Goof of the Month: Previous Owner’s Laziness Kills Warranty

Oil Change at a Mechanic

Welcome to stories of the mechanically declined! Every month, we highlight a story or situation that reinforces the need for drivers and shoppers to understand their vehicle, how to maintain it, how not to maintain it, and how it works.

This month’s story comes to us not from a technician, but from a reader, Colleen*. A few months after privately buying a new-to-her sedan from a family friend, she was treated to a nasty surprise at her local dealer.

Having bought the vehicle around Christmas, she visited her local dealer a few months later to deal with some warning lights, poor performance, and some unwelcome noises from the engine.

The Complaint

Oil Change at a Mechanic

A few months after her purchase, Colleen determined that something wasn’t quite right with her car. “The engine sounded rough, for much of my daily commute to work. It sounded louder and rougher than normal, and the car wasn’t running properly, it had very little pick-up,” she recalls.

Shortly after, a check engine light appeared, along with an oil pressure warning light.

“I knew the oil light was a serious thing, so I checked with the owner’s manual, and then checked and topped up the oil,” she says. “The oil was down quite a bit, so I filled it. This made the oil light go off, but the check engine light stayed on, and the pick-up was still very bad. I made an appointment at the dealer that day,” she said.

A few days later, having topped up the engine oil but still suffering from a check engine light and poor performance, Colleen dropped her car off at the dealer for a check.

Her service advisor called a few hours later with some bad news.

Buckle up, because this gets a bit complicated.

First off, the vehicle in question had been run low on oil for an extended period, which explains the unwanted noises from the engine. Colleen was partly to blame here, having never checked the vehicle’s engine oil until the oil light came on, in the several months she had owned the vehicle.

But that was only part of the story.

Oil Change at a Mechanic

Many engines consume oil, typically in small but measurable amounts, between oil changes – meaning that over time, the amount of oil in the engine decreases, until the owner tops it up, or has an oil change, where a full supply of fresh oil is applied.

Thing is, this particular vehicle had missed several of its recent oil changes, meaning that the oil level continued to drop, and that the oil that remained had been badly broken down and contaminated, preventing it from doing its job properly.

This was the cause of the check engine light, which illuminated for a specific trouble code that references an issue with a part in the engine’s valve timing system. Said system relies on strong oil pressure and clean, fresh oil to do its job properly – and when the oil supply diminishes sufficiently, oil pressure drops, and that system can’t function as intended. As this is a serious problem that affects the operation of the engine, a check engine light is tripped, and a reduced-power limp mode is engaged, which helps protect the engine from damage. The engagement of limp mode explains Colleen’s perception of reduced engine power.

Oil Change at a Mechanic

The underlying cause of all of the issues was a simple but nasty one. As it turns out, the seller of the vehicle wasn’t fond of on-time oil changes, and considered them to be optional.

The vehicle in question was equipped with an oil-life monitor system, which displays a message in the instrument cluster when it’s nearly time for an oil change. But, by time Colleen bought the car, the seller, presumably annoyed with the oil change message, had found out how to reset the oil change system – turning the oil change request off several times, without actually having an oil change.

The gist? Both Colleen and her vehicle thought the engine was full of full of fresh oil, but that wasn’t the case. It was later discovered that the seller had reset the oil life monitor system two or three times, thereby running a single oil change for about 22,000 kilometres or more, and never topping it up in between. In that period, a good portion of the engine oil was used up, meaning the engine was running extremely dirty oil, and not nearly enough of it.

The Outcome

Oil Change at a Mechanic

The dealer advised Colleen that an oil-driven actuator within the valve timing system would need to be replaced, having been damaged by operating overtime, thanks to sub-optimal oil pressure, before the oil light came on. Further, some gritty deposits left within the actuator as a result of the contaminated engine oil had caused some damage and wear to the highly precise internal components within.

The dealer informed Colleen that the part, or any engine damage, wouldn’t be covered by the powertrain warranty, because that warranty had now been voided due to the missed oil changes.

“I was furious,” Colleen says. “Part of the reason I bought this car was because it was still under warranty, or so I thought.”

Colleen said she bought the car from a family friend for a good deal, and later discovered that that friend had simply reset the oil life monitor to make the light go away. The friend said they intended to change the oil, and eventually, just forgot.

Oil Change at a Mechanic

Ultimately, the dealer replaced the valve timing actuator at a cost of about $450, and flushed the engine oil twice, in quick succession, in hopes of cleaning out any damaging deposits left behind by the numerous missed oil changes. They also reset the oil life monitor system and stressed to Colleen the importance of following its instructions in the future.

Lesson Learned

When buying a used car, and especially one that’s still covered by powertrain warranty, be absolutely certain to get full service records, indicating that all oil changes are up to date and that none have been missed. Legitimate receipts from a service centre or dealer, for each and every oil change, will be required in case of a warranty repair like this one.

In Colleen’s case, no oil changes meant no receipts, and with engine damage and no proof that the vehicle’s oil changes were up to date, the warranty was nuked.

Though the vehicle’s warranty was voided, Colleen reports a somewhat positive outcome. “The engine runs fine now, and I haven’t had any more problems,” she says. “I even had my friend reimburse me for the cost of the repair, and they felt bad and gave me back some of the money I spent on the car.”

*Name changed for publication

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Justin Pritchard
Justin Pritchard is a native of Windsor, Ontario – though he’s called Sudbury his home for the past 20 years. Justin is a full-time auto writer, consultant and presenter of EastLink TV’s AutoPilot. His work can be seen weekly in numerous outlets across the country. When not writing about the latest new models and industry trends, you’ll probably find him fixing his 1993 Toyota MR2 GTS.
Justin Pritchard

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  • Richard W Breton

    Hmmm….What do I think? I think the customer is solely to blame. Not checking the oil? Really? The first thing you do when you buy a car is change the oil and any other fluids get checked or flushed or whatever. People DONT read the manual, go over the interval…and then blame the tech or company that produces the vehicle. Or they run sub par fluids and wonder why their junk breaks down…see it ALL the time. Get off your ass and take a car care course…..

  • edgrrr

    Always document oil changes. If you change your oil, save your receipts and write the mileage down. If you have it done, check the oil before leaving to make sure it is full and clean. My sister took her car to Roseland VW in Burlington for oil changes. First time back, oil was over 1L low. Second time, oil was darker than the old oil in my car. Mom came back from Canadian Tire with black oil after a “change”. After that, I scratched an X on the old filter canister to make sure it was changed. When you buy a car, add a new filter and half a can of Marvel Mystery Oil to the existing oil to flush crud. Change oil 1000km afterwards, it will be black. I know MMO works. I inherited a car with blowby at startup. After 2 half can MMO treatments, car started clean. Put 150000 on it after that and it never lost oil again.

  • edgrrr

    A friend asked me how to check the oil after the oil light came on. She never did it in the 4 months of owning the car and drove it for a week with the light on before asking. It was a 3 cylinder metro engine on top of it.

  • Tokenn

    I thought there was going to be some big mystery revealed here, but the only mystery is how people can be so stupid as to NEVER check their oil. ‘Colleen’ has nobody to blame but herself in this case.

  • Jason Dirksen

    Id say at least 90% of people dont check their oil level on a regular basis, especially on a relatively new vehicle. People dont assume that their engine burns a lot of oil, or is loosing oil unless there is a puddle on the ground. If you do check your oil on a monthly basis, then you are one of very few, even with people working within the automotive industry.

  • Gordon Morris

    a friend of my dads showed u at my garage his ford 300 six was running rough and burning oil ,,most ford engines are junk but the 300 truck block is almost bullet proof ,,60,000 miles on it ,,i pulled the dip stick and got sludge,grabbed the filter and it squashed and twisted by hand ,,it took 4 flushes,6 filters and pulling the valve cover to clean it out ,,he didn’t know he had to change the oil just kept adding ,,

  • Joe_Photon

    Anecdote I remember. Long time ago, maybe 30 years, I was riding in a taxi. The driver was the owner and I got to talking with him about the car, which was a plain-vanilla Detroit model, can’t remember what.

    He had something like a quarter-million miles on the clock, maybe more, and that’s stop-and-go city traffic. I asked him if it was the second or third engine, and he said, nope, the original engine.

    ‘Every two weeks, I change the oil. Now, if two weeks comes around, and I’m broke, I don’t have any money, then I borrow thirty-two dollars from my friend. And I change the oil.’

  • Daniel Libich

    Another part of the story is to use correct fluids recommended by the automaker listed in the owners manual and have proof oil changes were completed as vehicles equipped with an oil life monitor have ways to reset the monitor after the oil and filter were changed.

  • norinco

    As long as my car is under warranty the dealership will be the one changing the oil so there will be a record of all the changes….then IF there is a problem they can say NOTHING.

  • norinco

    Had a 69 chevy truck with a 350 …it had a 1/2 million miles on it when I sold it….changed oil and filter every 3000 miles.

  • lilmikey_ab

    Depends on the manufacturer… a new buyer is not responsible for previous maintenance & if there is an issue with the second owner that could be warrantable, even though the previous owner did not maintain the vehicle, it will be covered. This is the policy with the manufacturer I work for, and i hate it… Had one vehicle come to a different dealer, but we can see it thru history, complaining of engine knock. It was deemed that he had not serviced it, there was no oil in it. He was quoted a new short block & new cylinder head. He refused. Topped it up with oil. Drove it to calgary, traded it in & had his brother buy it back a day later. Brought it to our dealership with the same complaint. I checked history on it, saw all the info had changed on ownership, the previous quotes for a new engine. This smelled way too fishy. I quoted him the new engine & labor at customer pay. It went thru warranty.. cause as a new owner he was not responsible for previous services…

  • lilmikey_ab

    I think you got that backwards… wouldn’t the seller be the deceitful one?? The buyer was naive thinking buying from a friend was a good idea. It usually isn’t

  • Ron Tupling

    It’s simple…check your oil once a week as well as tire pressure in the morning before the sun warms the tires up. Top up either if nessessary. Takes two minutes. When you do your oil changes follow the manufacturers guideline not the dealer. Changing it earlier is a waste of money and changing it later might cost a lot of money in the end. Never NEVER keep driving a car if the oil light comes on. It could be a brand new car or twenty years old, doesn’t matter. They call them idiot lights for reason.

  • Dan McLeod

    Not necessarily. Warranty is covered for oil changes, and must be, as long as you provide your own receipts and service records. You do not have to go to the dealer for an oil change to keep it under warranty.

    Mind you, many dealers are offering a couple years of free oil changes these days on new purchases as well.

  • Dan McLeod

    No surprise there, really. When I was an apprentice, one of my teachers at college who had worked at a GM dealership had a guy in the 80s show up with a 4 year old Trans Am and flipping out that it wouldn’t turn over.

    The guy had managed to put 50k on it without doing an oil change, just adding a few litres in those 4 years. They pulled the oil pan and a perfect imprint of the crankshaft was embedded in the sludge that had built up. Nothing came out of the drain plug.

  • Dan McLeod

    I think dealerships should be required to spend a couple of hours going over the owners manual with a customer and showing them how every accessory works.

  • LinePainter

    Had a friend who did the same, also with an older Chev pickup, and same result. Very inexpensive way to keep a motor running!

  • Dr Manhattan

    Some newer BMW engines don’t even have a dipstick to check the oil.

  • rdMark

    Remember folks, a warranty is there to protect the manufacturer as much as the buyer. They will do/say whatever they can to get out of doing warranty work.

  • Robert Donko

    1st off manufacturers either need to get rid of or set the oil maintenance minders to a realistic value, 8K, 12K, 16K, some even 20K between oil changes is nuts….there is NO fluid that 1) is lifetime; and 2) can last the mileage some are claiming….when it comes to oil simply put you need to change it every 5K or 6 months and that is if you are using a good quality FULL synthetic…there is not a single oil on the market today that is available to the retail market that will exceed 5K of use with the demand and the temperatures that today’s engines are running at. How many Audi’s and BMW’s are blowing blue smoke under 100K, I once saw a crown vic at Ford dealership almost 1 million K on the original engine….he changes his oil weekly….not changing your oil does not just impact the engine itself, the downstream impacts to many other components is real and costly.

  • Jerome Boutilier

    this is just plan wrong information 15 years ago it was true but not anymore oils have come a long way some clam to be good till 15000kms with regular use and 12000kms with heavy use. my truck, 2015 f-350 from the manufacture calls for oil changes to be done at 10000km normal…8000 heavy and 6000km with sever use… needing to change oil every 5k is a thing of the past with new vehicles. if manufacturers wanted to make more money on oil changes they would keep the intervals at 5k but they know its not necessary anymore…for once they are finally being honest with customers…if only they were so honest with their fuel economy numbers…

  • Robert Donko

    I would like you to name one oil based solely on the specifications of the oil, not the marketing claim, but the specifications of the oil that can meet the high temp high sheer needs of today’s car’s that can reasonably exceed 5 to 6K in normal driving conditions …. if you find one I will be glad to eat my words otherwise your response “is just plain wrong”. If you believe for one moment that dealers are honest with their customers, sir I have a great piece of swamp land I would like to sell you. Dealers do not make money off oil changes they make money off people buying new cars every 3 or 4 years, they make money selling you extended warranties, they make kickbacks with financing; they make money when they sell you some stupid “module” for a grand that prevents your car from rusting….

    Audi – late model A and Q series under 100K burning upwards of 1 to 2 litres of oil

    Honda/Acura – “recalling” cars to flash the maintenance minders and adjust oil change frequencies

    BMW – reports of burning 1 litre per 1K of driving

    Mercedes – endless problem with Bluetec and plenty of downstream problems like catalytic issues

    Ford turbos – burning out faster than they can install them; 2.7 litre engine in an f150 really?

    Remember BMW’s claim that their tranny’s did not need service? Ya they get serviced now….

    Why is all this happening? Simple improper fluid change intervals

    This is just the tip of the iceberg….

    you having a f350 yourself, diesel right? If you think your truck is going to last changing any of the fluids, not just the oil, you sir will find yourself buying a new truck in 5 years OR shelling out a mountain of money to repair catastrophic mechanical failures….