How Do You Protect Yourself From Unfair Charges for Rental Car Damage That You Didn't Cause
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How Do You Protect Yourself From Unfair Charges for Rental Car Damage That You Didn't Cause

You need to take appropriate precautions to avoid being charged for damage that occurred before or after you drove a rental car

June 18, 2021

You sign the rental car agreement, get the car keys, and drive off only to notice that there was some preexisting damage you didn't see earlier. Will you be charged for that damage when you return the car? Even if you're on your toes and this situation doesn't apply to you, what happens if the rental car gets damaged after you drop it off but before the rental company performs a final inspection?

you're held liable for damage, even if out of your control

Rental car agencies will hold you liable for anything that happens to the car while you are renting it, even if the damage is outside your control. You can even be charged for damages that occur after you drop off the vehicle, such as if you use an overnight drop or if an employee isn't available to check you in. The cost of doing business has gone up, so companies are being aggressive about recouping their costs. If you can't prove that you didn't do the damage, it's usually on you.

problem is greater with car-sharing services

Car-sharing services are particularly problematic for hitting renters with damage fees. No one is inspecting these vehicles before or after you use them, so the companies rely on the next user to report any damage. The problem comes when the driver after you damages the car and then lies about it, saying instead that it was damaged when picked up, or if the car is damaged after you park it but before the next driver arrives.

inspect the vehicle before and after

We all want to take someone's word, but before you sign that agreement or accept the vehicle, you should inspect it thoroughly. Walk around the car taking note of any scratches, dings, and dents. Does the paint appear faded? Look inside the car and note any strange smells, stains, or tears. Make sure this damage, and all damage, gets noted on the rental agreement before you sign it. You'll also want to do this when you return the car. But make sure the agreement notes that there are no additional damages. You always want written confirmation. And never ever feel rushed to sign the paperwork or hurry through your own inspection. When rental car companies bill you for damage, they use this information to show it was caused by you, even if it wasn't. If you don't note the damage, it's up to you to prove you didn't do it.

Being Broad is better than being very detailed

Some rental car agencies have their staff note damages before you drive off. Others have you note the damage, which is then signed off by the staff. Just remember that the more specific you get with the damage description, the worse it can be for you. For example, if it's dark and you are noting some scuffs on the bumper, you might write down "red paint scuffs." But if the scuffs are a different color, such as brown or even black, you could be setting yourself up to pay for those damages later. If you note three scratches and there are really four scratches, you could end up paying. So keep it as broad as possible while still noting the damage factually.

Don't be afraid to use other broad language to note damage covering a wider area, such as a lot of swirl marks, fine scratches, chips, etc that cover an entire door or even the entire car. Consider writing something like "numerous scratches on driver door" or "many scratches, chips, dings on entire car."

Don't forget non-painted parts

Most people are too focused on the paint to notice the other parts of the car that could have damage, especially the wheels and tires. Take note of the wheels and check for damaged rims or loose hubcaps. Inspect the tires for any unusual signs of wear, obvious nails, or even missing chunks of rubber. Look at the glass and headlights and note any chips, cracks or scratches. Does it smell like any fluid is leaking? Is there any obvious sign of damage or a leak under the hood? Did you check inside the trunk? Does everything operate?

You Won't Find everything

Even if you are a professional inspector with special equipment, you're not going to find every minute piece of damage. And you're not going to notice things that are wrong with the car that can only be spotted once you get in and go. It's important, however, that you report any significant new damage or malfunctions as soon as you find them. If one of the side mirrors, for examples, vibrates or shakes excessively while driving, call in to document it with the rental car company and simultaneously document it yourself with a video showing the issue and the mileage. If you only just drove away, go back and report it, especially if it's something that could affect your comfort or safety, such as a malfunctioning air conditioner, a bad vibration in the steering, or even that shaky mirror we just mentioned.

use your smartphone

Who doesn't have a smartphone these days? Take out yours and record the condition of the vehicle before and after you rent it. Get a close-up of the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and record the mileage and fuel level reading. Do you notice any strange smells? Say so clearly on the video. Don't be afraid to say that the car smells like cigarettes or that the car is dirty. That's your documentation in case someone else tries to pin it on you.

Make sure the video is one complete video and not broken into segments. If the video is in multiple pieces, the company can claim that the parts that don't show the vehicle mileage or VIN were recorded at a different time or with a different vehicle. Check with the manufacturer of your Creating this recording showing the damages before you drive off and lack of additional damages when you drop it off can help protect you later. This is especially helpful if you have to drop off the vehicle after hours and no one is available to walk around it with you. It can also help save you from unexpected fuel refilling costs if the company tries to say you returned it with insufficient fuel.

Don't admit possible fault

If you are returning a car and there's some new damage or damage that went unseen previously, resist the temptation to say that it's possible that you caused it. Doing so could backfire on you when the company assesses you for the damages, using your statements as an admission.

The same goes for mechanical issues, such as if the vehicle overheats and suffers engine damage. The staff may ask if you were speeding, even just a little, or driving spiritedly, don't admit anything. Even if you were going just a few over the speed limit or you weren't driving like grandma, the car shouldn't experience a failure like that. But admitting anything that could have remotely contributed to the problem can leave the company with an option to collect damages from you. The same goes if they ask if there were any warning signs of impending problems, ones that may not have meant much at the time but ones they can use to bill you. If you want to say something, you can just say you were operating the vehicle normally when it suffered an unexpected or unforeseen mechanical issue.

Protecting yourself from other damage, such as collision

Most people run into unexpected expenses from unfair damage charges for chips, dings, dents, odors and spills. But what happens if damage occurs while you are renting it? In nearly every case, the damage becomes your responsibility and you could be on the hook for the costs, even if the other driver is at fault and pays for the repairs. You may still get billed for administration fees, loss of use and loss of value.

If you are worried about these issues, you may want to consider supplemental insurance or damage waivers from the rental car agency. Some credit card companies offer free rental car insurance if you use the card to pay for the rental in full.