation, I bought a phone from someone on Craigslist that looked fine when I tested it out, but the next day found out it overheats and dies by 12 noon. Bought a new battery for it…still died every few hours so I ended up buying a new phone from a store. I understand wanting to sell something, but I don’t think it’s right to knowingly withhold important information for the sake of a sale.

NeenerNeener (#156)

I don’t think the dealership asks you to state the condition; they have a good idea.
A lot of times, the “trade-in allowance” is a combination of what they know the trade to be worth and a discount on the new car that makes you feel like they’re giving you more for the trade.
I would have to tell a private party if I knew of something wrong. Then again, I probably wouldn’t be trying to sell it private party if there were. I don’t like selling stuff.

wearitcounts (#772)

in massachusetts, the lemon laws are so strict that you can really screw yourself by not saying anything. so i would probably say something.

(just realized that makes me sound like a terrible person. but the upshot of it is, if you don’t feel ethically bound to say something, do some research about your state’s laws, because you could screw yourself anyway.)

aetataureate (#1,310)

Oh my gosh. Yes. Of course you tell the person. I just bought a used car and it took MONTHS because of exactly this — everyone’s ads were full of lies, then they’d lie to your face, too.

tales (#928)

Yeah, this seems like “willfully deceiving someone so they waste their money (which they might not have to spare)”. Especially in cars. My brother gave me his old car (it was definitely not sellable for more than a hundred bucks or something) and it needs $2000 worth of work to get it up to inspection. But it runs just fine, driving it wouldn’t let you know those problems. Someone could just as well have tried to sell it to me for $2000. And while I can afford $2000 on a car right now I definitely could not afford $4000 on the same car.

ThatJenn (#916)

What about if you’re not 100% sure something’s wrong with it? Is it your obligation to say something?

I just sold a car that broke in little ways ALL THE TIME and I think partly it was because of how it was likely treated by the owner before me, but no way was I going to broadcast that this car is a financial liability on wheels. I mentioned the things I had fixed recently but mildly downplayed just how much and how often I’d needed it worked on.

I also had it looked at by two mediocre mechanics right before I sold it. One of them told me my suspension was shot. My second opinion said it was “not perfect anymore due to normal wear and tear but safe and fine to sell to someone, and won’t need fixing for a long while yet.” I didn’t mention it to the buyer because it seemed like it was probably fine, something that might come up in the next 50k miles but no guarantee of it. Is this being “willfully deceiving”? I mean, I DID have the dealership telling me it was fine and just getting a little older, like the whole rest of the car, and that the first mechanic was full of shit. I wouldn’t take the dealership’s word as gospel for myself but is it OK to pass it on (passively) as true to the new buyer?

(In reality, my AC, which I replaced THIS JUNE, went out a week after they bought the car, but my great mechanic – not either of the ones above – decided to honor the warranty even though the car had changed owners. This car is a freakin’ lemon I swear. I am so glad it is out of my life and hope it behaves better for its new owners.)

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@ThatJenn But it sounds like you were 100% sure there was something wrong with it. Someone told you the suspension was shot but you didn’t like that, so you listened to someone else and then mildly downplayed how often you had to fix the car. Then you end by telling us it is a “freakin’ lemon”. A car isn’t a person with quirks. It’s a machine that does what it’s supposed to when it’s working correctly. So you sold someone a shitty car. Good for you.

ThatJenn (#916)

@josefinastrummer To be fair, I had reason to believe the first mechanic didn’t know what he was talking about (I asked the second mechanic to double-check to make sure it was fine), and my previous repair experiences exactly match the reviews for this car at this age (so it’s probably not a lemon, just a shitty brand of car). I did reduce my asking price by 20-30% as a result, just in case, which should more than cover it if my second mechanic lied. Buuuut sometimes we all make bad choices, so perhaps I still did screw up here. I do think the buyer had enough information to determine whether buying that car at that age at that price was a good call, and I do think I did my due diligence by actually trying to go get the suspension fixed. The dealership said even if I was keeping it they didn’t think it needed a repair, maybe in a few years as routine maintenance but not now.

ThatJenn (#916)

@josefinastrummer This doesn’t absolve me, btw (I’m fully willing to accept that maybe I should have said something despite having the word of a mechanic that it was fine and just undergoing normal wear), but there is a happy ending: they’ve since taken it to the good mechanic and he found nothing wrong with the car (beyond the AC, as mentioned above), so apparently mediocre mechanic #2 was right about the suspension after all. I am happy about this.

I spent a good $2k to sell this car in as good condition as I could, so that there was nothing that I knew to be wrong with it when I sold it, so I mostly feel OK about it. I can’t help it if the car has problems in the future.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@ThatJenn Great! And you are right, it’s a buyer beware kind of world and if you buy a used car, you need to get it checked out first. No one forces someone to buy a car. Or do they…ha!

ThatJenn (#916)

@josefinastrummer Yeah, I would’ve felt better about myself if they had opted to do an inspection before buying, just in case I was wrong! But that said, I think it was the car they needed (7-passenger van) at the price they needed so I really hope it holds up for them.

limenotapple (#1,748)

I’m getting ready to trade in my 7 year old car, and it does have a problem that I’m not sure the dealership will detect (one of the external lights burns out about a week after I change the bulb so I’m always changing the bulb; also there’s a thing with the stereo speaker where it goes in and out, one of the tires has a slow leak). There are problems that I’m sure they will detect, like physical damage, stains, needs new brakes soon, etc. I’m not going to sell it to a person, I just don’t have the time. I am AMAZED at how many people think that i should try to sell it to a person and not disclose the problems! I just can’t believe the general consensus seems to be, “Yeah, don’t tell anyone what the problem is, so you can get more money!” HOW AWFUL.
If the dealer can’t figure this out from their review, well, I guess I assume they are pretty well trying to screw me anyway, and since it’s a 7-year-old-cheap-car-to-begin-with-car, I’m not sure if it would even make a difference.

lil sebastian (#2,900)

Whaaat? This does not seem like a grey area to me. Knowingly misrepresenting something that is for most people the 2nd biggest investment and expense is a pretty morally terrible thing to do. I mean, would you want to buy a car from a private seller or a dealer that they knew had a problem? My husband sold his car on Craigslist when we were downgrading to one car, and the two men who came out to buy it were mechanics and gave it a good going over. We had been forthcoming about what was good and bad about the car. I don’t even see how you can justify taking more money than you KNOW your car is worth from someone.

kitten_witawip (#1,309)

It does not matter what the seller tells me. Before I buy a used car I check the vin on Carfax. If the title is clear, has no reported issues and I like it I take it to my mechanic to look it over.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@kitten_witawip Yep. And this is also why you always take a used car to a trusted mechanic before purchasing – never take what someone trying to get your money says at face value.

That said: it’s still the seller’s obligation to be up front about any problems with the vehicle they have knowledge of.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

It’s just easier to be up front about a car’s problems. Every car I’ve ever sold has been taken to a mechanic for an inspection, so had I tried to hide something it probably would’ve been found out anyways. Less waste of my time and prospective buyers time.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

Mike Dang, I was with you until you said “I would expect someone selling me a used car to tell me if there was something wrong with it”.
I would not expect that of someone trying to sell me a used car, regardless of whether they were a private individual or I was buying from a dealership.
That said, I would WANT them to, and so, like you, I would tell the truth if I knew there was something that I knew was faulty on the car.

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