If you're in the market for a used car, online classifieds such as Kijiji and Craigslist are go-to places to find deals.

But with that comes risk.

There's often more protection for Quebec consumers if they buy from a registered dealer, according to the Canadian Automobile Association's Quebec branch. Verifications on the vehicle's condition and history are all done for you, because the dealership doesn't want to sell a car with problems. 

There are some private companies that, for a fee, will retrieve a history of the car, its odometer reading, whether it's ever been involved in an accident or if it's been rebuilt.

However, with a bit of sleuthing, you can find out some critical information about the used car you want to buy all on your own.

CAA-Québec has this advice for anyone buying a secondhand car:

  • Take it for a test drive. 
  • Get it inspected by a mechanic.
  • Get the vehicle identification number (VIN).
  • Get the date the seller bought the car.

VIN 'like a passport number'

"The VIN is like a passport number," said CAA-Québec spokesperson Annie Gauthier. "It gives you all the information about the history of the car."

Once you have the VIN, enter it into the Registre des droits personnels et réels mobiliers, an online service offered by the Quebec Ministry of Justice.

For $3, it will tell you who actually owns the car and if there's any debt on it.

"As soon as you become the owner of a car, you are the owner of the debts," warned Gauthier. 

Annie Gauthier, CAA-Quebec

CAA-Québec spokesperson Annie Gauthier says the association often gets calls from unsuspecting used-car buyers who find out they are on the hook for an outstanding debt on the vehicle they've purchased. Not only do they lose the car, but they're out the money they paid for it. (CBC)

The CAA often receives calls from unsuspecting buyers who later find out they're on the hook for an outstanding debt.

They not only lose the vehicle they thought was theirs when it's seized by a creditor, but they are out the money they paid for it.

Check car's history, too

Even if you check the Quebec registry and find the car is free of debt, it doesn't mean it's safe to buy.

It can take a financial institution up to 15 days to register a lien, which is why it's important to know exactly when the seller bought the car.

For $12, the SAAQ, Quebec's automobile insurance board will provide you with the history of the vehicle you want to purchase.

It will also confirm the identity of the vehicle's present owner, as well as past owners.

Failure to check has consequences

Stacey Attey

Stacey Attey wishes the SAAQ, Quebec's automobile insurance board, had told her to check the VIN number on her used SUV before it processed the transfer of ownership. (CBC)

Stacey Attey wishes she'd done the proper checks before buying her 2013 Nissan Rogue last year.

The Mercier, Que., resident thought she'd stumbled upon a great deal when she spotted the SUV on Kijiji.

The car was in great shape and the price was good, so she bought it — unaware that there was an unpaid debt of $30,000 on it.

Now she's being chased by the seller's creditor and has two options: pay off the debt herself or forfeit the SUV.

"It would have been nice if, at the SAAQ, if they'd told me, 'Have you checked if there's a lien?'" said Attey.

Stricter rules for Ontario sellers

In Quebec, the onus is on the buyer to do the proper checks before transferring ownership.

Not so in Ontario.

Ontario sellers are legally required to provide a used-vehicle information package (UVIP) to a buyer when they sell a pre-owned vehicle, to protect the buyer. 

The package includes a description of the car, the present and previous owners, the odometer reading, lien info and the vehicle's condition, as well as whether it's been dismantled or crushed.

A buyer can't proceed with the ownership transfer without the UVIP in hand.

George Iny, Automobile Protection Association president

In Ontario, sellers are legally required to provide a used vehicle information package (UVIP) to a buyer. George Iny, the head of the Automobile Protection Association, said if it's used properly, it can protect buyers. (CBC)

Ontario's UVIP is a great tool — if it's used properly, said George Iny, executive director of the Montreal-based Automobile Protection Association. 

"Usually people obtain it at the licence bureau," said Iny. "Sometimes they don't even open it until they say goodbye to the guy who sold them the car."

Education campaign needed?

Both Iny and CAA-Québec's Gauthier say many consumers don't know about the Quebec registry and say it should be better publicized.

Isabelle Marier St-Onge, a spokesperson for Quebec's Ministry of Justice, said the ministry believes it's already doing enough to make consumers aware of the registry.

There are no plans to change the law and bring it more into line with what Ontario has.

"Education and awareness are the best tools," Marier St-Onge wrote in an email.

Gauthier says if Attey locates the man who sold her the SUV with a lien on it, she could sue him.

"But imagine the time and energy to track him down — and the money spent on lawyers," said Gauthier. 

She recommends buyers always check the registry before they purchase a used vehicle, to avoid any nasty surprises.