Or “buying used cars is the worst and I will never do it ever again.”
I recently purchased a new-to-me 2011 Subaru WRX STI sedan. I had been thinking about buying a new car for a long time—since I graduated, more or less. Until I bought my Subaru, I owned an ageing Honda Civic (1997, to be precise). While it was a very capable and extremely reliable car throughout the many years I owned it for, it was old enough that it lacked some of the conveniences one expects in a car these days, such as power locks and windows, and most importantly, air conditioning. The lack of air conditioning in particular made it less than ideal for summer road trips, and more importantly, it was in need of some moderately expensive maintenance, and it didn’t seem to make sense to me to spend much money on it given that the overall value of the car was fairly low.
I didn’t go on many test drives before I purchased my Subaru, but I didn’t feel the need to; I had already spent months watching reviews, reading forums, comparing specs and window shopping on AutoTrader. I knew I wanted a sporty car with plenty of horsepower for under $40,000, and all-wheel drive was a must as I go to the mountains nearly every weekend in the winter and almost as often in the summer. Besides the STI, the Evo, MazdaSpeed3, and the Golf R were the best contenders, but each had significant drawbacks with regard to my personal preferences. The Evo has a notoriously lacklustre interior (not that the STI is a lot better, to be fair); I don’t like the way the MazdaSpeed3 looks, and the Golf comes with the reputation of higher maintenance costs for German cars.
I also really like the Subaru community. /r/subaru is the largest manufacturer-specific subreddit, and in addition to forums like NASIOC, it comprises a vibrant community of enthusiastic Subaru owners. Of course other brands have significant followings as well—particularly VW—but my impression of the Subaru community is that it’s less elitist and, in contrast to the others, puts as much emphasis on what one can do with the cars as on the cars themselves. To “go Subaruing” is a popular term for going out into the mud or the snow or the sand or the bush and getting the car wet and dirty, and having a ton of fun in the process.
The STI, then, was the clear winner in my eyes. Truth be told, a WRX probably would have been more than sufficient for my needs, but I generally prefer to put down the extra money and be sure that I’m getting the best product. And hey, one only has so long to exercise the opportunity to be young and irresponsible!
Finding My Car
So, finally I decided to bite the bullet, and I found a used STI that looked really nice on Craigslist. On March 9th, 2013, I went with a friend to Walker’s Renton Subaru to look at the vehicle and take it for a test drive. Walker’s is sort of two separate dealerships on the same lot; there’s the Subaru dealership and there’s also Walker’s Renton Mazda. Obviously they’re both under the same ownership, and it seems that salespeople on one lot can sell cars on the other lot as well; the car I went to look at was listed as being at the Subaru dealership, but I ultimately ended up dealing primarily with the Mazda dealership because that is where the salesman I first contacted worked.
Ken Palmer was the salesperson I dealt with. Both he and the dealership itself have very high ratings on the site that link points to (DealerRater.com), which is surprising to me because dealing with them (particularly the dealership; I have less animosity for Ken) has been by far the worst experience I’ve ever had as a consumer. The reason for that will become clear shortly, but bear in mind that even before I discovered the major issue which prompted this post, I would not have said that my buying experience with Walker’s was good by any means. Incidentally, their Yelp ratings are considerably lower, although there aren’t as many reviews on Yelp.
We went to the Mazda dealership and I took a look at the car. It looked great; the paint job was (and is) in great shape for the most part, although there were a number of small nicks on the rear doors where the body flares out into the wide wheel arches, as well as some on the front bumper pieces where the fog lights would go (this car doesn’t have fog lights). I didn’t really notice those at the time, but they’re minor and I doubt they would have influenced my purchasing decision anyway. There was also some minor cosmetic damage to the interior: a bit of chipping on the painted bezel around the satellite navigation unit and centre vents, a white mark on the driver’s side between the centre console and the steering wheel, another on the glove box, and a minor nick in the steering wheel leather. There is some minor curb rash on wheels which I somehow failed to notice before I bought the car, but it’s not noticeable from a distance of more than a few feet. Overall the car appeared to be in excellent condition.
We went for a test drive and I really liked the way it handled. Traffic was moderately heavy and I didn’t get much of a chance to open up the taps and really test our the car’s power on the route we took. Truth be told, I wasn’t even doing a particularly good job driving it, as I’d driven a manual car a grand total of two times before that test drive, including once on the way to the dealership—I drove my friend’s car there to get some additional practice1. Even so, I could tell then that I would grow to love the car more and more as I learned how to drive it better, and in retrospect I was completely correct about that.
During the test drive I noticed that the exhaust was very loud—not irritatingly so, and I loved the way it sounded, but I thought it couldn’t possibly be stock so I asked Ken. He confirmed that it was stock, which at the time I naïvely accepted. I later found out that this was not true. I believe that the downpipe, midpipe and catalytic converter are stock, but the tail pipe seems to have been replaced with a Nameless Performance AxelBack Muffler Delete. That’s strike number one against Ken. I like the exhaust, and I don’t mind that it’s aftermarket, but he should have done his research on the vehicle before trying to sell it to me. If he wasn’t sure whether or not the exhaust was stock, he could have answered honestly and we could have looked it up to find the correct answer. It irritates me that I was given false information, and while everyone makes mistakes, given what I now know I can’t help but ascribe this to him valuing presentation over honesty.
This Is Where It Gets Unpleasant
We got back to the dealership and I decided that I liked the car enough that I was prepared to sit down and negotiate on the price. The list price on the Craigslist ad I’d responded to was around $32,000, but I told Ken that I was not prepared to pay that much and that I was looking for $29,000. He said there was no way he could go that low, as the price they were offering was already low in his opinion. For the record, the Blue Book value for the car as I bought it is currently $32,900 when purchased through a dealership, but that assumes excellent condition, which I don’t think the car quite qualifies for given the minor cosmetic damage to the interior and the fact that some of the tires are at less than 75% tread depth. The private party Blue Book value given those facts is currently $30,000. Ultimately I paid $31,000, which given dealership markup seemed reasonable at the time.
I spent quite a long time negotiating with Ken, so I want to take some time to describe his personality and style as a salesperson. I can’t help but view him as a reasonably nice guy. He seemed to be friendly and in posession of a good sense of humor, and was very patient with my less than stellar manual driving. That said, he was subtly pushing me to spend more than I wanted to, and he gave me misinformation and made statements of dubious veracity in several instances (I hesitate to say “lied”). For instance, when I told him I didn’t need a new car and that I could just as easily walk away, he repeatedly emphasized that the STI was “a hot item” and that if I left and came back tomorrow, it might not still be on the lot. This is kind of true under the right circumstances, but I had been looking at Craigslist and AutoTrader for months at this point, and I knew that this car in particular had been sitting on their lot for at least a month—maybe more like two months. That fact was also ascertainable from some of the paperwork Ken gave me on the vehicle, so it was a pretty poor attempt to mislead me.
I also happened to notice that the price on Craigslist had dropped something like $50 between the night before and the day I was there, so I called him on that as well. He changed his story at that point and told me how the STI is a performance car for a particular type of buyer, and not just anyone would be looking for one, to which I replied: yeah, that’s my point! It’s a sought-after car but it’s also not something just anyone is going to drop in and buy, so I know you can’t sell it as quickly as you say you can.
While Ken repeatedly insisted that he was on my side and wanted to work with me to get me the best deal possible, and that he wasn’t a typical pushy sales guy, I’d also describe his tactics as emotionally manipulative. During the negotiation whenever I requested something and he went and talked to his manager and came back with a not-quite-good-enough offer, he’d walk back to the desk languidly with his head hung in faux-exhaustion, and say with an exasperated sigh that he just couldn’t make it work or something along those lines. The friend I’d come with told me at one point that he was using tricks specifically tailored to work on my personality type, which I think is probably an accurate assessment because even though I knew what he was doing, I think there was a subconscious element of feeling bad for the guy and wanting to work with him for that reason.
After the initial negotiation we ended up agreeing on $30,800, conditional on me being able to take the car to an independent mechanic for an inspection. I am about as mechanically adept as Jeremy Clarkson, but without the benefit of his encyclopedic knowledge of cars. For that reason, I hadn’t even bothered to look under the hood, and it was important to me to get the car checked out independently to verify its condition.
The process got a little strange at this point. I wanted to write above that we verbally agreed on $30,800, but that’s not quite accurate. Ken and I would agree on something and he’d write down the offer on paper and make a crude “sign here” line and ask me to initial it. Even though I knew his handwritten offer couldn’t possibly be legally binding, and he assured me of as much, I was a bit hesitant to do this as it just gave me a bad vibe. But he refused to proceed unless I’d initial his paper, so I did. He took that to his manager and finally we were able to come to an agreement.
I got a temporary permit to drive the car and took it to Community Automotive Service in Burien, which, strangely, seems to be one of very few mechanics in the area south of Seattle. I paid around $80 for the mechanic there to do a quick examination of the car. He pulled the ODBII codes, checked the brakes, fluid levels, etc, and took the car for a short test drive, among other things. When I came back to pick it up he told me that overall it was in great condition, but it seemed that the 30,000 mile maintenance had never been done. That was pretty alarming to me as the car was at approximately 33,500 miles at that point, meaning it was 3,500 miles overdue for some fairly important maintenance. I expected the dealership to have done that maintenance as part of the trade in process and factored the cost into the price they paid for the car; as far as I’m concerned, one shouldn’t even be taking the car on test drives when it’s 3,500 miles overdue for maintenance. I got antsy when my Civic was a couple hundred kilometres overdue for an oil change, and an STI has considerably more power with which to rip itself apart if it’s not kept in good condition. In retrospect I think that alone should have been enough to make me go look elsewhere, but I had already spent probably 4-5 hours at this point between the test drive and the negotiating. I didn’t want all of that time to be for nothing.
To be specific, the mechanic at Community Automotive said that a number of the car’s fluids needed to be flushed, that the air and fuel filters needed to be replaced, that the brake pads would need to be replaced within a few months, and that it would need new tires in the not-too-distant future. His statement about the tires turned out to be questionable as I later found out that they do all still have more than 50% tread depth remaining, but the rest of his findings seem to have been accurate. He also gave me a printout of the ODBII history. There were a few error codes (abnormal clutch signal, power supply voltage failure, excessive variation from steering position sensor, and right-hand curtain airbag control module failure), but they were from the past and not reproducible so he said he didn’t feel that they were anything to worry about. Overall, he told me that he liked the car and thought it was in great shape except for the maintenance that needed to be done. He thought the price I’d agreed on was a bit high, but I don’t think he was aware of how high the Blue Book value for the vehicle was, because he seemed surprised when I told him that as well.
I went back to the dealership and began hours more of painful negotiation. Given the issues that the mechanic had identified I was not willing to pay $30,800 unless the dealership would fix some of them. They were very reluctant to budge on this and in the end I gave in more than I probably should have. I talked to both Ken and his manager, and both were incredulous about the report that the mechanic had given me; they didn’t feel that most of the items were real issues. I very clearly recall Ken’s manager, Jan Rac, giving me a spiel about how Walker’s Renton Subaru had well-qualified technicians, how they had a reputation to uphold, and how they had the only “STI tech” in the area and that nobody else is allowed to work on STIs. I thought at the time that much of this was probably a huge load of bullshit, and in retrospect it almost certainly is. As far as I can tell there is no such thing as an “STI tech.” Nissan has something like that for GT-Rs, but that’s a $100,000 car. I cannot find any reference, anywhere, to any such thing as an “STI tech.” I do not like being lied to.
Ken, who had previously been absolutely fine with me taking the car to an independent mechanic and was convinced that I wouldn’t find any issues, exasperatedly told me how independent mechanics never say anything good about cars; they’re only looking for problems (yes, that’s exactly the point) and implied that the guy I’d taken it to was just looking to cash in… even after my wife and I2 repeatedly told him that we had no affiliation with that mechanic and that the mechanic knew that we would not be taking the car back to him for repairs. We negotiated more and finally agreed to them replacing the brake pads and doing some of the fluid flushes in exchange for bumping the sale price up to $31,000 (because the brake pad replacement alone cost almost $600 since the STI uses Brembo pads). It terms of the maintenance they offered, it wasn’t that great a deal for me, and as I mentioned earlier, in retrospect I really should have just walked at this point. In fact I almost did over a miscommunication about the brake pad replacement: I wanted all of them replaced, but Ken had assumed I meant only one pair and had neglected to ask which pair. I had been at the dealership literally all day at this point; I was there for at least ten hours, and I really wanted to close the deal just so it wouldn’t be a huge waste of time. Nevertheless I told them it was all of the brake pads or I was leaving, and after some pageantry about confirming the offer with the sales manager (who had already left at this point), we finally reached an agreement.
I added on some extras as well, including 3M protection for the front of the vehicle for around $600, and an extended warranty for around $2000. Including taxes, the total cost was around $38,000.
Here’s where things get really shady. I left the car at the dealership to have the service done so I wouldn’t have to drive back to Renton for it (which is a 30 minute to one hour drive from where I live in Redmond, depending on traffic). When I came back to pick up the car, I went to the service desk to get the keys and request a copy of the service history and schedule so that I would have it for my records (and to verify that they actually did the work). The service advisor I talked to, whose name I think is Kay, asked me if I was aware that the car had been in an accident and had had about $4,000 worth of bodywork done. My heart leapt into my throat at this revelation, and I said that no, I did not know that, and in fact I had been told that the car had not been in any accidents. She got an “oh shit” kind of look on her face and then said she’d double check, and after a bit of typing told me that actually she’d just typed the VIN in wrong, and that this car was fine.
This is what those of a literary predilection might call foreshadowing.
I was too relieved to really think too much of it at the time, and anyway the contract had already been signed at this point, but knowing what I do now this is obviously hugely suspicious. Kay strikes me as a nice person, and I mean genuinely nice rather than in a salesperson sort of way where niceness is necessistated as a means of being persuasive. I really want to believe that she actually did just type in the wrong VIN and wasn’t lying to me. But… well, let’s do some math.
A VIN is 17 alphanumeric characters long, and each character has certain restrictions on what it can be. That means that there are 6.5273512 × 1025 possible VINs. That is a very, very large number. VINs have been in use since 1954, and the number of cars in the world just surpassed one billion in 2011, but I think the source I got that from was only referring to cars currently on the road. So I think it’s generous to assume that there have been 10 billion cars with VINs since 1954. Now, I was never very good at statistics so this calculation is probably inaccurate for a host of reasons, but by my math that means that if you type an arbitrary wrong digit when entering a VIN, you have a 1.532015 × 10-16 chance of getting a vehicle that actually exists. By way of comparison, that is 8 orders of magnitude more unlikely than getting six of six numbers on the 6/493.
I don’t know all the details of how VINs really work; they’re definitely not uniformly distributed, and as I said, I was never very good at statistics anyway. So let’s make this a little simpler. The last six digits of a VIN are sequential, and to the best of my knowledge, if all the other digits are fixed then then all of the possibilities afforded by those last six digits should refer to the same model of car, for the same model year, made by the same plant. In North America the last five digits must be numeric, but since STIs are manufactured in Japan, I think that gives us 336 possibilities (because some characters are excluded), which is 1,291,467,969. So again, the possibility of typing a wrong digit in an arbitrary position and getting a car that actually exists is very low. But even assuming that she managed to do that, I’m fairly certain their service records only show cars that have actually come to that dealership for service.
So how the fuck could she have possibly happened upon the same car, that came to their dealership and got work done for an accident which probably would have cost a similar amount to fix to the one my car was in, by typing in the wrong VIN? If anyone has a plausible explanation for this please do let me know, but I just cannot believe that that really happened unless I have incredible bad luck.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t think too much of what Kay said at the time. I got the car; the brakes had been replaced; things seemed fine. Ken told me that the difference with the new brakes was really noticeable and that he was glad they got that done for me. I couldn’t help but think “Oh, you mean the same brake pads you and your manager were telling me didn’t need to be replaced when I bought the car from you?”
The 3M service hadn’t been done yet as it had to be scheduled in advance. I ended up waiting until the 8th of April to get that done. When I dropped the car off for that, I asked Kay to check if they had actually done the fluid flushes they were supposed to, as the service record I’d received from the last time I picked the car up only indicated the brake replacement. I hadn’t noticed that at the time because my mind was on the supposed accident damage that she told me about. She checked and sure enough they had not done the fluid flushes, which they were contractually obligated to do. She said that they’d get it done with the 3M service, and indeed they did (or at least they gave me a service record indicating such—I don’t really have the expertise to check myself). I wondered if they neglected to do this the first time on purpose, hoping that I just wouldn’t notice. When I picked up the car the next time, Kay told me she was really glad that they had done the rear differential fluid flush, as the fluid had been very overdue for a change. I think the word she used to describe it was “pudding” or “sludge.”
Recall that this is the maintenance they told me their world-class technicians hadn’t felt it necessary to do. I’m sure you can understand that my attitude at this point was fuck these guys.
The Short-lived Honeymoon
Finally, I had the car and all the service was done, and I was overjoyed. It was a ton of fun to drive, and I quickly (in my opinion, anyway) became more adept at driving a manual. I bought floor mats and Rally Armor mudflaps, which I installed myself. My new car put a smile on my face every day; even the short commute to work was a joy.
But I noticed a couple problems. First I noticed that the heated seat bottom on the driver’s side didn’t work. The back worked, but the bottom didn’t get warm at all. I was annoyed that I hadn’t noticed it during the test drive, but it would be covered by the warranty, so I didn’t consider it a big issue. Then, on the 27th of April, my wife and I went to central Washington to escape the rain and go hiking. In contrast to the Seattle area, it was very warm in central Washington that day, and the interior of the car was boiling from sitting in the sun when we got back from our first hike of the day. I turned on the air conditioning and… it was clearly not as cold as it should be. It was no colder than the regular air coming in from the exterior. This was even more bothersome than the heated seat issue, but again I figured that it could be fixed under warranty, so I didn’t worry about it too much.
During the next week I also replaced the air filter (by myself, which I was pretty proud of, even though it’s about the easiest thing to change on a car) and noticed that the air box had a large crack in it, and that the air intake duct which goes into the air box had been broken in half height-wise and shoddily glued back together with some kind of sealant. I still didn’t think much of it at this point as I figured someone had damaged them while replacing the air filter previously.
Finally, I booked a service appointment for May 3rd to get the heated seat and air conditioning fixed at Eastside Subaru in Kirkland, which is a lot closer to Redmond than Renton is. I dropped the car off and they called me back later in the day to inform me that they verified both of the issues, but that while the heated seat problem could be fixed under warranty, the air conditioner couldn’t because the condenser had been damaged in an accident.
I went back to Eastside Subaru and asked them to point out how they knew it was accident damage, since Walker’s had told me the car had not been in an accident. The technician who serviced the car came out and pointed out several things to me. The tubes from the AC condenser were bent in such a way that it was obvious to him that there had been an impact, and they leaked badly. Moreover, the condenser itself was quite obviously bent. There are tool marks on the bolts that hold on both of the front quarter panels, indicating that they’ve been removed to be repaired or replaced. There’s an AC recharge sticker on the inside of the hood which appears to have been glued on, not very well, so it’s peeling off; I believe the techician also said that he thought the whole hood had likely been replaced. The power steering fluid reservoir attaches to the body of the vehicle in two places and one of those was cracked. The radiator support bar is also bent. It’s slight enough that the untrained eye would probably not notice it, but the techician at Eastside told me, and I am very confident that these were his exact words4, that Walker’s “had to have known” that the vehicle was in an accident.
I drove back down to Renton and spent probably about half an hour yelling at various people. Ken tried to placate me in various ways; he told me that they didn’t know and that they couldn’t have known; he mentioned that “my guy” didn’t notice the problem either; he tried to tell me that this wouldn’t actually decrease the resale value of the car (bullshit) and that since it’s not on the CarFax or title no one needs to know anyway. He made repeated use of euphemisms implying that maybe there wasn’t actually any damage and the car hadn’t actually been in an accident, even after I showed him the damaged parts. He seemed to be acting almost as though if I simply willed it hard enough I could bring about some alternate reality wherein my car was pristine and undamaged. (Believe me, I tried.) This, to me, emphasizes the problem with people like Ken and his manager and, as I’ll soon describe, his manager’s manager—that is to say, salespeople—they have an atypical understanding of the concepts of facts and truth and act as though reality is open to interpretation.
I told Ken that I refuse to lie to someone when I sell the car (and let this post be a testament to that, because it is now public knowledge, whether or not it ever shows up on the CarFax) and that I felt that I was probably out thousands of dollars in resale value, not to mention the fact that I have no idea what kind of mechanical issues this could result in down the road. My confidence in my extended warranty has also gone down the drain, because if anything fails and can be shown to have signs of accident damage, even if it’s very minor, then it won’t be covered.
I made it clear that I wanted them to take the car back and refund me the entire purchase price including the extended warranty, 3M treatment, and taxes I paid. That didn’t even account for the hundreds of dollars I had already put into the car (mud flaps, floor mats, air filter, etc); I didn’t care, I just wanted to cancel the transaction and be done with it. We argued for a while, but it was fairly late on Friday afternoon and he told me that there was no one at the dealership who could make that decision at that time. He said that he’d get the general manger to call me back the next day before noon. I asked him to tell the GM that I would be talking to an attorney if I didn’t get the answer I wanted, and left. From this point until the beginning of June, I completely stopped driving the car, as I wanted to ensure the strength of my case by minimizing the number of miles I put on the car.
That Saturday I had plans to go hiking, and I didn’t want to cancel them just for a phone call that probably wouldn’t go anywhere, so I called the dealership early in the morning. Ken wasn’t there yet, but I left a message for him saying that I may not be available to answer the phone but that he could leave me a message. Nobody called me on Saturday, and in fact I haven’t spoken to Ken at all since that Friday, the 3rd of May. On Monday, the 7th of May, I called back and asked to speak to the general manager, James Capestany. I ended up having more or less the same conversation with him that I had with Ken. He was and is adamant that the dealership didn’t know that the car was in an accident, and further, that it’s not their responsibility to know. He pointed out that the salespeople do not have mechanical qualifications. I asked him why his technicians failed to thoroughly inspect a car which costs upwards of $30,000 when they took it as a trade-in. He gave me a completely unsatisfactory answer which I don’t quite recall. I told him that I had read the sale contract, including the provision for trade-ins which states that the party trading in the car warrants that it has not had any undisclosed damage requiring bodywork, and asked why he was screwing me instead of taking the car back and going after the person who clearly violated that contract when he traded it in. I don’t recall his answer to this question either, except insofar as it also being unsatisfactory.
As Ken did, the James tried to convince me that the accident wouldn’t affect the resale value of the car that badly. I said that if he were confident that that was the case, he should have no problem with me getting it appraised by another Subaru dealership and then having Walker’s compensate me for the difference in value. He replied, somewhat angrily I think, “No, I’m not gonna do that.” I told him that I held the dealership responsible for their failure to thoroughly inspect the car, and that I would be talking to a lawyer if they wouldn’t refund me or at least compensate me for the depreciation. He stated that I could talk to a lawyer if I wanted to, but that the RCW (i.e. state law) on the matter states that they are only liable if they don’t disclose damage that they know about, and he reiterated that they did not know.
Even to this date, I am unsure of whether or I believe that. I am a firm believer in Hanlon’s razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”), but the odds I calculated above make me incredulous that Kay didn’t actually have some record of the accident, in which case they obviously would have to have known. The dealership has shown me, as “proof” that they didn’t know, copies of reports run in December of 2012 which indicated that the car had a clean record. But still, I’m incredulous that nobody noticed the damage before I took the car to Eastside Subaru. The technicians at Walker’s should have done a thorough inspection as Ken and Jan assured me they did, so either someone lied about the damage, or their technicians neglected to do their duty, or they are incompetent. And what of the other customers who must have looked at the vehicle before I did? When I was selling my Civic after I bought the STI, two of the three people who test drove it had some mechanical experience and identified some potential issues with the vehicle that I wasn’t aware of. Did nobody more knowledgeable than I look at this STI and notice the damaged parts?
Either way, I told James that I would be talking to a lawyer. He told me that he’d try to get in touch with the previous owner of the vehicle, and that he’d pull up the repair order from when it was first traded in to see if they had any indication that the car may have been in an accident. Ultimately he wasn’t able to get in touch with the previous owner, but I’m not sure what difference it would have made. If that guy had any common sense whatsoever, he would have lied about the accident since knowingly trading the car in without disclosing the accident is a violation of the trade in contract. And even if he had told the truth, what then? Would Walker’s have sued him if he refused to compensate me? I doubt it.
Later that same day, James called back. He asked me to explain again what Eastside Subaru told me about the air conditioning. When I mentioned that they said they couldn’t warranty the part because of accident damage, he said that that’s not true and he didn’t know why they’d say that. He said that they just changed management and probably didn’t know what they were doing, and that Walker’s has been in business for 25 years. He told me if I brought the car down he would replace the AC condenser under warranty. I told him that that was not my primary concern and that it wouldn’t be good enough. He accepted that, but pointed out that I still needed to get the AC fixed and that he could have it done under warranty.
Obviously what James told me about the condenser being replaceable under warranty was not true. I looked it up after I got off that call and this is what the Subaru warranty says:
These warranties do not cover any part which malfunctions, fails or is damaged due to objects striking the vehicle, road hazards, whether on or off the road, accident, fire, neglect, abuse or any other cause beyond the control of [Subaru of America].
(Emphasis mine.) This is obviously exactly what I expected since no warranty ever in the history of automobiles, as far as I can fathom, has covered accident damage. Otherwise there would be no reason for any type of insurance other than liability insurance. When I talked to him next I asked James to explain this discrepancy, and he said that while “the letter of” the warranty agreement said one thing, it was open to interpretation and it was a matter of customer service and reputation to do warranty replacements in situations like this.
Maybe I’m splitting hairs at this point, but what James was offering was not a warranty replacement, and I know that for a fact because as part of the eventual resolution of this nightmare, I did get Walker’s to replace the AC condenser, and the amount charged is listed as “Internal” rather than “Warranty” on the service record. I do think the distinction is important because it means that the dealership, rather than Subaru of America, is paying for the new part, and it’s not a cheap part. Although offering to replace the condenser is not an admission of legal liability, he obviously would not offer it if he truly felt that his shop was guiltless in this, because the repair comes out of his bottom line. So again, he’s directly lying to me, and throwing Eastside Subaru under the bus at the same time.
I readily admit to being a bit naïve in some respects, but it’s still shocking to me that there are people who will do that.
I wasn’t bluffing about talking to a lawyer. I have a group legal plan through work which covers all my legal fees for applicable issues, which include consumer protection cases. Unfortunately there is also a downside to the group legal plan: it somewhat limits one’s choice of lawyer, and even among the limited selection of in-network lawyers within a reasonable distance, many are very busy. Thus, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a good lawyer.
I do not think that I got a good lawyer.
I had to call several lawyers before I was able to find one who would take on the case. One of the lawyers who called me back but couldn’t take the case was kind enough to provide me with some basic information. He said that he thought I had a good case under the Washington state consumer protection law. He said that the dealership’s failure to thoroughly inspect the car before selling it and claiming it had not been in an accident could be considered an unlawful “deceptive act” under RCW 19.86.020. He also pointed out that the Consumer Protection Act allows for triple damages up to a maximum of $25,000, which might have been useful leverage in my discussions with James, but I never actually mentioned it to him because the lawyer who eventually took on the case didn’t think much of its applicability.
In fact, the lawyer I did eventually end up hiring didn’t initially think that I had a case at all (but didn’t tell me this until I had already hired her). She was essentially in agreement with James that the dealership would only be liable if they knew about the accident before selling the car to me, and since we would likely not be able to prove that even if it were true5, we would have no case.
I did some research of my own and discovered a few other laws which might be applicable. I won’t bother mentioning all of them, but I felt that the strongest was the Implied Warranty of Merchantability. My understanding is that this state law applies to consumer goods in general, but as it relates to cars in particular, it states that vehicles sold by dealerships “must be fit for ordinary driving purposes, free of major defects, reasonably safe, and of the average quality of similar vehicles available for sale in that price range.” (Emphasis mine.) In my opinion, given the depreciation and damaged components, my car obviously did not meet those standards, but my lawyer still felt that it would be an uphill battle. And of course, even if I prevailed in arbitration or court, there would be no guarantee that the dealership would be required to offer anything beyond repairing the AC condenser.
My lawyer agreed to write a letter to the dealership on my behalf, and that if they did not respond favourably, we could take them to arbitration. I sent her all of the documents necessary for the letter on May 15th, and followed up on May 20th to check on her progress. She told me that she would be working on the letter soon. I sent her another email on the 24th, but didn’t hear back from her until the 7th of June when I let her know that I would no longer need her services. Good help is hard to find.
Luckily lawyers are not the only means of gaining leverage against corporations. I also contacted Jesse Jones of King 5 News, and filed complaints with Subaru of America, the Better Business Bureau, and the Washington State Attorney General’s office. I didn’t get a call back from Jesse, but the other three seem to have had an effect. I exchanged several emails with a representative from Subaru who contacted the dealership on my behalf to try to mediate a resolution. The representative didn’t seem to have much actual power over the dealership, but she was courteous and timely, seemed sympathetic to my concerns, and made a real effort to do what she could, so I certainly appreciate that.
The complaint to the Attorney General’s office seemed to have more of an effect. Not long after Walker’s received it, James called me back and offered to write me a cheque to cover some of the depreciation in addition to fixing the air conditioner, as long as I would sign a document releasing the dealership from all liability relating to the matter. Given that I had been fighting with the dealership for a month and that my lawyer had gone AWOL, I readily accepted this offer.
I took the car back to Eastside Subaru to determine what the depreciation would actually be. Given the lack of mechanical damage, the absence of records of the accident, the fact that the damage was almost completely repaired, and the rarity of the STI sedan, I was told that the depreciation would probably not be more than $1,000 to $1,500. This seemed low to me, but I discussed it with a friend who is very knowledgeable about cars and he felt that it was not unreasonable. If you disagree with this, please do not tell me, because at this point I don’t want to know. (Ignorance is bliss.) I took the car back to Walker’s on the 4th of June, and they ended up fixing the AC condenser and air intake duct and giving me a cheque for $1,000.
In the interest of fairness I will say that I did have a fairly positive experience at the Walker’s Renton Subaru service department when I took my vehicle in for the repairs. The service advisor I dealt with, Brad Hallock, was very courteous and helpful. Of course, that doesn’t come close to excusing the rest of my experience with the dealership, particularly given that it was the Walker’s Renton Subaru service technicians who ostensibly inspected the vehicle when they bought it. While I was picking up my car after the service was finished, I overheard another service advisor talking about the “world class inspection” that they were going to do for another customer. I was tempted to interrupt and tell the customer about my experience with their “world class inspection,” but to my shame, I’m too non-confrontational to do something like that. It’s a flaw that I need to work on.
I am fairly satisfied with the compensation I received, and overjoyed to be able to put this ordeal behind me. At this point I consider the matter to be closed. The Attorney General’s office has closed their file on the case, and as soon as Walker’s responds to the Better Business Bureau complaint, I will close that as well. I am looking forward to never having any contact with them again.
That said, I am absolutely not satisfied with how the dealership handled the issue in the month between my discovering the problem and them finally giving me some compensation. (Otherwise I would not be writing this, of course.) I spent far too much time fighting with them. At every juncture I encountered dishonesty, self-interest, and a complete refusal to accept responsibility for the failure of their technicians to thoroughly inspect the car. Between the time I spent playing telephone tag with the general manager, the time to find and hire a lawyer, the time spent on filing complaints with third parties, and the disruption of my schedule resulting from the loss of use of my vehicle for nearly a month6, I probably wasted more than a dozen hours on this, and it certainly impacted my productivity at work as well.
When I was buying the car, Ken and Jan repeatedly assured me of the quality of Walker’s inspections and servicing, and the qualifications of their technicians. When it turned out that those technicians had missed significant accident damage which was still present on the vehicle and should have been easily discoverable by a qualified technician, nobody at the dealership would stand behind those claims of excellence; they repeatedly insisted that they could not have known and were not responsible. I find this appalling, though I guess I shouldn’t find it shocking. When I asked why they would take such an expensive vehicle as a trade-in without doing a thorough inspection, I was told that since the CarFax didn’t indicate any problems, they had no reason to suspect that there would be anything wrong with the vehicle.
I don’t understand why I had to fight with the dealership about this at all. They should have just refunded the sale completely as soon as I raised the issue with them, and gone after the original owner to recoup their losses, who was clearly in violation of his sale contract.
I hope this doesn’t sound histrionic, because it is completely genuine, but I was also emotionally affected by all of this. I tend to be very trusting and give people the benefit of the doubt with respect to their motivations. I am ill-equipped to deal with salespeople because I am not naturally inclined to assume that someone will mislead me and take advantage of me out of self-interest. I expect cold, detached, exploitative behaviour from large corporations, but Walker’s really isn’t that large, and these were real people with whom I had face-to-face conversations, who had the power to do the right thing but were unwilling to. The whole experience has made me more cynical. Moreover, the feeling I hate more than any other is powerlessness, and I found it simultaneously frustrating and discouraging to be in a situation where for a long time I seemed to have practically no recourse against the dealership for the losses I’d suffered due to their incompetence.
I’ll never again enjoy my car as much I did for the first two months I owned it, and although I’ve been reassured that Subarus are built like tanks, I’m not sure I’ll be able to completely get past the paranoia that every tiny creak or shudder might be forewarning of some impending catastrophic failure. But on the bright side, I do still love the car. I was worried that I’d hate it after all of this because of the negative associations with all the time I wasted and frustration I experienced, but that isn’t the case. It’s still a ton of fun to drive. I’m looking forward to finally taking it on its inaugural road trip, to modding it and making it my own, and to spending many hours “going Subaruing.”
And, with every negative experience comes the silver lining of life lessons to be learned, and this is no different. Here are my takeaways from this:
- A clean record from CarFax and other similar services is completely meaningless. Anything not reported to insurance or the police will not show up on a CarFax report, and in my case, I have reason to believe that an insurance claim and police report were made for the accident my vehicle was in, and CarFax still shows nothing7.
- Mechanics can be similarly unreliable. Ideally one should have a trusted mechanic whom they’ve dealt with previously. I haven’t lived in Washginton long enough to know any mechanics well, so I should have asked friends who are knowledgeable about cars for recommendations instead of just picking one based on Yelp reviews.
- Even if you don’t know much about cars, there are certain things you can look for under the hood when buying a used car which may indicate that the vehicle was in an accident or had bodywork done. Check for tool marks (i.e. missing paint) on the bolts under the hood. Check for damaged plastic components. Some vehicles (although I don’t think mine is among them, unfortunately) have the VIN stamped on major components; if any of the VINs are missing or don’t match, something is up.
- I’m not sure if this is a fair generalization based on this one experience, but if I were to buy another used car I would be very suspicious of vehicles which are overdue for important maintenance, as it may indicate that the seller did not thoroughly inspect the vehicle or does not care to maintain it himself.
- I am by no means an expert negotiator so take this with a grain of salt as well, but I suspect that immediate face-to-face negotiation is not the best way to go. It suggests a desire to buy a vehicle quickly, and the more time one spends negotiating, the less willing one will be to walk away due to the lost investment of time. It is probably better to tell the dealership what you are willing to pay and immediately leave if they won’t meet that demand. Either they’ll call you back with a good offer, or you can continue to look elsewhere.
- Buying a new car means suffering immediate depreciation, but it’s also much less likely to result in nasty surprises like this. Many states have lemon laws to protect new car buyers from troublesome cars, but these rarely apply to used cars. Consider whether this tradeoff is worthwhile. Personally, I’ll definitely be looking at new cars next time I buy a vehicle.
- And most importantly, when legal options don’t pan out, the best way to get what you want from a corporation may simply be to be persistent and annoying enough that it becomes worth their money to solve your issue just to make you go away.
The STI is only available with a six-speed manual transmission, but I was specifically looking for a manual car anyway. One might wonder why I’d seek out a manual even when I hardly knew how to drive them. The answer is that I’d always been intrigued by manual transmissions, and after taking a quick lesson I was set on buying a manual because I found it to be a lot of fun. Plus, without simply jumping in and buying a manual car, one has limited opportunity to learn—you can only spend so much time borrowing friends’ vehicles, and lessons are expensive. (For those of you outside of North America, manuals are fairly rare here, accounting for less than 7% of yearly sales. They can’t be rented at all because most people, particularly younger people, don’t know how to drive them, so the rental companies would be constantly replacing burnt-out clutches and ground up gears if they did offer manual vehicles.) Unfortunately, being inexperienced at driving manual may have influenced me to make the purchase faster than I otherwise might have, as it’s embarrassing to go on a test drive and stall the car several times, and I was worried that if I couldn’t borrow a car to practice before subsequent test drives I’d do an even worse job of it.↩
Between the first round of negotiation and the second, my friend had to leave due to a commitment—not to mention the excruciating tedium of sitting their listening to me negotiate the price of a car. My wife joined me when I went back to the dealership.↩
The 6/49 is a national lottery in Canada, for those of you from other countries.↩
NB for legal purposes: his words, not mine.↩
The sale contract contains an arbitration clause, and there is no discovery process in arbitration, so even if the dealership has evidence of the accident we would likely not have been able to get it.↩
This was admittedly perhaps an unnecessary step on my part, but at the time I felt that it was the safest thing to do, and it would never have been a problem had the dealership not sold me a damaged vehicle in the first place.↩
With my luck it will probably show up on the report around the time I go to sell the car… not that it makes much of a difference, since as I mentioned previously, I refuse to lie prospective buyers about my knowledge of the accident.↩