Skip to main content

How to Resolve a Dispute With a Car Dealer

How to Resolve a Dispute With a Car Dealer

Dealers, and their service departments, are supposed to know everything about your car, and most of the time that is true. But once in a while, they just can't seem to fix an issue and it doesn't seem like anything you say or do makes a difference. It's easy to get angry and self-righteous about a problem with a new car—after all, cars do cost a ton of money, but you can get much better results by following certain, simple steps.

Your Attitude

First, check your attitude. At all times, you should be polite and calm, chances are the problem is not the fault of the service writer, technician, or customer service representative you are about to scream at. But be assertive as well and don't take no for an answer. Threatening them and getting upset or angry is just going to makes things worse.

Dealership personnel are people as well, which means they are sensitive, and sometimes make mistakes. Don't go around bad-mouthing a dealer just because it took several tries to solve a problem, unless you have no other choice. Launching into a social media crusade against them will just hurt your case. You really don't want to be  a "bad customer" that gets dumped into the "crank" category. After that, no one will take you seriously.

The reason for staying civil is that the service manager and dealer have quite a bit of leeway when it comes to solving a problem. It's better that they like you and identify with you, because hopefully they will then give you better service. It'll probably also mean they'll have their best mechanic work on your car. 

Don't miss our new one-job manuals for fixing common problems with your car!

Phantom Problems

Never accept  "they all do that" or "I can't hear it" as a defense. Have the service manager or the mechanic working on your car go out with you for a test drive. Sometimes you have to leave the car overnight, and make them take it for a drive first thing in the morning to duplicate an issue, or drive it more than around the block. Remember, don't get angry or make a scene - just be assertive and polite, and insist they drive it like you were when you notice the issue.

Do your online research and check with enthusiast forums for your vehicle for similar problems. You can also look up the official technical service bulletins online, but try not to tell the dealer technician how to do their job; they'll put you in the "difficult" category. It's better to say that a friend with the same car has had the same problem, or you just happened to see something about it online.

Is This Dealer Making Things Worse?

If your car has lots of problems, the dealer's mechanic might actually be making things worse when trying to find the cause of other problems. If a "new" problem occurs immediately after your car was serviced, there's a good chance it was the mechanic's fault. Some examples include: Brake noises after a brake job, overheating after the radiator was flushed, shifting problems after the transmission fluid was changed, and fluid leaks after any service.

Your dealer may tell you a lot of things about what the problem they purported to fix was; note what they say but don't automatically believe it. Try to get everything in writing. If they still can't solve the problem, ask them to call the manufacturer's tech line or perhaps check any service bulletins.

There are solutions if your nearest dealer can't fix it. Sometimes going to another dealer works, but of course, that may cost you more money if it's an out-of-warranty problem. If your problem is out-of-warranty but it was first noted when the car was still in warranty you have a better case. Most manufacturers track issues with a computer network shared between dealers, and your VIN will reveal where and when a problem was first reported to a service department. This can be very handy if you have to go up the chain to the zone manager, or manufacturers warranty customer service help department.
You can always try and fix the problem yourself, or at another shop, and ask for your money back – and, of course, you can report your problem with your Attorney General, Consumer Affairs Department, or your local Better Business Bureau. If the situation has reached this stage, it's unlikely that dealer will fix the problem voluntarily, anyway, as they have probably already written you off as a customer. But, by all means, report any issues you have with the manufacturer via email or a phone call; if this is a recurring issue with this dealer, or just with your make and model, they will want to know, and may be able to help you get reimbursed.

Resolving warranty problems

Now let's take a look at the process of trying to get satisfaction when it is a warranty problem. You can learn quite a bit about the dealership by the way they treat you when you've got what seems to be an unsolvable problem. A bad sign is when you get the run-around, such as "we’ve got to talk to the zone manager to get authorization" or "the part is on back-order", along with an endless succession of other plausible-sounding excuses. Remember, in the 21st century you can probably talk to the zone manager yourself, and check stock on a part via online OEM sellers.

Before you give up, talk to the dealership's manager, and if needed, owner. They usually don't like to be bothered by service problems, because many a dealer has lost repeat business because a customer was unhappy with the service after a sale.
OK, so you've gotten nowhere with this dealership, you may want to take the car to another dealer, though this might be a bit inconvenient, especially if the distance to other dealer is great. Usually when you reach this point, your only recourse is to contact the manufacturer's zone office yourself, or you'll find the manufacturer's warranty service phone number in your owner’s manual. Explain the situation, offer to fax or email all the pertinent repair paperwork to them (though they should have them in their system already). Remember to be polite, but assertive. Sometimes that's all that is needed.

The car makers are much more sensitive these days to consumer complaints and most problems don't get beyond the zone office stage. Still, it pays to know what the process can entail. Some manufacturer's also use an Arbitration Board to resolve problems that can't be worked out between customers and dealers, without getting the state or courts involved. This may also offer a solution to your problem.

The Lemon Law

At this point you've hit another crossroads if you still haven't resolved the situation to your satisfaction. There's always legal action but you might want to try your state's consumer affairs department first. Most states have special departments set up just to deal with problems between car dealers and consumers, and a Lemon Law to cover just this situation.

If despite several attempts at repair you just aren't satisfied, look in your glove box (or online) for the Lemon Law guide and look up what your state's requirements are. File an official Lemon Law complaint with your state - this will at least get the manufacturer's attention. Make sure that you file your Lemon Law complaint as soon as possible. There is a mileage and time limit and that varies from state to state. The recourse available to you under Lemon Laws vary by state, but realize you may end up in a position where you legally have to sell the car back to the dealer.  

If the dealer has done something that is really serious call the state attorney general's office. Many will help you resolve fraud or unsafe practices from the dealer.

When you finally prevail, the manufacturer will most likely buy your car back for what you paid for it, though they'll probably deduct for the mileage used as well. There may even be credit toward a new car on top of that. The likelihood of having to go to court is pretty small for a Lemon Law dispute, as they happen fairly frequently.