Friday, December 30, 2016

NYS Vehicle Safety, NOT Lemon Laws

This year, I had the pleasure of learning about New York State Vehicle Safety laws.  It occurred to me recently how much I appreciated having some help along the way, so I decided to write down my experience so that someone else could benefit, as well.

About this time last year, I finally agreed with Todd that it was time to look for a new car.  Some of you may remember that we bought the Saturn at a bank auction back in 2010, when I crashed the Suburban on the Thruway.  Tricia and big SUV's don't mix, and we no longer had a camper, so it was back to minivan land.  But Todd never liked the thing.  Among his complaints: it is terrible in the snow (true), it drops snow all over your seat when you open the door after a storm (also true), and it doesn't like to re-start when it's still warm from the last time unless you pump the gas pedal a little (also true, but who cares?  It starts).  Anyway, last winter we reached the point where I began to suspect it would start costing too much to keep it on the road (things underneath started to need repair), and it was time to go.  We decided we would go shopping with our tax return money.

Todd loves to shop for cars and let it be said he has a heart for underdogs.  So we ended up at a very small dealership that shall remain nameless for the time being.  One guy operation.  They usually sell mostly handicapped vans, but they had a regular Honda Odyssey on the lot.  We liked it.  I noticed when we test drove it that it surged a little while waiting at lights/stopping, but I thought it was a quirk of the car.  It did everything else.  It was actually a little older than the Saturn, but it had fewer miles and a Honda was supposed to be a more reliable high-mileage vehicle than a Saturn.  We weren't finding anything newer that was still in our price range.  After two trips to this place that is further than I wanted to go, we bought the thing (third trip required for pickup).

We were happy for about a week.  It didn't take long for us to notice that the van had a shudder at about 2,000 rpms and 25-35 miles.  It wasn't something we would have noticed in a test drive because we took it out on open road, not puttering through town.  We called the dealer; he agreed to our having the surging bit fixed, and then he asked us to bring the car back so he could have the transmission looked at.  He took it to a big dealership,  He had them flush the transmission fluid, which can sometimes temporarily fix a shudder in the torque converter, but not always and not for long.  It was also clear on the proof he sent me that he didn't actually ask them to look into the problem we had described.

I took the car to Saunders Transmission in Argyle, who confirmed that the torque converter was the source of the shudder and said that the transmission might be ok for a while, but could also fail totally without much warning.  Super.

The dealer offered to take the car back, but he wanted to give us back less than we had paid for it for "mileage" since we had been driving it for a few weeks.  We were willing to do that, but he wanted something like $700.  We pushed back, and he ended up saying he wouldn't take the car back at all, the problem wasn't that bad, and we could file a complaint with Vehicle Safety if we wanted to.

One of the men I work with happens to be retired from working for the DMV and he coached me through the process of filing a complaint against the dealer.  He was also the one who told me I didn't have to let the guy take any money for mileage at all.  He said that when he worked that job, he would only let the complainer pay mileage if the person was a troublemaker/being difficult.  The bill of sale that the dealer signed actually warrantees the engine and transmission for 30 days, and we had proof from Saunders, etc., that we had identified the problem within 30 days.

Over a weekend, I had looked into it and decided that we weren't covered by lemon laws.  Lemon laws in New York State only apply to cars with less that 100,000 miles, and this one had 118,000.  Sigh.  But my co-worker said No, no, no!  He told me to go back to the DMV website and look for a form called VS-35.  Aha!  With this form, I could make a complaint against the dealer based on that 30-day warranty.

So, I filled out the form and mailed it in.  I mailed it around April, 2016 after the work had been done to try to rectify the problem and we had failed to reach a satisfactory agreement with the dealer.  We were conflicted about this, because we didn't really feel that he had known the car had a bad transmission, and tried to sneak it past us.  I felt like maybe he just didn't have the cash handy to buy the car back, being a small dealership.  I didn't want to be a jerk about it, but...I need a safe car and this was not cool.

Luckily, we had not just sold the rusty trusty Saturn.
 We had listed it, but not sold it.  Instead we ended up fixing the wheel bearings and the brakes to make it safe to take on a summer camping trip, because we didn't trust the Honda.  We basically stopped driving the Honda at all, because we didn't want to be stuck paying mileage for whatever we did do.   Over the summer, Todd just drove it to work on occasion to keep the brakes from rusting up.  Meanwhile, while we were camping the Saturn developed a large crack in the windshield that grew at an alarming pace.  We discovered the windshield could not be replaced, because the crack originated at a hole in the frame, and no body shop wanted to fix that part of the frame, considering it too risky,  *Sigh*

Now, if you're paying attention at all you have noticed that I wrote up the complain in April and we were camping in the summertime.  Yes.  The only response I got from the DMV was a preliminary fact-finding call about a month later, and the person who called said that they would forward this to the actual inspector, and it might be six weeks.  Over the spring, the gas pedal also got stuck so that the van gained speed as long as I wasn't pressing the brake, but it came out of that when I kicked it. (Yikes!) In July, I saw my co-worker and his wife at the mall and he gave me a phone number to a local office to call and check the status, which I did.
The inspector assigned to my complaint very nicely looked it all up and told me that it would probably be another six weeks before he got to me, as he had x number of cases before mine and there were only x inspectors at his office, with 15 counties between them.  That was in July.

I got another phone call in SEPTEMBER.  So 5 months had elapsed and we had basically had zero use of this car, while paying registration and insurance on it and continuing to keep the tan van on the road.  We were pretty happy to see that inspector when he finally came to our house one morning to evaluate the car.  We also began to suspect that the dealer had told us to "go ahead and complain to vehicle safety" because he knew we'd have to wait months for resolution, and probably thought we'd have disposed of the car by then.  Well, he played the waiting game with the wrong person.  Todd and the inspector went for a ride in the Honda, the inspector took photos of my file full of proofs, and Todd sent him a file of text messages from the dealer showing the conversation that took place.
The inspector agreed that the complaint was valid (cue angels singing), got in touch with the dealer, and called me back with an offer.  The dealer would a acquire a rebuilt, warranteed transmission from a shop in Brooklyn (the one in New York City), and have it installed locally.  We could bring the car back to him and he'd get that done.  If we agreed with this, the Inspector said, it was the best resolution he thought there could be.  He couldn't really force the dealer to but the car back if he was offering to fix it.  So we agreed.  That was September.
We managed to watch a parade from the back of the van during the few days we had it.  

The moral of the story:  If you buy a used car and it has problems, document well in the first 30 days.  Make a complaint on a form called VS-35, found here.  Be prepared to wait.
Upstate New Yorkers, have you ever wanted to drive to Vermont to buy a car and been told not to because there are no warranty laws over there to protect you?  Well, now you know what the warranty laws in New York will do for you. Not a lot unless you have time on your hands, which most of us don't if our car goes kaput.  DMV inspectors are extremely under-staffed.

And.  We still own both vans.
The rebuild has failed.  Twice.  The Honda has been in Brooklyn since Thanksgiving.
Now instead of a shudder at 25mph, we had a van that dropped out of Drive into Neutral when we slowed down at lights, and even just in traffic.  So NOT COOL.  The dealer is now 10X as frustrated as we are because he has put, he says, $3,000 into fixing this van and it's still not right (he did fix the revving at lights throttle issue).  At last call he said the shop in Brooklyn was denying a problem, and he told them to replace the transmission anyway.  I actually called the Vehicle Safety inspector again a few days before Christmas (co-worker said to) because I was so frustrated that my minivan was still lurking in a shop in Brooklyn and nothing was being done.  My complaint had been closed (during the first two days we had the van back and it hadn't yet tried to kill me in traffic), but he would give the dealer a call anyway and find out what was up.  It sounds like he did that and then actually had a Brooklyn inspector give the shop down there a call, too.  We were supposed to possibly get the car back today, Dec. 30th.  No sign of it.  We've put less than 3,000 miles on the van in 9 months, all the while paying for registration and insurance on a van we couldn't drive.