Still 'Buyer Beware' when buying a used car, consumer says

Sandy Lukowich thought she had struck a fair deal on a used high-end SUV.

Mercedes SUV had unsafe steering and history of accidents, despite inspection

After buying a used Mercedes SUV, Sandy Lukowich learned the vehicle had steering problems and had been in at least one serious crash. (CBC)

Sandy Lukowich thought she had struck a fair deal on a used high-end SUV. 

But despite relying on a government-mandated mechanical inspection and a dealer’s website promise of a one-year warranty, she ended up with a vehicle described as unsafe, one that had collision damage to the tune of $25,000.

“I’ve never bought a used vehicle before,” Lukowich said. “To me, you trust the people that are selling the cars.”

Lukowich called Go Public because she wasn’t able to persuade Peace Motors of Edmonton to take back the 2004 Mercedes-Benz ML350 sold to her after the SUV repeatedly failed to start and she became suspicious it had been in a serious accident.

Two pillars of consumer protection for used vehicle sales in Alberta are a Mechanical Fitness Assessment, performed and signed by a certified journeyman technician, and a dealer’s legal obligation to declare any known material defect including a collision.

The Mechanical Fitness Assessment Lukowich received showed the steering linkage was “non-compliant,” plus the vehicle had a few burned-out light bulbs.

Lukowich bought the SUV because she felt $8,000 was appropriate for the year, make and model and because on its website Peace Motors advertises that, "All vehicles come with a 1-year warranty."

Lukowich said less than two hours later the Mercedes wouldn’t start and had to be boosted.

Many times over the next week it would stall or wouldn’t start, and finally had to be towed back to Peace Motors, she said.

Lukowich carries a booster pack she connects to the battery every time it won’t start. It shows a warning light indicating the SUV’s seatbelt and airbag system weren’t working.

Inspected vehicle 'unsafe'

Go Public took the Mercedes for inspections at two independent repair shops.

Todd Eskow, owner of Computerized Autopro, said the technician who did the original Mechanical Fitness Assessment correctly indicated the steering was non-compliant, but should have gone further.

Eskow showed Go Public the left outer tie-rod end which he said was so worn it could leave the Mercedes unsteerable.

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“(The government) encourages technicians to document anything outside of normal circumstances which this would clearly fall within,” Eskow said.

“I would have hoped the technician would document ... 'left outer tie-rod is dangerous.’  

“I wouldn’t want to be driving it,” Eskow said. “I wouldn’t want my daughter driving it, or my wife, or anybody that I know driving it.”

There are other safety problems with the vehicle, including faulty ball joints that had been given a passing grade on the original assessment.

“It’s a pretty big miss,” said Tony Glumpak, co-owner of Sandy Lane Auto.

“I mean there’s over $3,000 just to make this car safe.”

Glumpak also found evidence the Mercedes’s computer and electrical systems are not communicating with each other which could cause the engine and other systems to shut down without warning, an indication he said the vehicle had been in a serious collision.

A search of the car’s history showed it has been in at least four accidents.

The search is available to all consumers for a fee from any registry office, but Lukowich did not ask for one.

Before Peace Motors sold the Mercedes to Lukowich it was bought from Adesa Auctions in Nisku, Alta., on June 18, 2013.

It was sold at the auction “as-is,” and was described as “Red Light”, meaning it had sustained serious damage, including two accident repairs in 2011, one for $10,954 and a second costing $13,560.

Professionals say body repairs on Mercedes-Benzes are expensive and that such repairs don’t mean a vehicle is unsafe, but Alberta law requires licensed sellers to disclose all collisions they are aware of, whether or not a consumer asks.

Lukowich says she never was never told about the SUV’s accident history.

SUV’s history disclosed, lot owner says

Stanley Igiwa, the owner of Peace Motors, insists Lukowich was given a complete history of the SUV’s sale and collision history.

Igiwa said he does the search on every car he sells and provides them to every buyer.

A staff member showed Go Public a pile of Car-Proof reports she said were for vehicles in Peace Motors’ inventory.

Igiwa said the one-year warranty advertised on his website only applies to vehicles listed on the website itself, and that the warranty costs extra.

He said he even offered to take the Mercedes back and sell Lukowich a different vehicle but that she refused.

Igiwa said the engine always started when it was at Peace Motors and that the steering wasn’t unsafe when he sold it.

“It was safe when she bought it,“ Igiwa said, insisting the vehicle deteriorated after she began driving it.

“The lady didn’t buy the vehicle and put it in the wardrobe,” Igiwa said, noting Lukowich has driven the car for five weeks and more than three thousand kilometres.

Alberta law required the information on a Mechanical Fitness Assessment to be valid for 120 days, but Go Public has heard from customers of other used car dealers who say the MFA they received failed to reveal serious safety defects.

When Aaron Waddington bought a 2002 Mazda Protege, the MFA reveal no non-compliant components other than a broken windshield.

He later found in the glove box a repair estimate for over $2,200 worth of repairs to the suspension and brakes, more than he paid for the car.

He took the car to another repair facility which confirmed the Mazda’s deplorable condition.

“Not only was I ripped off, but a car insurance company insured that car based on that report,” Waddington said.

Waddington said he would never buy another used car based on the MFA which he feels is worthless bureaucracy and a waste of money.

“If you’re not going to force them to do a real inspection and prove it, you might as well not do it at all,” he said.

Eskow said customers should take the MFA with a grain of salt.

“It’s a great stepping stone, but in terms of consumer protection, it provides very little,” Eskow said.

Inspection no substitute for independent test

The Alberta Motor Vehicle Industry Council, the industry regulator, says the MFA isn’t a substitute for a complete independent inspection and doesn’t imply a 120-day warranty.

“I’d say this is a great tool, but you may not want to place all of your judgment ... on this specific document.” said Laura Lowe, AMVIC spokesperson.

Lowe said the MFA is a good starting point, and that buyers should ask for it before they begin negotiating a sale.

AMVIC has recently settled investigations against three dealers by securing their written promise to do Car-Proof research and disclose the accident history on every used vehicle they sell, even though it’s not required by law.

“We would like all sellers of vehicles to do these vehicle history reports and present them to consumers,” Lowe said.

“If the seller does not want to do it, they don’t have to, but then we’d like consumers to do it before they make that purchase ... because that sort of information ... is very important to have before you make that decision to buy,” Lowe said.

Lukowich filed a complaint against Peace Motors with AMVIC, believing she was ripped-off.

Peace Motors owner Stanley Igawa has since offered to take the SUV back and refund her money, less $1,000.

“The Alberta Government should regulate the dealers to make sure the vehicles are safe,” she said, adding she hopes others learn from her experience.

“I want to make it safe so that no-one else gets ripped-off.”