I just bought a car and now it needs a new engine. What do I do?

The car I just bought needs a new engine. What do I do?

“It passed the safety test but I feel I was scammed”


Click here to see more personal finance questions answered.

Q: I purchased a used 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan for $12,000 from a dealer in Hamilton. All of the previous owner’s paperwork was left in the glove box. When I contacted him, he told me, “Get rid of that car, it’s a LEMON!”  He sold it for $5,800!

After two weeks of driving, the car developed a coolant leak. Now the vehicle is sitting, not operable, and needs a new engine. The dealer’s mechanic who did the safety inspection also performs repairs. Did the mechanic do something to cause these issues?  My 17-year-old daughter and I were driving around in a vehicle that was not roadworthy, and unsafe.

Would the car pass a safety inspection, with fluid leaks? Both coolant and engine oil? This is my worst nightmare. How many other vehicles sold by used car dealers are on the road with suspect safety inspections? I have read that some mechanics actually issue fake safety standards certificates.  Something needs to be done.

— Lisa S.

A: Eli Melnick, a repair expert with Start Auto Electric in Toronto states that “Most leaks (except brake fluid) will pass the inspection unless the fluid is pooling on the garage floor. Engine oil leaks (not pooling) are generally not considered a safety issue. It is also possible, that on the 2012 Tiguan, that coolant was leaking into the combustion chambers through a failed head gasket rather than a visible external leak.”

It’s very unlikely that the mechanic who issued the safety standards certificate would have sabotaged a vehicle being sold by a dealer he works for; in this situation, both the mechanic and dealer’s interests are aligned with making the sale go through—a repair “provoked” by the repair shop could well ricochet against the dealer.

The more likely cause is that the mechanic turned a blind eye to the obvious deficiencies of the vehicle for defects that are not specifically covered in the safety certificate. Safety certification in Ontario and several other provinces is a limited inspection, with ineffectual oversight, that offers a lot less security to a retail customer than it appears. The Ministry of Ontario website cautions that “A safety standards certificate confirms that your vehicle met the minimum safety standards on the date the certificate was issued. It is not a warranty or guarantee of the vehicle’s condition.” A safety standards certificate does not replace a warranty according to the government, but some car dealers in Ontario act like it IS the warranty — until a problem occurs after the sale, and then they pass the buck to the repair facility or claim that everything was fine because the inspection report says so.

There are remedies for malpractice or professional misconduct by the inspecting mechanic.  Both the Ministry of Transportation (which governs the Safety inspection Program) and Ontario’s College of Trade (which issues the trade license) have investigation services.  You should have very solid evidence to support your complaint, including images and ideally a report from another repair expert. Keep in mind that Ministry or College of Trades involvement will not focus on resolving your claim against the dealer.

When a defect becomes evident shortly after the sale of a vehicle, it’s the dealer who likely has primary responsibility for the repair, especially if you can establish that the vehicle was already sick at the time of sale, or that verbal and written representations were made about its condition. The “safety” does not involve an in-depth look at the drivetrain or expensive accessories like the air conditioner or electronics other than warning lights. Used car buyers should request a complete pre-purchase inspection including a road test, which costs about double the price of the safety standards certificate. About one-quarter of the new car dealerships visited during undercover investigations undertaken by the Automobile Protection Association in Southern Ontario prohibited a pre-purchase inspection at an outside repair shop; used car dealers were much more accommodating.

Ask Iny: Leave your question for George Iny »