You’re a smart consumer. So before you buy that used car, you take it for a test drive. You notice that there are no warning lights on the dashboard. You think everything is fine, and you buy the car.
But — shortly after you drive it home, the “check engine” light comes on. This spells trouble. BIG trouble. This scenario is playing out all over the country. It’s become a frequent complaint among used car buyers. “I just bought it and now the ‘check engine’ light is on.” Adding to the woes experienced by consumers who are victims of “check engine-itis” — the repairs to get that pesky light to go off can cost $3,000 — $4,000 or more.
Margie Y of Hawthorne, CA contacted CARS and said she bought a used Toyota for her daughter, as a present for her 21st birthday, from a local dealership. Within a day, the “check engine” light came on. Then the alternator blew up, and the car caught on fire. When she had the partly charred Toyota towed to a mechanic, he said it needed a new alternator, catalytic converter, and solenoid — at an estimated cost of over $2400. Money she didn’t have, since she had paid $6200 cash for the Flaming Toyota, and also traded in a vehicle that was running fine, plus had paid $300 for the tow.
Unfortunately, this story is all too familiar. So — what’s happening? According to automotive experts, unscrupulous dealers buy “scan tools” over the internet that allow them to simply wipe out the error codes that trigger the “check engine” light. Then they sell the car. As soon as it’s driven a short distance, the error codes register and — on goes the dashboard warning light. Some dealers don’t bother to buy the scan tools. They just disconnect the battery, erasing the error codes and getting the “check engine” light to go off just long enough to foist the car off onto an unsuspecting used car buyer.
Not only are the dealers cheating their customers, they’re also falsifying smog test results and polluting the air. They know that chances are good their customers won’t be able to pay for the expensive repairs, and will end up driving the car despite the fact it doesn’t meet emissions standards. The day of reckoning may come when the hapless consumer tries to register it, and it won’t pass the smog test. But by then, the dealer figures it will be too late for the consumer to take them to court.
What can you do to avoid becoming a victim of “check engine-itis”? The most effective single thing you can do is to insist on getting your own trusted mechanic to inspect the car before you buy. They should be able to detect the fact the error codes have been wiped clean, and also do a check of the emissions system that will turn up the problems. Where can you find a good, reliable mechanic? Car Talk’s Mechanics Files is a terrific resource, where you can find the best mechanics in your area, based on reviews written by their own customers.
Tell the seller that you want them to take the car to YOUR mechanic before you’ll agree to buy. If they balk at that, or try to talk you out of it, well, that’s why God gave you feet — so you can walk away from there. Pronto. There are plenty of good used cars for sale.You don’t need to get stuck with one that will cause you hassles and headaches.