What you need to know before renting a car

What you need to know before renting a car

Reading the small print of a car rental contract is a lot like reading the package insert of any medicine you’re about to take - it makes you so afraid, you don’t want to chance it at all.

Car - consumerwatch

But then few people do read the small print of a car rental contract, do they? You’ve got off a flight, schlepped yourself and your luggage to the car rental queue, and then someone hands you a key and several pages of a contract, and asks you to sign here and here and here, so you do...anything to just get to the car and head off to wherever you want to be.

If you’re really switched on, you’ll go on to the car rental company’s website before you leave on your trip, and get clued up on what you are and aren’t covered for in advance.

Things like driving on a gravel road, hitting a pothole, water damage, damage to the undercarriage of the car and not reporting the accident or loss to the company in time will see you paying for the repairs in full - whatever waiver you opted for.

Who is held responsible for damages?

But what about relatively minor damage that’s not caused by an accident, but can be pretty costly to fix - who’s liable?

Well, that’s the burning question. If you don’t take time to inspect a car thoroughly - and I mean thoroughly - before you drive off or are in to much of a hurry to dump and run on your return - you could well be held responsible for damage that was there before or incurred after your rental period.

Nick Vinton of Manor Gardens’ experience is typical of this scenario.

Nick's car rental experience 

He hired a Ford Figo from Avis at Cape Town International Airport last month, for an eight-day period.

He signed the paperwork, walked to the car, which was parked in an open lot, and did a quick walk-around, pointing out a couple of small issues. Both were noted on the paperwork.

He thought that was enough. Fast forward eight days, and Nick returns the car to Avis’s Cape Town airport branch.

The employee in attendance almost immediately pointed out a dent about the size of a 10c piece the car’s roof, Nick says. He used a template to assess whether the dent was classified a wear and tear issue or damage.

“The chap told me to just sign the form and write that I wasn’t aware of any damage, and sign it, which I did,” Nick says. “I certainly had the impression that it would be regarded as wear and tear and it wasn’t an issue at all. I wasn’t even concerned about it.”

But a day or two later Nick got an email from Avis, informing him that the company was holding him liable for the damage and repair cost - about R1200.

When he objected, saying there was no way that dent happened while the car was in his possession, he was pointed to the company’s terms and conditions.

“I think it is ludicrous to put the onus on customers to do an in-depth inspection of a vehicle to assess all evident ‘damage’,” Nick told Consumerwatch.

Avis responds 

I took up the case with Avis’ South African chief executive Rainer Gottschick.

Responding, he said the company had a series of stringent pre-rental damage checks in place to ensure all its vehicles were rented out in an “acceptable” condition, and to ensure that they don’t hold the next customer accountable for any pre-existing damage.

The dent template which Nick saw being used was introduced to ensure consistency in identifying damage, he said.

It allows for all dents up to the size of a R2 coin to be regarded as ‘wear and tear’ and anything bigger than that as was Avis calls “chargeable damage”.  

That’s the thing - Nick insists the ding on the roof of the Figo in question was far smaller than the size of a R2 coin - more like a 10c piece, yet he was charged for its repair anyway.

Gottschick conceded that it was “slightly more difficult” for consumers to spot damage on a car’s roof. 

And while ideally there should be enough staff on duty for one to fully inspect cars with customers before they leave, he said, “unfortunately during peak periods it is not always possible to inspect every vehicle”.

So in other words, it is up to the customer to check for damage, which might have been missed - even on the roof.

Anyway, Nick’s case has a happy ending - Gottschick said that “as a good will gesture” Avis had decided to give Nick the benefit of the doubt and reverse the damage charges in full.

And he’s going to be stepping up his pre- drive off inspection routine in future, no doubt.

Advice for the consumer

If you want to avoid being held responsible for damage you didn’t cause - relatively minor things but still fairly expensive, even with a waiver intact - always inspect a rental car both before and after your rental period. Inside and out.

*Record any damage on the paperwork  in the presence of a rental company staff member. 

*Don’t drop the car and run on your return - wait for a staffer to note that there was no damage, in your presence, and sign the form to this effect.

*Pay extra for the super waiver. It will limit your cost, in the case of an accident or theft or annoying little dings, to a few thousand Rand, instead of something like R20 000. Well worth the extra cost considering how common accidents or annoying door dings are. And remember you’re liable to pay whether it was your fault or not.

In Avis’s case one in six cars they hire out gets damaged in some way. So dont’ move without a super waiver. I certainly don’t. 

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