Selling your car – Should you disclose minor faults?

I received this query earlier today with permission to share it on site. Your input would be welcomed.

Scenario: You are the owner of a 10 year old car which you bought second hand 2 years ago from a used-car lot in Melbourne. From day 1 of your ownership it has had an annoying symptom of being difficult to drive off the mark when cold. Sort of sputters and bogs down when you let the clutch in, almost to the point of stalling, often necessitating starting the process from scratch. Once underway it is pretty much fine, especially after the engine warms up.

The car doesn’t use excessive oil and returns good fuel consumption. The symtom only manifests in 1st or reverse gear and is most noticeable when cold. The local dealership for the brand (not SAAB, I should add) haven’t been able to reproduce the fault despite having the car overnight for a cold start-up and it hasn’t thrown up any fault codes when plugged to their diagnostic computer. (I suspect it is dumping too much fuel into the inlet side for some reason, on start up but this has yet to be proven).

You are now at the point of sale of the above car to a purchaser who has test-driven the car and placed a deposit on it.

Question: Do you disclose the above or not? What would you do?

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Personally speaking, and before things got to the deposit stage…..

I probably would have made sure I was along for the test drive and if the car sputtered at that time, I would have made mention of it then. I would have described how it had been checked out and provided the name of the technician who worked on it and mentioned how it seems to be a cold-condition affliction that they couldn’t pin down. The car would have hopefully backed up this testimony by running fine as the drive progressed.

As it is, it sounds like the buyer has driven the car and is happy enough to proceed so I’d probably let it go. I’m not sure, but I don’t think most people will expect a 10 year old manual car to be completely smooth off the line when cold, anyway.

The one caveat on that is whether or not the potential buyer drove the car ‘cold’. If they’ve experienced it cold, all well and good. If the car wasn’t test driven in circumstances that would lend it to revealing the problem, then maybe mentioning it now would be a good idea.

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From my own experience, I’ve appreciated it when sellers have told me of issues or potential issues. It gives me the chance to weigh up whether or not I’m happy to live with it. Occasionally it can also lead to some further negotiation on price, but not always.

On the other hand, I’ve occasionally bought cars with problems that weren’t disclosed. I haven’t tried to return them or negotiate money back, but let’s just say the seller didn’t make my Christmas card list.

Don’t beat yourself up over it, but “do unto others…..” etc.

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22 Comments

  1. I approach this on a karma/decency sort of line.

    For example, my current Saab has a slow leak from the rear main seal. I could no doubt clean it up and sell it but my conscience does not let me because I know how I would feel if I brought a car that promptly revealed such a major defect.

    Others approach it differently, seeing it as part of the great used car lottery I suppose.

    If trading-in, however, I would not disclose as dealers have the expertise and financial clout to absorb this issue.

  2. And of course, the issue’s dynamics change depending on whether you’re dealing with an individual or a stealership and, if an individual, whether that person seems like a good sort or a jerk.

    Stealerships and jerks tend to not bring out my better side.

  3. I’ve had to deal with undoing the previous owners’ sins for years since I took ownership of my Saab. I was not told of some pretty serious issues, and it cost me a few nights of sleep for sure. The worst was when the motor blew, and it there was no way to go back to the seller since it was a few years after the transfer of the title – but all evidence point back to lack of maintenance. Sure, there were some small matters like “fecal” matter under the rear seat cushion and lots of electrical issues, but I bit my tongue. These are things that cannot be measured before the sale – you just don’t have the time to go over the car with a fine-tooth comb. If you’ve EVER bought a pre-owned car, you know what to look for next. You also resign to the fact that unless something obvious or even catastrophic happens on your way home from the seller’s garage, there is not much you can do with a private sale. It’s been almost five years since I brought my Viggen home, and I’m STILL working on some issues. Thankfully they are mostly cosmetic, but had I known then what i know now, I would not have bought the (now) classic, no matter how rare… While the lessons learned have been a somewhat of a pleasure in a slightly masochistic way, and the results in rectifying them have brought smiles to my face, if all the funds spent in the past five years on restoration and repairs could have been spent on upgrades, I would perhaps have wrapped the car around a tree… So, in retrospect, the whole ordeal has made me a more patient, if not wiser, of a person. Yes, so it’s all good in the end.

  4. Swade, if I were you, I will do what is legally required and no more. If the law doesn’t require you to disclose it, then keep quiet.

    Any conflict with your conscience and even religion can be resolved by an adjustment to the asking price: you have already applied a steep, genuine discount to account for the fault so you cannot be criticized for profiteering and taking advantage of an unsuspecting seller at all.

  5. I remember my high school Sunday School teacher telling me of similar struggles when selling his Mazda RX7. He wasn’t sure whether he should tell all or just let the buyer find out later. He eventually decided to tell everything he knew about the car and the buyer still bought it at a fair price. In this instance, he decided to trust God for the outcome and be honest about the issues it had. I’m sure the buyer appreciated it.

    When I sold our 99 SAAB 9-5 wagon, I told the buyer that it needed an A/C compressor and that the windshield squirters didn’t work. I told her everything I knew about the car but not things I thought might be wrong. Sharing my guesses about things would be foolish. But sharing what I knew was wrong kept things honest and respectable. There’s nothing worse than someone bringing a car back with problems you didn’t share with them.

    1. I totally agree with you, Andy. That is also the approach I have taken in the few times I have sold one of my cars. (I usually run them until they head to the junkyard.)

  6. I had a problem once being too honest.

    I was selling a 1978 Accord coupe. It had allow wheels, Leather sport steering wheel and some bumper over riders and Coacoa mats.

    Speedometer said 6900 miles, but the speedo had failed and was replaced by the dealer under warranty. The car actually had 10,100 miles or so. The first 2 people that looked at the car loved it but when asked why so little mileage on a 10 month old car I explained the actual mileage and offered tho show them the Honda dealer repair receipt with the mileage. Both freaked when I told them that there was 3000 more odd miles on the car. I could tell they were sure it was much more.

    I learned my lesson. When the next few prospects came and asked about the mileage, I just told them that I broke my leg right after I got it and did not drive it much because of that [true] and that my wife did not like a stick [not true]. No one asked me directly if that was the true mileage and the car was so clean and perfect they did not question it. The Honda sold for top dollar and I am sure the buyer was happy.

    I really did not like that Honda anyway and neither did my wife……we had just bought a 1979 900 Saab Turbo black 3 door……..and we could not stand to drive the Honda ……….. that is why we could not wait to get rid of it.

    1. All of which brings up the question…”Is the fault material to the value of the vehicle or does it pose an obstacle to using the vehicle reliably?”

      If the answer is no to both, as was the case with your “missing” 3000 miles, then disclosing it isn’t going to help either you or the buyer.

      Something like this doesn’t matter on a vanilla car like this, but it could be a huge deal on a classic car. Let the situation guide you.

  7. There are many ways to frame this kind of ethical challenge. Does it matter if the person is a jerk or not is the main one? Human nature says it does, ethics say it doesn’t.

    My approach has been to answer everything truthfully and fully but not to outline every single issue that I might have had if the question isn’t asked. I’ve always been happy to have the car mechanically inspected – although few people will ever do this. I do it every time and then go through the report with the seller – its a great way to break down the bargaining process too.

    1. I agree. If it has to do with how the car is running mechanically you must tell the buyer or the thing will come back to haunt you.
      Either the owner lets the interested party know what’s going on or fixes the fault. When the issue is known the seller either repairs it or discounts the price. Some people are searching for cars that have a small, cheap to fix problem, so it works both ways.
      Very hard for the new owner to start complaining if they know buying the car there could be hiccups at cold start. Everything depends of course on the age and price of the vehicle and what should or should not be expected.

  8. I think one needs to go in to buying a car with eyes wide open. Not ‘eyes wide shut’, clouded over by an emotional response preventing you from seeing things that are right in front of you. When you go over the car in detail after getting it home, you realise that you probably did pay too much for it and there were three more things you could have used to beat the price down a bit more. But on the day it didn’t quite happen, and despite 25 years of Auto DIY experience across French German and Swedish brands that you thought you knew absolutely inside out, that little surprise got you anyway. But hey! it is a second hand car and ‘Caveat Emptor’.
    Take a friend to help look it over and keep things real. And if you are selling…don’t tell the ‘friend’ everything, just answer the questions he asks and realise that not everyone is as picky as you about cars and can’t pick up every noise you know. If they like the car…they will buy it. If they want to get it ‘checked’ let them. Many don’t actually go through with it and try to use it as a bluff. You can’t say no anyway as it looks like you really are trying to hide something. Not a good look.
    Like you did.

  9. I would disclose the issue. It’s not a deal breaker, and buyers will appreciate the honesty.
    The only buyers you will scare away are delusional first-timers. Everyone else has been through the charade before (or brings along someone who has), and are more likely to buy from a seemingly honest seller.

    I really doubt that disclosure will lose you any money. You may believe that the buyer could have paid more without disclosure, but it’s more likely that they would have walked away.

    Cleaning the car inside and out will make you a lot more money.

  10. I would say…it depends. If I was selling a vehicle to a private seller, I would most likely share information about actual issues. Oddly enough, I have always traded in at a dealership.

    In that context, it depends on what they give you. I traded in my first car (a 1986 Ford Taurus- in 1996), and they gave me $100 for it. We all knew it where it was going, so there was really no point in explaining the trouble with the electrical system or the jumpy transmission, or the fact that the air conditioning didn’t work.

    I sold my 2004 Chysler Sebring Convertible (biggest piece of junk EVER) to a small dealership in exchange for my first SAAB- a 2006 9-3 2OT. Oddly enough, I was suddenly in the market due to a strange groaning that seemed to be coming from underneath the engine compartment in my Sebring. That car had so many rattles, creaks and groans, I just couldn’t take it anymore. The SAAB was priced to sell, but the dealer insisted on giving me half of the blue book value for the Chrysler, and thousands less than I owed for it. I offered to let him take a drive (the groan would have quickly become apparent), and he declined. In that context, I didn’t think that there was any point in telling him about the mysterious groan.

    So, I would say that context is everything :).

    1. I had a similar thing happen when I traded in my 1st Jeep Grand Wagoneer for my 2nd Saab.

      The dealer was so smitten with the Jeep (which looked perfect) that they talked over me as I mentioned the rebuilt engine (actually, the 3rd rebuilt engine in 2 months time).

      When they listed the trade in Jeep as having 43,xxx miles, I just chuckled to myself instead of pointing out that it was 143,xxx miles.

  11. I have never sold a car in a private sale, due to the fact that I don’t want a new owner to have a problem after the sale, unless the defect was already know to the buyer(one time). Further, I have never traded in a vehicle with a known major problem. I have fixed the problem before the sale(three times). My vehicles have always been well maintained. Does not mean all my cars(like 18) have been perfect. Any prior collision damage has been fully repaired. When I was asked in 2008 if my trade in had been in an accident, I told the dealer yes. It did not change the trade in price.

    At the end of the day I want to be know as an Officer and a Gentleman. Why be any other way?

    Just a thought.

  12. I just bought a Project car in recent weeks, as part of my Midlife Automotive Crisis, and it was certainly NOT clean. Dirty wheels, bird dirt everywhere, no detailing at all. I washed it thoroughly when I got it home, cleaned the wheels and I reckon I could sell it for double that tomorrow. A little care on the chrome and blacks translates into cash very easily. So many people sell a car that is not washed, it is amazing.

  13. I bought a 1999 9-3 not knowing about the cracked bulkhead issue that affects RHD cars. It didn’t seem like there was anything wrong with it, but 6 months into owning it the crack was discovered, and the repair bill was quoted at ~$1500. I could have sold it on at that point, a new owner would never know – it’s not an obvious or necessarily detrimental fault.

    But I couldn’t in good conscience do that, so I had it repaired – I wanted to keep the car anyway, and I saw the value in doing the job.

    But many would get out at that point, I’ve no doubt.

    In the end it depends on the scale of the problem, and your own moral standpoint. I don’t really believe in karma, but you might as well be the right side of it..

  14. Firstly Steven, thanks for posting this article on Swadeology on my behalf and I was happy to see it got quite a few hits with a diverse set of responses. Thank you to you all.

    By way of an epilogue I’m glad to say that the transaction went ahead this morning and the new owner seems very happy with it. He had driven the car from cold when he came to visit a few days ago, prior to placing the deposit. The car since passed roadworthy with no additional notices.

    I did get the opportunity to mention the characteristic of its cold start behaviour as he had commented on the clutch when he test drove it, so I touched on the subject when I spoke to him on the phone last night. He didn’t seem perturbed by it and didn’t seek a re-negotiation on price (to my relief as I had already come down $500 on the advertised price).

    The reason I decided to declare it was that it was flagged as a check request on the service invoices (which I wanted him to have with the car), along with the dealership response that they could not reproduce the fault or detect any fault codes….which was evidence that I was being truthful and had gone to some length to try to have the problem diagnosed. So my angst was for nothing in the end but I feel a lot better about the sale and everyone was happy.

    Thanks again for helping and for the feedback. For the record, in case anyone has had a similar experience, the vehicle in question was a 2002 VW Golf MkIV, 1.6 SE (petrol), with 8v 77kw engine and manual transmission.

    Best regards
    Ian

    .

    1. And then there is the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done the right thing.

      Ian, you sound like a Saaber to me 😉

      Roland

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