Buyer Beware

That's a motto you might want to keep in mind next time you go shopping for a used car

The sales office of Coconut Palm is a tiny yellow shack located on a small, sun-bleached lot near the intersection of South Dixie Highway and SW 248th Street. During business hours several cars are parked outside the chainlink fence that encloses the lot, all sporting come-ons such as "Reduced" or "Today's Special." An Amoco gas station sits just to the north. A rival lot looms across the street. Dozens of other used-car competitors line the highway, most waving more colorful triangular plastic flags than the Lido deck on a cruise ship. All of them make money, according to Serge Thevenot, Svadbik's former manager.

When Vickie White walked away from Coconut Palm this past October, she took with her (among other things) a copy of the company's credit and collections policy manual. In it Svadbik spells out his corporate philosophy: "Coconut Palm Auto Sales, Inc., has provided a service where low-income to middle-income families can purchase and finance quality transportation. We service the vehicles and assist in the maintenance and repair for the customer at reduced labor rates and part discounts.... We stock only automobiles with excellent mechanical durability that perform exceptionally well even if the customer doesn't perform regular periodic maintenance."

Elisa Williams reports that there's a wide gulf between Svadbik's benign policy and his actual practices. "He always acts like he's doing me a favor by letting me drive this car," she says of her red 1991 Geo Prizm. "I tell him that he's not doing me any favors. I am the one who's helping him."

Williams is an unemployed nursing-home worker and a single mother of two young children. In 1997 she bought a Chevrolet Corsica from Svadbik. "That car had so many problems," she grumbles. "It leaked so bad when it rained that you could take a bath inside if you wanted to. I demanded that he fix it but he never did." When she had only about $1000 left on her account balance, she missed one of her payments. Nearly two weeks later, as yet another payment date approached, she called Coconut Palm to say she would be bringing over $300 to cover both the missed and the current payments. Instead Svadbik repossessed the car. She says just getting the car back cost her approximately $700 in fees. "And that doesn't include the $75 extra he charged me to retrieve the tag," she adds.

The Corsica is now paid off, but Williams isn't through with Svadbik. She had also cosigned a loan so a friend could buy a Geo Prizm from the dealer. After the friend missed a few payments, Williams says, Svadbik warned her if she didn't pay off the Geo, her credit history would be ruined. So Williams assumed payments on the Geo. Although she has paid nearly $5000 on that loan, she still carries a balance of more than $7000.

"So now I'm dishing out $320 bucks a month and all I've got to show for it is a piece-of-ass Geo," she huffs. "I could be paying off a damn Lexus for that price. And he thinks he's doing me a favor? If he's the Christian he says he is, then he is the kind that will blow the gates of Hell wide open."

Kelley Seaman sued Svadbik to get back her Geo. And she was successful. In a pretrial deposition, Svadbik was confronted with the questionable power-of-attorney document. Seaman's lawyer Arnold I. Levy drew attention to the unlikelihood of Svadbik legally notarizing the form at least nine years after it had been allegedly signed.

Before the case went to trial, Svadbik conceded he had wrongfully taken Seaman's car, and returned it to her. He forswore any liens against her and dropped all storage and repair charges. He was also ordered to pay her attorney fees. The Seamans are still seeking more than $15,000 in damages.

"These guys," Wade Seaman chides, referring to John and Anton Svadbik, "usually deal with people who don't speak English and never do anything about it, and they get away with it. That pisses me off."

Lorenzo Vasquez doesn't speak English, but he didn't let Svadbik get away with it. In 1990 he bought an eleven-year-old Ford Mustang from what was then Dove Auto Sales. The car had close to 100,000 miles on it. Vasquez agreed to pay $2000, and left a down payment of almost a quarter of that amount.

According to records obtained by White, the car didn't work out, and Vasquez returned it to Svadbik just two weeks after he had bought it. Svadbik's records show the car was junked one month later. Vasquez's account was credited $100.

And that was the last Vasquez heard from anyone at the dealership -- for eight years. In the meantime he bought a used 1994 Chevrolet pickup truck. In April 1998 John Svadbik sent Vasquez a "final notice" demanding payment of $3812.87. In June 1998 Svadbik took the truck and refused to release it to Vasquez unless he paid at least $1500, a sum Vasquez thought he had no choice but to surrender. But even after that payment, Vasquez was still more than $3000 in debt to Svadbik.

Vazquez sued Svadbik, Svadbik's father, and the various companies the two men co-own. In a settlement prior to mediation, Svadbik conceded he had wrongfully repossessed the truck, paid Vasquez $1250, and retired his debt on the Mustang.

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