February 12, 1995 in City

Much Maligned Used Car Dealers Taken For A Ride

Doug Clark The Spokesman-Revie

We’ve all heard the one about the poor innocent customer who got taken to the cleaners by a sleazy used car dealer.

Here’s a tale that turns that cliche on its head.

Thanks to nitwits at Washington’s Department of Licensing, Jack Riley is up to his neck in legal quicksand over a 1987 Chevy Astrovan he bought fair and square from a Spokane Valley woman last September.

Riley, who has sold cars 30 years, owns a modest lot on East Sprague. He checked out the woman thoroughly.

She had the title. She was the registered owner. No liens against the car popped up on the computer.

So Riley paid her $2,200. She cashed the check and he later resold the van to another dealer after dropping an additional $1,300 on it for repairs.

That’s how the used car business works. Small-time dealers hustle and scratch to buy low and sell high enough to keep the doors open and the bill collectors at bay.

Unfortunately, the Astrovan is currently worth more as an oversized paperweight.

The bureaucrats in Olympia have frozen the title because the woman’s ex-husband was awarded the van in a divorce settlement.

But here’s the kicker: The settlement took place two weeks after the woman sold it to Riley.

“We collect sales tax for the state of Washington and for what?” says the dealer. “For the privilege of screwing us?”

Anyone with a lick of common sense would agree this dispute should stay between the ex-husband and the ex-wife.

Let them fight it out in court. Why should a car dealer, who did nothing wrong, get kicked in the teeth?

If only state pencil pushers were that clear-headed.

Betty Eaton of the Department of Licensing says she feels sorry for the dealer, but not enough to do him any good. The title, she adds, will stay in limbo until the van’s ownership is resolved by a judge.

That means legal bills Riley can ill afford. This deal may end up costing him $5,000 before it’s over.

“I’ve had good years and years when I’ve fallen on my face,” says Riley. “Something like this can really hurt you.”

I may be on a fool’s mission, trying to drum up sympathy for a used car dealer. They are, after all, the scum of the earth according to popular perception.

Ever seen a used car dealer portrayed positively on TV?

I didn’t think so.

Don Castle, president of the Spokane chapter of the state Independent Dealers Association, says that the bad reputation is a burden but one that was well earned.

“Quite frankly, we brought it on ourselves,” he says. “It was a terrible business back in the 1960s.”

Some unscrupulous dealers, he adds, planted hidden microphones in their waiting rooms so they could eavesdrop on customers.

But the industry has cleaned up immensely over the years. There are still some sleazeballs, but they are in the minority thanks to tougher laws and organizations such as the one Castle represents.

Lewis Dennie, who oversees dealer licensing in the Spokane area, agrees the old stereotype is outdated. “The public has shafted many a car dealer,” he says.

Car lots are often vandalized. Vehicles stolen.

Troubled titles are the latest concern, according to Frank Granet, the independent dealers’ association chief.

Governmental agencies, such as Labor and Industries and the Department of Health and Social Services, are aggressively putting liens on vehicles to collect bad debts or back child support.

That’s all well and fine except that some liens don’t show up until weeks after a car is sold.

“It’s getting to the point where the title means nothing,” says a bitter Granet. “You just about have to hire an attorney every time you buy a car.”

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Doug Clark The Spokesman-Review

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