Buying a lemon in business-friendly Missouri

When our dependable Ford finally kicked the bucket a couple months ago, my husband and I went on a harried hunt for something that would meet our needs. The clock is ticking when you live in the suburbs without public transit or a vehicle and you need to get to work.

Like anyone who has little idea what they are doing, I did my research. I checked dealers out with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), read countless car reviews, contacted dozens of sellers, haggled over price. In the beginning, we visited car lots. When that proved too time-consuming for my overworked husband and the stress was testing my limits, my mom and step-dad volunteered to help.

After another week of desperate searching, I found a dealer in Ballwin who had a minivan that not only met my non-negotiable terms (price, seating), but exceeded my expectations. It was a single-owner, fully inspected, 7-passenger “wagon” with low mileage and a limited warranty. It had a Carfax report and was just under the suggested blue book value. Finally!

After making sure it was still available, I phoned my parents. The dealer was right down the road from them and I was minus a car. Did I mention I have awesome parents? They drove straight there, took the car for a test drive, went over the specifics with the salesman, and even cut a check to “save” it until I could come in to finalize the purchase. I was in business.

What follows is a consumer’s nightmare and a tale of caution.

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. That’s what I learned the following day when, after waiting two hours for a rude salesman (first tip-off) to go over the paperwork with us, I drove my kinda new minivan off the lot. And it promptly broke down. That’s right. I was the relieved owner of a minivan for less than a day before the transmission suffered epic failure.

After a flurry of phone calls to my husband (I broke down, I’ll be late), to my mom (I broke down, my cell phone is dying, can you call the dealer?), and my insurance agent (I broke down, I may need service), I had the salesman on the phone. He assured me they would send a tow truck and that mechanical failures fell under the warranty. Furthermore, they would give me a loaner vehicle so I could get home to my kids. In a word, I’d be taken care of. Wonderful.

Several days later, I was on the phone with the salesman. I had questions. What was wrong with the minivan? How long would repairs take? “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” was the vague response. (second tip-off) It would be nearly 3 weeks before I heard back. The salesman confirmed the transmission failed, it was covered by the warranty, and he’d call when it was repaired. A month after the dramatic breakdown, I get the call: the minivan is ready for pick-up. No, wait. It’s not ready. Call back Monday.

Monday: I have waited in line at my local DMV for over an hour to license the minivan. I approach the counter, glad I’ve come prepared with a folder that contains all the necessary paperwork. “Sorry, ma’am, these inspections are expired,” I’m told. To her credit, the DMV employee is astounded I would be sold a vehicle with expired inspections. She suggests I contact the dealer right away.

After a few attempts to reach someone [anyone] at the dealer, I finally get the service manager on the phone. I have two options. I can drive 60 miles [round trip] to the dealer or take it somewhere locally and be reimbursed for the inspections. I can live with that.

But the rude salesman isn’t done with me. To add insult to injury he calls my mom the following day. She tells him I am frustrated. He proceeds to yell at her over the phone. I should be grateful, he says, they fixed the transmission despite the fact that I have no warranty. Wait, hold up. No warranty? What was that paper I signed? What inspired all those conversations about repairs falling under warranty?

Dismayed, I drag out the aforementioned folder. Buried in the paperwork I signed the day of purchase (and received weeks later in the mail), is the warranty. I am utterly flabbergasted to see that after I signed the warranty, someone drew a large ‘x’ through it and also put an ‘x’ in the No Warranty box. This is fraud and it is the final straw. At this point no one at the dealer is taking our calls or returning them. Nor were they responding to emails and postal letters. Not that they were overly great at communicating before then.

What I soon learned is how negligent the state of Missouri is to its consumers. We have a lemon law but it only applies to certain brand new vehicles under warranty. If you are the victim of a nefarious business, you really have three options. First, don’t waive your right to legal recourse by signing a document to that effect. I did and came to regret it. After the fact however, you can try to work it out with the business. Failing that, you can file formal complaints with the attorney general and/or the Better Business Bureau. Third, you can submit your review to every relevant website you can find online an hope other hapless victims don’t fall prey.

I chose to take all available routes and it led to a solution I can live with. A review my mother left on DealerRater was truly instrumental. Only certified dealers are listed on DealerRater and dealers risk losing certification from bad reviews. Much like the BBB, DealerRater acts as impartial arbitrator in these situations.

My friendly neighborhood mechanic also found a broken axle while reinspecting the minivan. So after being ignored, lied to, passed around, and otherwise being treated unprofessionally, we were handed off to the helpful service manager [who kept reminding me about that DealerRater review]. He repaired the axle, made sure I was reimbursed for the inspections, and promised he would make any future repairs that fell under the terms of that warranty I didn’t have.