My Car Failed Its Emissions Test, Can I Still Sell It?

I’ve got a '99 Alero GLS Coupe. It’s got really low mileage for it’s age, just 85K, and it’s runs like a top. Never had the slightest engine or transmission issue and by all indications it’ll be good for another 30K+. It’s got new tires, brakes and rotors, battery, water pump and a couple year old alternator. All in all, I’ve got quite a big of money into it already and it’s tough to justify scrapping it.

My registration is due at the end of April and I require a new emissions test before I can get one. My car is showing a Service Engine Soon light and posting a ODB code of P0442 which is a small evap leak. Research indicates that this could be a ill fitting gas cap or a small leak in a evap hose, that’s a cheap and easy fix. It also could be a hole in the gas tank or an issue with the evap vent or canister valves, those all could be pricier to fix.

Fixing the car is a tough pill for me to swallow. First off, locating the problem in and of itself could be a time consuming process. Getting the smoke test performed to locate the leak could cost over $100 before a single repair is made and if it’s an issue with an electronic component those parts could end up costing quite a bit more. Aside from the SES light and emissions issue the car has a handful of niggling issues. It’s got a failing wheel speed sensor, a dented rim causing a slow tire leak and a AC compressor clutch that’s on it’s way out. The drivers seat has a busted side bolster making it uncomfortable to sit in and it’s got quite a bit of rust isolated on both sides between the door and rear wheel well. Taken individually none of these problems are major but collectively they make throwing any more money at this thing a royal pain.

So, I’m faced with the choice to either fix the evap issue and keep it on the road and cope with the other issues, sell it as is and buy another cheap used car or go all out and fix everything with the intention of hanging onto the car for another couple years.

The most pressing question is the one stated in the thread title. Any chance of selling this car as-is? If I can’t find a buyer and/or selling it without it being eligible to be registered is impossible what other options do I have for the car? Will a used car dealer want to buy it? Can I donate it? I don’t feel like it’s to the point where it needs to be scrapped.

So, Dopers, mechanics and car flippers, any advice here?

You can sell it as is. Of course, getting a good price, and sometimes finding a buyer at all, can be more difficult with the SES light on.

Get a new gas cap from a dealer. Probably costs about $15, less than it costs to test the cap. Clear the computer’s trouble code memory and cross your fingers. If you’re lucky, that will fix it. If it doesn’t, then at least you know it’s not just the cap.

Before you get your pants in a bunch, tighten the gas cap and take the car to Pep Boys and they’ll reset the CEL for free. Then drive the car and see if the light comes back on. If it does, THEN worry about what to do.

I’ve found a couple random internet comments that mention some type of legal issue with selling a car that can’t pass emissions. They are as unsubstantiated as comments come, but they do reference some supposed state laws. I probably need to do some research on that, and frankly it seems like its a caveat emptor situation but I asked hoping maybe someone else had done this dance before.

Anyways, thanks for the suggestion. I’ll be sure to do that, though finding a dealer who’ll have the part for a discontinued Oldsmobile might be a little trickier and more expensive than you suggest. Hopefully I’m wrong on that count.

Gary, since I’ve got you attention, do you have an insight on the wheel speed sensor? I’ve got a mechanic that I’ve used for years that I generally trust but he’s never been cheap. Over the last 4 years or so I’ve paid him a pretty penny on this car and considering the rust issues he always recommends ditching the thing. Anyways, when I had the brakes done he diagnosed the issue with the WWS. He quoted me a rough estimate of $400 to fix it because it might need a new Electronic Brake Control Module which is a expensive part. On the internet apparently failed WWS Wires are common on Aleros and are a much cheaper fix. Is there any way to tell which repair is more likely and is there any reason why replacing a EBCM would be required if the issue is only the wiring or connector?

Also, is it possible to replace the seat back for a drivers seat without replacing the entire seat? How much does a replacement power drivers seat typically run, ballpark, if I need to swap out the whole thing?

Already past that point. My mechanic cleared the codes for me and the SES light comes on immediately after it’s started. The cap was definitely tight. It might be leaking, but it’s not loose.

I could see a law that requires a licensed car dealer to guarantee it passes the emissions test. In Missouri, licensed dealers are obligated to ensure that cars they sell pass the state safety inspection. I feel confident in saying there’s no law that restricts an individual’s right to sell a car regardless of condition.

The gas cap almost certainly fits a range of years and models, and almost certainly is still available [ETA: from any GM dealer]. I’m pretty sure it’s not more than $25. It’s always possible to get an aftermarket cap, and likely it will work, but on some cars there are cases where the dealer part works better than the aftermarket one.

The wheel sensor can be tested directly. An oscilloscope is most helpful for this. If the sensor doesn’t generate the proper signal pattern, replacement is called for.

Wiring between the sensor and control unit can be tested directly for breaks with an ohmmeter, and scope tested for poor connection/corrosion if the wheel sensor is known to be good.

Control units cannot be tested directly. If a good sensor signal is consistently observed at the harness connector to the ECBM, and the sensor trouble code is being set, then ECBM replacement is called for by process of elimination. Dealerships have the advantage of testing control units by substituting known good units from stock (which is actually the official test procedure in some cases). Often good used units are available from salvage yards.

I think you’ll find the seat is only provided as a unit. Good used ones might be available. I have no real idea of the cost, but I would guess a few hundred.

Makes sense, that’s kinda what my gut told me as well.

I’ll track down a GM dealer and take it in and get the part. While I’m there I’ll see if I can get an estimate on the other issues from the dealer and compare their diagnosis and price estimates to my mechanic. Am I right in guessing that the gas cap fix is probably a slim possibility? A visual inspection by this untrained eye doesn’t reveal any issues with the cap, it’s in pretty damn good shape frankly.

You’ve got me questioning my memory of what my mechanic said. I was visualizing the control module as being the part on the wheel, but that’s probably the sensor itself. Are there 4 control modules on each wheel or is there one central one? I suspect my mechanic meant that he would replace the wheel sensor, not the control module. Would that be a $200+ part?

Are the servos that control the movement of the power seat part of the seat itself or are those a distinct part? I suspect the power seat would be a heck of a lot more expensive than just the basic seat back and base.

You could try to sell your car to someone in a state that doesn’t do emissions testing. Iowa and Kentucky, for example border Illinois and don’t have emissions tests.

Sell it in Michigan. Specifically, sell it in Ann Arbor, where there is always a good market for older but still functional cars. There’s no emissions testing OR roadworthiness inspection: If it rolls, its registered.

Not necessarily slim, but don’t get your hopes too high. The thing is, as cheap as cap replacement is, it makes sense to do that first, even before any further testing. Visual inspection won’t tell whether the cap holds vacuum properly, as that’s a function of components within the cap that are not visible.

There is one control module (EBCM) on the vehicle. There are four wheel speed sensors on the vehicle, one per wheel. It appears that the sensors are part of the wheel hub & bearing assembly (i.e., not serviced separately), which is in the price area you’ve mentioned. Module replacement would be closer to 1000.

So, the suspect wheel sensor should be scope-tested – it shouldn’t be hard to determine that either it generates a good signal or it doesn’t. The wiring harness between the sensor and the module should be tested (or just replaced – they aren’t terribly expensive) as it’s a common failure item, even availabe in the aftermarket. While nothing’s impossible, module failure is rather rare.

I would expect the power components to be separate from the seat proper when bought new from a dealer. However, the seat may not still be available new, and if it is it’s likely quite expensive. A would expect a used seat to be offered as a complete assembly with all the power components. If it’s not, those components can be transferred easily enough.

In California, when you sell a car it has to have passed a smog test within the last 90 days or they won’t register it. But that’s probably one of those California-only things.

I’m sure a number of states have similar requirements. Missouri requires a safety inspection performed within the last 60 days as part of registration. But this is REGISTRATION. It’s a whole different animal from SELLING. An individual can sell (damn near) anything, and a buyer can buy (damn near) anything.

Now, if the item sold is a car, and the buyer wants to register it (=get a license plate, legally drive it on public roads), as opposed to simply own it, then it will have to pass whatever procedures the state dictates for that.

Right, but if you want to sell it as an automobile you need to have a current smog check. In most states you can sell a car that won’t pass smog and the new owner is just SOL if they can’t get it to pass before the smog is due again. In California, if the car won’t pass, you can only sell it as salvage (or to someone in another state).

I suppose that’s a bit of a niggling distinction because you could sell a car as salvage and then the buyer could fix it and have it reinspected and get it back on the road with a salvage title. But in practice, that’s such a hassle, and so much value is lost with the salvage title, that cars that won’t pass smog are essentially unsellable in California except as scrap.

Thinking through things I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that I’ll be fixing the EVAP issue so long as it’s not $400+. Whether I keep the car, or buy a 2003 Grand Cherokee that my friend is selling, is a decision I’m not sure of yet. Even if I do decide to get the new car it seems like it’ll be worth the investment to sell this car easier. I’m guessing I’ll be able to get an extra $500 on the asking price simply by fixing this issue and that will pay for the repairs.

I see what you mean now, that is different from my experience. I imagine you’re right about it being a California-only thing.

Called the Chevy dealer down the block. They have the gas cap in stock, $26. Hopefully they’ll reset the trouble code for free and I can test this out. If it doesn’t solve the issue I hope I can return the part.

That is not exactly true. I live in California and have sold non running/non smog-passing cars. Nothing prevents a car that does not pass smog from being sold. The new owner will not be able to register it until it does pass smog, but as long the buyer is aware it does not run/pass smog, he can buy it.

Was it a pre-1975 or diesel or some other exempt vehicle? Granted I’ve only sold one car in California (for an aging relative-- I came down for the week and we priced it to sell, but I had no idea what a hassle it was going to be!) and the DMV told me they wouldn’t even do a title transfer without a current smog inspection. This page seems to concur:

Maybe there’s some sneaky way to sell a car there as salvage without branding it with a salvage title, but at least in the states I’ve more actively wheeled-n-dealed in if you sell a car for parts or to the scrap yard, the title gets voided instead of transferred and if the car gets put back on the road it’s a salvage vehicle with a new title.

Well, strictly speaking, buying a car and getting it registered are two different things. Although I am required to provide a smog cert if I sell you a car, the DMV is not going to come after me to get it because I no longer have any interest in the vehicle. They are going to ask you for it when you try to register it, and if you don’t have it, they won’t allow you to register it in your name.

Normally if you buy a car, it is with the expectation that you will be able to register it, and the inability to do so would be grounds for getting your money back. But if the bill of sale says ‘not running’ or ‘won’t pass smog’, then it would seem to me you are assuming the responsibility of doing whatever work is necessary to get the car back on the road.

When I sell a car, I submit the Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability form, which does not require a smog certificate.

Everything I have said here is not so much a legal argument as much as the way things actually seem to work in my experience, and it has been many years since I sold a car that was not running. YMMV.

Well, I’ve spent the day doing some testing and so far so good. Bought the new gas cap at the dealer and installed it. The dealer was too backed up to clear the codes, so I drove up to my mechanic and had him do it and got some info on where to go from here.

So far I’ve driven the car for about 30 minutes, maybe 10 miles of city traffic, and the SES light has stayed off with the new cap. If I remember last autumn’s discussion with my mechanic this is an improvement from when he last looked at it, I think he said the SES returned almost immediately after he cleared it then. Maybe I’ll luck out with the cheap repair.

I called the local Autozone and Pep Boys and they have generic gas caps for around $10, but I paid almost $30 for the stupid AC Delco one. Considering the potential headache involved I’m sticking with the OEM part but that’s an annoying up-charge. Interesting that I asked both Pep Boys and Autozone if they had OEM parts and they said yes, then when I asked if they were AC Delco they said no. Seems they have a creative definition of OEM.

After speaking to my mechanic he explained that I’ll need to log at least 6 hours of drive time before I can get it retested by the emissions facility and that I’ll have to stop back in before doing so so that he can ensure the monitors are all reset or something. Glad I asked. Gonna have to get it out on the highway this weekend and log some time so I can get this squared away before the end of next week.

Interestingly, while at the dealer I asked about parts prices for the other issues I have. Apparently the WSS is part of the hub assembly so I’ll need to replace that entire thing and the dealer price on it was $360. Looking at my records I had the RF wheel and bearing assembly replaced a year ago any my mechanic only charged me $169 for what was probably a generic part. I think this issue is with with the LF and in November he noted some wetness on the LF brake pad indicating a minor leakage so maybe that’s affecting the WSS or bearing. All in all that problem is minor and intermittent. Probably won’t be fixing it any time soon.

I also checked out the price on the seat parts and was pleasantly surprised to see that the parts on the seat are all sold individually. I can get a replacement rear pad for the drivers seat for $156 from the dealer. Probably quite a bit cheaper in generic or online. Wonder if I can replace that myself, it makes the prospect of keeping and fixing up the car more appealing if these issues are fixable cheaply and would make it more appealing to a buyer.