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Dangerous second hand cars

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X-Ray production team X-Ray production team | 16:58 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010

When you buy a second hand car you know you're taking a risk. Complaints to Consumer Direct about used cars are up by a fifth on last year. In the past consumers may have felt that when they've had problems, the law hasn't always been on their side

One such couple was Lisa and Andrew Williams from Pontardulais. They told X-Ray about their woes after buying a second hand Mitsubishi from a garage in London called Global Cars. They’d researched the car they wanted on the internet, taken it for a test drive and Andrew had even done some homework before parting with any cash. "I think we took reassurance in that I did all the checks, HPIs, checked if it had an MOT on the owners on the vehicle" Andrew told us.

unsafe car

Andrew and Lisa's second hand car was unsafe

The couple were initially happy with their purchase but it wasn't long before they discovered that underneath the car’s shiny exterior all was not well. The first problems came to light after they took the car for a routine service, two months after buying it and the garage found serious issues.

Andrew explained, "I was shown the extent of the corrosion underneath the car, to the point where it was in such a bad way they were surprised that the car was able to drive safely on the road."

The rust was so bad that the car had serious structural problems and the garage which serviced it advised them not to drive it. The couple reported the matter to Swansea Trading Standards who suggested they get an independent report - which confirmed their worst fears. The inspector found several areas of extreme corrosion, meaning the car was unsafe.

Lisa was shocked, "Somebody actually said that The Titanic is still in better condition than this car

In Merthyr, Scott Roberts' experience was even more alarming. After passing his test he saw a car in a Caerphilly garage, a bargain at £900, and his uncle had agreed to lend him the cash." We went down to have a look at it," Scott said, "I liked it. We went into the office to do all the paperwork and my uncle put a £50 deposit on it."

The next day, Scott's uncle went to the garage to pay the rest of the money and pick up the car. But after driving just a few miles, he had a huge shock and gave the bad news to Scott that the front wheel had fallen off during the drive home.

Scott was stunned to realise he'd been sold a car with wheel nuts missing. And when he looked at his receipt, he saw a phrase which made his heart sink - 'sold as seen'. "I was talking about it with my grandpa and he said that if you've got 'sold as seen' written on the receipt, you are going to find it really hard to get your money back" he added.

Scott contacted Trading Standards who began to investigate what happened .Tim Keohane from Caerphilly Trading Standards told us the dealer did two things wrong. "The first and most serious was that he supplied a vehicle which was unsafe, dangerous and unroadworthy, which caused an accident ", Tim explained. "Secondly, the documentation that was given to Scott in relation to the vehicle was riddled with statements that indicated that he didn't really have any rights at all having paid his £900 and driven away, which is illegal."

When Scott eventually got hold of the garage owner, a fortnight later he was given a full refund. Despite this, Caerphilly Trading Standards felt the offences were so serious that they had no option but to prosecute. The garage owner pleaded guilty at Caerphilly Magistrates Court to safety offences and trying to restrict the vehicle owners right to claim a refund. He was personally fined £2,000 and his company Reach UK Vehicle Management Ltd trading as Pontygwindy Car Sales was fined £8,000.

In the Caerphilly area, complaints about garages selling unroadworthy cars have doubled in the last two years. However, Tim explained that a recent change in the law has helped them prosecute rogue garages. "There was a change in legislation in May 2008 which made it a lot easier for us to enforce, made it a lot simpler and brought in offences which previously weren't covered by the law but were obviously wrong" he said.

And what about the Williamses who were sold the rusty four by four by Global Cars, in London? Well even though the company has agreed to refund them, the family still want answers. "If we hadn't have booked it in for the survey we'd still be driving it now because neither one of us would have looked under the car that had a brand new MOT and thought let's check for holes. So we would still be driving that car around now if we hadn't have taken it in for a service" they added.

Gareth Rees is an independent vehicle inspector with 35 years' experience assessing cars. He's also employed by trading standards as an expert witness in court cases against garages. After examining the couple's car he said, "From above it looks very good in appearance. Once we go underneath we can see that in particular the offside rear area and that's supporting the main suspension mountings is badly holed and corroded, and severely weakened the integrity of the chassis section ."

He also had concerns about the way in which the car was sold. "To think that this vehicle has gone through an MOT before it was supplied is unbelievable." So is it safe for a buyer to assume that a car with an MOT will be roadworthy and in good condition? Not according to Gareth.

"An MOT is a minimum quality licensing ", he said. "On the front of the MOT certificate it states quite clearly that that not evidence that the vehicle is in a satisfactory and indeed a legal condition. So if you're buying a vehicle the vendor, particularly a trade vendor has an obligation under consumer law to ensure that the vehicle is in a safe and roadworthy condition ."

Your MOT certificate may also contain advisory notices - these are issues which may soon need attention. If a garage sells you a car it is legally required to give you this information, so keep an eye out. And VOSA, which supervise supervises the MOT scheme has a website where you can check a car's test history - a very useful tool for potential buyers.

So next time you're in the market for a second hand car, don't just be seduced by the perfect paintwork and snazzy stereo.

According to Gareth it pays to delve a little deeper. ""Get someone who knows what they are looking for " he advised "and they can report back to you".

Since we filmed, Global cars which sold Lisa and Andrew Williams the four by four have collected it and they've refunded the couple for the cost of the car, the independent report and the money they paid to insure the car when it was off the road - so that's a total of £3,572.

We did ask the company why they sold a car in an unroadworthy condition and why the car appeared not to have had any quality and safety checks before it was sold but Global cars chose not to answer the questions.

In Scott Roberts' case the garage owner, Alwyn James has told us that he deeply regrets the incident. He said that all of his vehicles are now safety inspected by qualified technicians and added that in his opinion Trading Standards should be more proactive and not just prosecute when things go wrong. Although as Caerphilly Trading Standards observed, Mr James has 23 years experience in the motor industry.

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