JOHANNESBURG - Buying a car, whether new or used, can be stressful. Cars are one of our biggest purchases and there is always the concern that the car you buy might turn out to be a lemon. 

The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) provides some peace of mind for car buyers, but consumers also need to be aware that their rights are not unlimited.

“For a car buyer, the most important part of the CPA is probably the right to safe, quality goods in good working order,” says Jamie Surkont, director at used-car retailer getWorth. “And with that comes the so-called ‘six-month CPA warranty’ if the car does not meet the CPA requirements. Consumers are generally very excited about these CPA rights.”

Jana van Zyl, director at Dommisse Attorneys, says: “The CPA aims to provide protection to consumers who are normally in a more vulnerable position when it comes to buying goods or services from sellers.”

She says: “A car is a complicated piece of equipment and it is not unusual for something to go wrong, especially when you are talking about used cars. But one must bear in mind that the CPA is one piece of law to regulate the sale of all types of different goods - new or used. An element of reasonableness must be taken into account. This means that things are not always cut and dried.”

Surkont and Van Zyl answer a few common questions:

What if I signed a contract that says the sale is voetstoots? Fortunately for car buyers, a seller cannot contract out of the law. Van Zyl says the CPA states that a term in a contract that goes against the CPA’s rights will be void. This means that even though the term is included in the contract, the seller will not be able to rely on it. This may also apply if you signed a contract saying that the sale is voetstoots.

What if I bought the car privately, or at auction? Private and auction sales are generally not covered by the CPA. Surkont warns: “Defective or poor-quality cars can cause huge cost and frustration. Most people understand that purchases on auction are generally voetstoots, so they expect to pay lower prices to compensate for that risk. But not everyone realises that they may be in the same boat with private purchases.”

What if the seller disclosed the defects? Van Zyl says it is not the intention of the CPA to smother the used car industry - sellers of older cars, including those with some defects, should still be able to sell them at a reasonable price, considering what they are worth. The important thing is that the buyer must be properly informed. If the seller clearly disclosed the defects or quality issues, or, for example, that the car is a non-runner, you knew what you were buying and you can’t expect to be covered by the so-called six-month CPA warranty. Consumers must also be fair and reasonable and think about it in a sensible way.”

What if what the car is not what I thought it was? Surkont says consumers must do their homework and make sure the cars they are buying are suitable for their needs.

What is included in the six-month CPA warranty? Consumers must bear in mind that the CPA does not give protection against fair wear and tear, misuse or abuse. In these cases the CPA’s “quality warranty” will not apply. Van Zyl also points out that minor defects won’t necessarily result in a refund. She gives the following example: “Let’s think about something like a faulty battery. A consumer may try to argue that this presents a quality issue which entitles the consumer to return the vehicle. But surely if one thinks about it logically, it would not make sense to return a vehicle because of a faulty battery that can easily be replaced. A standard of reasonableness should therefore always apply.”

What if I financed the car, or bought additional services? If you financed the car, your loan agreement with the bank that provided the finance will be subject to the National Credit Act rather than the CPA. Van Zyl says: “In most cases, it will be your responsibility to arrange settlement of the loan. The same may also apply to add-ons, such as insurance products or warranties that you purchased at the same time as the car.”

Can I return the car if I don’t like it? Surkont says: “The CPA only covers you for defects or quality issues, or if the car is not fit for its intended purpose. If you simply find that you don’t like it and want a refund, that would be subject to the return policy of the particular seller. But it is rare to find a generous return policy for cars in South Africa. There are several overseas car sellers that offer no-questions-asked money-back guarantees, but, as far as we’re aware, there is only one in this country.”

What if I can’t reach agreement with the seller? Van Zyl says: “If the consumer and seller cannot come to an agreement, the dispute can be referred to the Motor Industry Ombudsman, who is the accredited ombudsman for disputes in the motor vehicle industry.”