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Auto certification

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Auto certification
I want to buy a used car, and I’ve been told it should be certified. What does this mean?

By Sue Stone
First published in Chatelaine’s February 1998 issue.
©Sue Stone

Before you buy a used car, it should be certified as safe by a garage licensed by the ministry of transport. (In some provinces, this is mandatory.) Most dealerships sell certified vehicles. Although it is usually better to buy a certified used car, be warned: just because a car is certified, it doesn’t mean you’ve bought a good vehicle.

What certification is–and isn’t
A certification or safety certificate means the vehicle has met certain prescribed standards on the day of inspection, and doesn’t mean it has to meet those standards the next day, or the day after. It is by no means a warranty for the car. The minimum standards for certification can be pretty skimpy: in Ontario, for example, brake linings must be one-sixteenth of an inch (the thickness of a penny) to pass; manufacturers usually recommend replacing brake linings before they get this thin (new brake pads are one-quarter of an inch thick). A car with a crack on its windshield will meet the standards for certification, as long as the crack is not within the sweep area of the windshield wiper. Most important: the inspection does not include evaluating the performance of the engine or transmission. These components could be on their last legs and cost you a lot of money to repair.

Here’s what a certification inspection does include: checking operation of all lights, wipers, defrosters, seat belts, horn, driver’s and passenger’s side windows and driver’s seat. Also checked is the condition of the tires, brakes, exhaust, engine and transmission/transaxle mounts and all suspension components. All parts of the body (doors, fenders, rocker panels, trunk and hoods) are checked for holes.

To further complicate matters, many automakers have launched what they call “certified” used car programs. Before a car is put up for sale, it is checked more comprehensively than in the government-approved inspection, and is then sold with a warranty. Many people confuse the manufacturer’s certification with the government-approved certification, and expect their car to come with a warranty and be in excellent shape.

How to protect yourself
Don’t assume a used car is roadworthy just because it has been certified–by the government or the manufacturer. When buying a vehicle, always make the purchase conditional on a thorough inspection, done by a technician you trust. Contact your technician in advance to find out what she will charge you. If you don’t have a regular technician, the Canadian Automobile Association can have the vehicle thoroughly inspected by a specially selected and approved garage, at a cost of about $100 for CAA members or $150 for nonmembers. The price may seem expensive, but it might save you from a $3,000 to $4,000 engine or transmission repair job down the road. Other tips:

  • Buy the Lemon-Aid Used Cars 1998 guide (Stoddart) or the Consumer Reports Used Car Buying Guide (McClelland & Stewart). Both list failure-prone components of vehicles.
  • Walk away from any deal where the seller refuses to let you have the vehicle checked.
  • If buying from a dealer, ask about any warranties and make sure you get a written bill of sale. Consider purchasing an extended warranty if the basic warranty is short.

Sue Stone is a licensed auto-service technician and a board member of the Canadian Automotive Repairs and Services Institute.