10 most common consumer auto complaints

Following are real world complaints from consumers about autos and advice about what consumers could do from the Consumer Federation of America. These complaints are from the CFA's recent document, "Consumer Federation of America/North American Consumer Protection Investigators 2012 Consumer Complaint Survey Report" dated July 31, 2013. Complaints about autos were the most common type of consumer complaint.

VehicleServicePros reported on the CFA survey on 8-1-2013.

Following are the 10 most common auto related complaints.

Auto Repair Angst

An elderly Florida woman asked the Broward County Permitting, Licensing and Consumer Protection Division for help with an auto repair problem. She had paid $1,141 for transmission repairs, but the transmission still wasn’t operating properly and she was worried that the car might be unsafe to drive, so she took it to another garage. She was distressed to learn that the transmission needed to be replaced. She decided not to have the work done, but now she legitimately owed the second garage $500 for the diagnosis (and her car, which was in pieces, was undriveable). An employee at the garage agreed to buy the car from her to settle the bill, and the complaint against the first shop, which did not have an auto repair license, has been referred for legal review.

It may be a good idea to get a second opinion about a car repair, but you’ll probably need to pay for the mechanic’s time. Get a written estimate so you won’t be surprised by the charge for the diagnosis.

Mileage Mischief

Used car sales were the fastest-growing category of complaint last year at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection. Acting on a tip from a business associate of Atlanta Broker and Auto Sales, the agency found that the company was selling cars with the odometers rolled back and giving purchasers the federally required Odometer Disclosure Statements with lower mileage stated than the vehicles actually had. Seventeen Georgia consumers were able to either revoke the transactions or receive compensation for the reduced value of their vehicles, at their option, for a total savings of $155,887.87.

Eyeing a used car? Get its previous history so you’ll know what you’re bargaining for. Most states participate in the National Motor Vehicle Administration, through which you can get information about the title, whether the mileage that shows on the odometer is accurate, and whether the car was previously declared a total wreck. You’ll find approved companies that sell car histories at www.vehiclehistory.gov. Look at what each offers carefully before choosing.

Shake, Rattle and Roll

The Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs in California also cited used car sales as the fastest-growing complaints in 2012. One consumer noticed problems with the muffler and catalytic converter in her car within the first week that she owned it. She returned to the dealer, who claimed to fix the problems, but they only got worse, and then problems started with the alignment, brakes, and ignition. The car was shaking so badly when it came to a stop that the woman feared for the safety of her children, but the dealer refused to help. Once the agency got involved, the dealer agreed to take the car back, refund the consumer’s down payment, and rescind the contract.

Before you buy a used car, have it checked out by a mechanic you trust to look for problems that may not become obvious to you until weeks after the purchase.

Give Me a Brake

New car defects were the worst problems reported to the Consumer Assistance Office – Metro West in Massachusetts last year. In one case, the consumer complained that the car would brake without warning. The dealer could find nothing wrong, so the agency contacted the manufacturer. It installed a monitor in the car for a few weeks to try to detect the problem, and when the sudden braking did not occur, it agreed to leave the monitor in a little while longer. Unfortunately, the problem still did not manifest itself. The consumer has now reported it to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the hope that others will also complain about sudden braking and the problem can be resolved.

At the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website, www.nhtsa.gov, you can look for information about car recalls, search for complaints from other individuals about the same problem, and report auto safety defects. You can also get information and file complaints by calling 800-424-9153.

Reining In Rogue Auto Dealer

Last year based on an anonymous tip, the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection in Maryland began to investigate a man for selling used cars without a dealer’s license. Records subpoenaed from the four closest auto auctions revealed that he was operating in ten states and had sold more than 50 cars in Maryland alone. The agency identified ten consumers who were willing to testify in court and is working with the Office of State’s Attorney to prosecute the man.

Unlicensed dealers sell cars in parking lots, on streets, in driveways, at gas stations and online. These sales may seem like good deals, but the cars are often not reliable and carry no warranties. Check with your state or local consumer protection agency about your rights if something goes wrong.

On the Road Again

Auto financing and repossessions are also high on the list of complaints that state and local consumer protection agencies handle. In one case described by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, a family’s car was repossessed after the breadwinner lost his job and fell behind on the payments. Reviewing the paperwork, the agency found problems with the original contract and was able to convince the car lot to return the car, renegotiate the terms of the contract, forgive all fees, and give the consumer a check for $200 to compensate for his inconvenience.

When you’re financing a car through the dealer, don’t be rushed or pressured into signing the agreement right away. Take the time to read it carefully, ask questions, and if there is anything you don’t understand, show it to someone you trust before you sign on the dotted line and drive the car away.

Lease Larceny

A New Jersey woman complained to the Union County Division of Weights and Measures/Consumer Affairs about a problem with a car lease. She had returned car at the end of the lease period, with 1,000 fewer miles on it than the limit provided under the contract, and she had photographs to prove that the car was in immaculate condition, inside and out. The dealer even remarked on what fine shape the car was in. Nonetheless, six weeks later she received a bill for $1,600 for damage to the vehicle. When the agency contacted the dealer, it was referred to the company’s leasing division in another state. From there agency was referred to the legal division in yet another state. Finally the company acknowledged that New Jersey law gives the consumer the right to get an independent appraisal for any excessive wear or damage that a lease company claims. Since the consumer had never been given that opportunity, the company agreed to drop the charges.

When you return a car at the end of a lease, keep a copy of the lease agreement, note the mileage on it, and take photos so you’ll have proof if there are any questions later about the terms of the lease or the condition of the vehicle.

No Lemon Aide

A used car advertised on Craig’s List for $1,300 seemed like a good deal, but the woman who bought it soon discovered that it was a lemon. Since the seller was a private individual, not a car dealer, the Broward County Permitting, Licensing and Consumer Protection Agency could not intervene and referred the woman to civil court.

It can be risky to buy a car online from a stranger, especially if the seller is an individual, not a dealer, as you may have little recourse if something goes wrong. Check to see if the website where the car is being offered provides buyer protection. If it doesn’t and you can’t see the car in person and have it checked out by a mechanic, it may be better to look elsewhere for your next set of wheels.

Driven, Pushed and Pulled into Bad Deal

Complaints against car dealers were the worst reported to the Union County Division of Weights and Measures/Consumer Affairs in New Jersey last year. One elderly man was so upset about his car problem that he couldn’t eat or sleep. The problem began when he responded to a dealer’s advertised promise to give a $4,000 credit toward the purchase of a new vehicle for any car that was driven, pushed or pulled into the lot. The same ad listed the new car that he wanted for $14,999. Once at the dealership he was told that that car was no longer available but there was another one that was the same model. There was no Monroney sticker or price on the car, but he believed it was the same price. With the $4,000 credit and $2,000 that he was going to use as a down payment, he would only need to finance the remaining $9,000. But by the time he left the lot he owed $46,000. When the agency questioned the dealer about why there was no Monroney sticker or price on the car, it admitted that the sticker was in the trunk and that the listed price was $20,000. The deal was unwound and the man got the car for $14,999.

Federal law requires the Monroney sticker to be posted on a side window or the windshield of all new cars for sale. It tells you the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price, the price of any optional equipment on the vehicle, the miles per gallon, the crash rating, and other important information. If you don’t see it, walk away. And if you suspect that a dealer is using false advertising to lure you in and switch you to a more expensive deal, don’t take the bait – report it to your state or local consumer protection agency.

'As Is' Means Tough Luck

Used car sales were the worst complaints to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office last year, and in many cases they involve “as is” sales, which are legal in the state. One man reported that when he went to a dealership with his son, a veteran, to buy the son a car, the dealer clapped and thanked the son for his service to the country. But the car he sold them turned out to need more in repairs just to pass state inspection than it was worth, and had no guarantee. The man testified before a legislative committee that was considering prohibiting “as is” sales, but the auto dealers successfully blocked the measure.

Before you buy a used car from a dealer or an individual, get information about your warranty rights from your state or local consumer protection agency. Some states allow dealers to sell used cars “as is” as long as that is clearly disclosed, which means that the seller may have no responsibility—another reason why it’s important to have the car checked out by a mechanic you trust before you commit.