Grouses about car dealers speeding up

Most of the complaints were aimed at used car dealers. Common gripes included defective parts, late delivery, refusing to repair defects and keeping customers' deposits when loans were not approved.
Most of the complaints were aimed at used car dealers. Common gripes included defective parts, late delivery, refusing to repair defects and keeping customers' deposits when loans were not approved.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Consumer watchdog wants traders to provide before- and after-sales service

Complaints against motor vehicle dealers have accelerated this year, and Singapore's consumer watchdog wants the industry to take action.

The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) received 2,438 complaints against the motor vehicle industry from January to September. This already exceeds the 2,255 made in the whole of last year - when it topped Case's list of most-complained about industries for the first time.

Most of the complaints were aimed at used car dealers. Common gripes included defective parts, late delivery, refusing to repair defects and keeping customers' deposits when loans were not approved.

To mitigate the problem, Case wants all members of the Singapore Vehicle Traders Association (SVTA) to provide after-sales service, including repairs. It also wants them to pay for third-party inspections of all cars and repair any defects before selling them.

Case has met SVTA to discuss this, but its proposal has met with a roadblock. SVTA secretary Raymond Tang said the association cannot force its 410 members to provide these services. As it is, only a minority of traders do so. Most simply do cursory checks before selling their cars.

He said it is usually up to buyers to send the car to inspection centres like Vicom and STA for checks. The buyer can then accept or reject the sale if defects are exposed.

The motor vehicle industry, in particular, used car dealers, is already reeling from recent car loan curbs, he said.

Traders are also feeling the heat from the "lemon law", which compels businesses to repair or replace a product found to be defective within six months.

Asking dealers to foot the bill for inspecting a car - which can come up to about $200 excluding repairs - "should be left as a business decision", said Mr Tang.

Case's proposal would also discourage traders from reselling older used cars, he pointed out.

"Consumers must also bear some responsibility for their purchases," he added, and choose businesses accredited under the CaseTrust scheme.

But Case executive director Seah Seng Choon insists the buck should stop at the motor vehicle traders. "Dealers are in a better position to conduct checks and can tie up with authorised workshops and do it in bulk at lower cost."

In a separate move, the SVTA is planning an appeal to exempt certain types of used cars from the "lemon law". It is still working on the details - including the cut-off age of these used cars - and will write a letter to the Ministry of Trade and Industry soon, said Mr Tang.

"Antique or vintage cars cannot be expected to be free of defects. Case is asking us to help reduce complaints. We say that these cars should not be under the law," he said.

The complaint numbers also coincide with the rise in used car sales. From barely 21,000 used cars sold in 2006, the figure soared to 77,727 last year - the highest in over a decade. From January to August, 45,459 used cars were sold.

But there are many unhappy buyers, such as Mr Calvin Chao, 38. The property agent bought a 6 1/2-year-old BMW late last year after a car dealer put him in touch with a private car seller.

A day later, a warning light on the $85,000 car's dashboard came on. Then, the handbrake got stuck.

Mr Chao sent the car to the BMW service centre and found there were defects with its brake and steering systems - problems likely to have existed at the point of sale. He spent about $2,000 in repairs, but the dealer refused to give him a refund.

As Mr Chao had bought the car from a private individual, he could not invoke the "lemon law", which does not cover consumer-to-consumer transactions. Even so, Case claims that car dealers often tell consumers that the lemon law does not apply to certain defects or that the fault was of the customer's own doing.

Said Mr Chao: "It was a lousy feeling. We were not familiar with the lemon law and the need to do proper checks before buying a car. It was a lesson learnt."

limjess@sph.com.sg