Buyer beware: Used car offers nasty surprise

Matt Gardner
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William Kowalski holds up the For Sale sign from the used Chrysler Intrepid he recently bought for $900 only to find that the vehicle needed a safety inspection.

A local man who bought a used car after his old truck went up in flames has received an unpleasant reminder of the old adage, “Let the buyer beware.”

Having been told by the seller of a Chrysler Intrepid that the car was insurable, buyer William Kowalski was informed when he went to go insure it that the car needed a safety inspection.

“They said I needed a safety on it, and right off the hop I knew right then and there buddy screwed me,” Kowalski said.

“It needs a safety inspection before it’s even insurable, and I can’t afford anything like that,” he added, noting that the cost of getting a safety inspection would amount to at least $500.

The development came as a particular blow for Kowalski, 48, given the fate of his old truck.

While an investigation is ongoing, Kowalski believes the fire to be the result of arson, due to the fact that his is one of the few houses in the neighbourhood that does not have a fence around the yard.

Regardless of the circumstances behind the fire, Kowalski was forced into the market for a replacement vehicle.

While walking around the city, he happened to see the Intrepid, which had a For Sale sign in the window pointing potential buyers to a local business where the seller worked as an employee.

Meeting up with the seller, Kowalski took the car for a test drive and was satisfied with its performance -- but one important question remained.

“I asked him straight up, ‘This car’s insurable, right?’” Kowalski said, adding that the buyer told him the vehicle already had plates on it.

It was only after buying the vehicle for $900 on Friday that Kowalski learned it was not insured after all.

Stuck with what he referred to as a “2,800-pound paperweight” in his driveway, he then learned that there was no way he could get his money back since he had not purchased the car from a vehicle dealership.

“I’m going to try to get my money back,” Kowalski said. “But the way buddy was and the way he lied to me about saying that the thing was insurable, I expect he’s just going to try to screw me over.”

Kowalski is currently planning to take the case to small claims court.

Being stuck without a drivable vehicle puts Kowalski in an onerous position given his disability -- he requires a cane to walk around -- and ongoing health issues that oblige him to visit the doctor often.

Though he has been using Special Needs Transportation, he pointed to some issues with the service.

“The only problem is with Special Needs, I’ve got to wait an hour before I can even get a ride back, and sometimes I’m only gone for 15 minutes,” Kowalski said. “Sometimes doctor’s appointments take me longer than the time that I’m given.”

They said I needed a safety on it, and right off the hop I knew right then and there buddy screwed me. William Kowalski

Meanwhile, public transportation has its own disadvantages.

“I have to take a bus, and for me, riding a bus now, it’s non-stop pain,” Kowalski said.

“I couldn’t do it driving and that was with an air ride. But I couldn’t even drive anymore because the pain was too bad. That’s why I had to get my own vehicle.”

Kowalski’s experience underscores the importance of carefully checking used vehicles before buying, SGI media relations manager Kelley Brinkworth said.

In an effort to prevent such occurrences, the SGI website features a page detailing tips for potential used car buyers.

“It’s just basically making sure that you do your due diligence to ensure that the vehicle that you’re buying is what you’re looking for and that you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Brinkworth said.

Among the suggestions are avoiding online car purchases, viewing the vehicle at the seller’s home address or place of business, insisting on seeing the current vehicle registration in the seller’s name and paying by certified cheque made out only to the registered owner.

Doing research beforehand is key. Buyers should make sure the vehicle is not stolen by doing a search on the Canadian Police Information Centre website, contact the insurance bureau to ensure that the vehicle is not flood-damaged and check for liens against the vehicle through the Information Services Corporation.

One of the most important ways buyers can check a used car’s history is by looking up the vehicle identification number (VIN).

The SGI website offers a free Saskatchewan VIN search, while a cross-Canada VIN search request requires a $10 fee.

The choice of VIN search can depend on the vehicle history, with Brinkworth offering the example of a car that was registered in Saskatchewan but then moved out of province before returning.

“Let’s say it got into a crash in Alberta -- the Saskatchewan VIN search wouldn’t have that information because it’s just any Saskatchewan history,” Brinkworth said. “But the cross-Canada VIN search … would have … any claims history from within Canada.”

Additional tips for buying used vehicles are available at

Organizations: Special Needs Transportation, Cross-Canada VIN, Canadian Police Information Centre Information Services

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Alberta, Canada

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