The Insider: Thanks for the keys to the rental car — now what?

Editor’s Note: This is part four of our new “Insider” series on car rentals. Here’s the first installment, the second one and the third one. By the way, if you see something I’ve missed in this post, please tell me in the comments or email me.

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You’re standing in front of your rental car. Now what?

If you said, “Load your luggage and drive away,” then you need to keep reading.

Many car-rental problems can be avoided by taking a few precautionary steps.

Do you know how to operate the car?
Car rental companies are now offering everything from electric vehicles to hybrids to Smart Cars (microcars), and they don’t operate the same way the standard gas-operated cars do. (Don’t believe me? Try starting a Toyota Prius without first reading the manual. Go on. I’ll wait.) This is the time to ask. Car rental employees are trained to help you get acquainted with your car. Note: This is especially important if you’re switching from a right-hand to left-hand drive vehicle, where many of the switches are reversed. At the very least, check your glove compartment to make sure the manual is there. You’ll be glad you did.

Are you ready for your close-up?
Every rental car must be photographed or videotaped by you before you leave. I’m not joking. Most car rental companies do not adequately document the condition of your vehicle, and only a small fraction take photos of your car before you rent it. Whip out your digital camera or cameraphone, and let’s get to work.

At a bare minimum, you need shots of the front, back and sides of the car. I would recommend two close-up shots of each side, the front and rear windshield, the front and rear of the car and the roof. Don’t forget the interior: The dashboard, front seats, back seats and trunk. If you want to be extra careful, take snapshots of the wheels and under the two bumpers. Believe it or not, motorists have been billed for damage that’s unseen by the naked eye at the time of the rental. You can’t be too careful.

Note: If you’re in a garage with low light, drive the car somewhere in the parking area that’s well-lighted to conduct your visual inspection. Do not leave without taking these pictures. Repeat: Do not leave.

It is impossible to over-photograph or videotape the car. By the way, if you are videotaping, hold the camera steady and make sure it’s set to the highest resolution. And if you’re shooting still images, and you have the option to time-stamp the photos, make sure that’s activated on your camera.

Download these images to your PC and then upload them into the cloud for safe keeping. How long should you keep these photos? At least six months after your rental. That’s the longest I’ve seen a car rental company wait to file a damage claim. After that, feel free to delete these files.

Your car rental company should furnish you with a form where you can will be able to note the condition of the vehicle. The form allows you to identify any problems on a diagram of a car. Record any pre-existing damage on this form and make sure a car rental employee signs it. Don’t under any circumstances leave without a copy of the signed form.

What if you see a ding, dent or crack?
If you spot a scratch or dent while you’re photographing the vehicle, tell an attendant. You will either need to document the damage in writing or ask for a different vehicle. Don’t let anyone tell you that a dent or scratch “the size of a golfball or smaller” doesn’t count. Everything counts. My personal advice is that if the car isn’t clean and free of large dents, you need to ask for another one. Not because you’re being picky, but because you could be held accountable for those dents later on. Also, scratches and other imperfections are difficult to see when the car isn’t clean. If you need to take a flawed vehicle, be extra vigilant about noting the damage on your form. And again, make sure an employee signs off on it.

Other reasons to reject your rental:

• It’s not the car you reserved.
• It appears unsafe to drive (balding tires, lights don’t work).
• Registration is expired, or will expire during your rental (don’t forget to check).
• High mileage (over 50,000 miles).
• Chipped windshield. You should have zero tolerance for anything irregular on the front or back windshield.
• Wrong color. (I’m kidding.)

How about the sign-off?
Before you leave the airport car rental lot, you’ll pass through a checkpoint where your rental agreement and driver’s license will be checked by an employee. So don’t put those away just yet (I usually leave them on the seat next to me, for easy access.) This last check is yet another opportunity to make sure your car is what it should be. Don’t be shy about getting out of the car, walking around it and mentioning something to the employee if something looks wrong. Remember, this is your last chance.

(These procedures will vary if you’re renting from a non-airport location. For example, there won’t be a gate and pick-ups and returns — which I’ll cover later — may be handled differently. But the same principles apply: make sure you photograph your vehicle, document any damage, and know how to operate it.)

Tomorrow we’ll talk about damage claims.

(Photo: Mark Sardella/Flickr)

19 thoughts on “The Insider: Thanks for the keys to the rental car — now what?

  1. Over 30,000 miles is “high miles”?  You gotta be kidding me.  As the discounts from the manufactures faded several years ago, they are holding on to cars longer and longer.  I don’t see anything wrong with renting a car with 50k or more on the clock.

    1. They still give fleet sale discounts, but maybe they’re not as big as they used to be.  Back then they’d keep a car in the rental fleet for a couple of years and then sell them.

      I remember when the former rental car sales pitch was that you got a car that was meticulously maintained.  They didn’t mention that hundreds of people had driven a particular vehicle and that quite a few didn’t care about what they did to it.

      1. Jeff Foxworthy did a great bit about used rental cars. 

        “Buying a used rental car is like going to a house of ill-repute looking for a wife”.

    2. I don’t know of any major company that would keep a car anywhere near 50K on the odometer.  And I would never rent one that old – you’re just asking for a break down or some other issue.  Chris was right on there.

      1. Depends on the car; I’ve seen major chains dole out high-mile minivans.  I see other cars now and then that are certainly over 30k.

        In any case, cars are much better than they used to be; if it was your own car, you’d probably consider it to be an piece of junk if it stranded you any time below 75k, and you probably wouldn’t be thrilled if it needed any major work outside of scheduled maint. before 100k.

        I’d say there isn’t much more risk of a critical breakdown at 50k than there is at 20k; by 20k, all the “teething” problems are long gone, and all the car’s major systems should still be functioning just fine as long as the maintenance and obvious wear items are kept up well past 50k.

      2. All depends.  Some cars don’t have that much residual value left, so I guess the rental companies just keep them until they have to sell them.

        The M.O. used to be keeping it until maybe under 25,000 miles, then selling it off before the residual value dropped like a rock.  That was made easier by the generous fleet sales.  The Ford Taurus used to be the #1 car sold in the US because there were so many bought by Hertz in addition to those sold to the general public.Then there’s the off-price places like Rent-A-Wreck.

        I guess we can thank the late Warren Avis for bringing the concept of late model cars for rent, as well as airport locations.  Before he came up with the idea of buying via new car fleet sales, car rentals were almost always bought by the rental agencies as used cars where they might not care so much if they get damaged.  New cars in rental fleets gave the automakers a platform to try and impress potential buyers, and the rental agencies could sell them off while they still had decent value, and continuously buy new ones as new models came out.

    3. The following mentions that the Big 3 automakers are still producing a sizable number of cars for fleet sales:

      However, the king of all fleet sale cars was the Ford Crown Victoria, which used to be the most ubiquitous taxi cab on the road, as well as the car of choice for law enforcement.  It just got discontinued.  I’m not sure how many Crown Victoria Police Interceptors there are in North America.  Almost every law enforcement agency from local police to the National Park Service use them.

      Every time I saw one in my rear view mirror, I kept on worrying that it might be an unmarked or barely marked police car.  The California Highway Patrol has several in all white without external police antennas.  To comply with state law that says CHP must use marked police vehicles, they just put their logo on the side and the back and don’t use the police front bumper.  If I see a white Crown Vic in my mirror, I can’t tell if it’s CHP or some civilian car.

  2. You also need to fill out the forms most agencies provide on which you mark all the dings on the car, have the rental company employee sign it, and keep a copy.  We mark every tiny scratch no matter how questionable. The photographs are good but hard to prove date taken (still a good idea – though if something is big enough to photo I’d probably ask for a different car). 

    1. I often rent and return to a different location.  Rather than try to figure out how to turn on the time stamping I simply be sure to get something in the background to identify the location on a couple of the photos.  Even signs on poles work.

  3. Good points – only side note is that in some locations it’s standard to have rental cars with damage.  For example, in rural Alaska it’s pretty common to have cars/trucks with torn seats, cracked windshields, stuff falling off… I still take pictures and ask for the damage to be noted but asking for another vehicle doesn’t always mean you’re going to get something better.  Assuming there IS another vehicle around.  I usually only push the issue if I think I’ll risk life and limb driving the car/truck.  All that said, even when I’m traveling outside of Alaska, the one thing I ALWAYS do – in addition to what you mention above – is also take a picture of the fuel gauge. 

  4. There are some interesting vehicles out there.  If you want to use cruise control, every vehicle has a different set of controls.  It wasn’t a rental car, but when I took a driver training class, the instructor had a mid-80s Ford Escort.  The horn wasn’t mounted on the steering wheel, but was activated by pressing down on the turn signal stalk.  I remember when my instructor was trying to honk at some idiots cutting me off, he reached all the way and pressed it in.

  5. I had rented twice this past year (2011), and both times I took pics of the vehicle (close ups of damage or having my wife point a finger at the damage).  My wife thought I was over doing it with the pics.  I explained to her about all the horror stories I have read in your column and I was just being cautious (protecting myself & her).  Not sure if she bought into my explanation or not, but I am sure she will see my reasoning if I ever get hit up with a repair bill.  I can probably not worry about the 1st rental (it was back in May), but the 2nd rental was just a couple of weeks ago. In addition, the 1st rental was at a small regional airport. No inspection going or coming. The 2nd rental was at SFO airport. I was quite surprised that there was no inspection there, either! At least I have pics.

  6. We just recently rented a minivan that smelled like something or someone had died in it!  It was obvious that the rental car company had shampooed or Febreezed it right before they gave it to us — so we optimistically assumed that the smell would go away when the carpeting and upholstery dried.  It did not!  For a week, the six of us endured the nearly unbearable putrid smell every time we got into the car.  We had six air fresheners in the van — and they really did not help.  This is the sort of problem that you have to make sure gets written up by the agent, since it can’t be documented in photos.  (We asked to exchange the van and were told by the rental agency that they didn’t have another minivan.  Wouldn’t you have thought they could have brought one in from a nearby city????)

  7. I recently (December’ 2011) had come with a voucher from AutoEurope to rent from Hertz in Brussels Intl. Airport. It was a rather rare (“P diesel”) group.

    First, they pushed me an old Nissan with 52000km (38.000 miles) on it. It had scratches, most of them notices, but one wasn’t. I had to climb back to the office and ask them to mark the new damage, which they promptly did.

    Then, after I was driving the car for like 40 miles, I was sure it was steering to left, and some wheel somewhere was unbalanced (vibrations as specific speeds). I returned to the airport, and asked to be given a new car. My true excuse/argument: I was going to drive 2 weeks more than 3000 miles to rather remote areas, and a breakdown would be as bad for me as for them (towing the car etc). They upgraded me and gave me a brand new car.

    Rented in Montreal from Enterprise in Winter, 2 miles or less & ! get a blowout. Could not get any help from Enterprise called AAA & technician said the car should not have been rented out with out good snow tires. The tires on the car? Bald & regular tires.
    Called Enterprise Help 3 times & got nowhere. NEVER AGAINfrom them or their other companies.

  9. I rented a Prius in Norway and it was a disaster.  For one thing you never know when the thing was actually running and then the GPS actually conflicted with the electronics of the car and turned the car off.  It took me two days to realize the vehicle did not have cruise control.
    Also when you inspect the car, check to see that there is a spare in the truck.  I was told that renters have returned the car without the spare after having sold it.  One renter actually switched out the motor of a Hemi for a smaller Hemi. Now that takes skill
    For the dings on the form, you should always note there are dings regardless of how small they are. 

  10. I always take multiple pics of the vehicle, inside & out, but to preclude any issue on the date, I put a newspaper with that days date clearly visible in some of the pics.

    I have never had any agency try to get me for any damage since I also make sure the rental person is there when I take the pics & have him sign the form where I note even the slightest smudge in the polish.

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