Buying a car, whether it’s new or used, can be stressful. You’re spending thousands of dollars on something you hope will last for years. At least until you’re ready to buy another one. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Circumstances in life aren’t always forgiving. You could end up with a lemon.
Lemons — those vehicles that spend more time in the shop than they do on the road — are more common than you think. The good news is that you can prepare and protect yourself from lemons. Start by learning what’s classified as a lemon. Then read up on the associated laws, and you’ll know what to do if you are unlucky enough to find yourself owning a lemon. This very article is an excellent place to start.
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You get some bonus points if you’re reading this before you purchase a vehicle. Good job being prepared for anything! As for those of you scrolling down to the “action” section at the end of this piece, there’s still hope. Better late than never! Hopefully you can still get some restitution for that lemon in your driveway.
What Makes a Car a “Lemon”?
Generally speaking, the term “lemon” refers to “recently purchased or leased vehicles with defects that the manufacturer or authorized dealership cannot correct despite a reasonable opportunity.” In laymen’s terms, a “lemon” is a vehicle with significant defects that cannot be resolved. These defects can describe a number of potential issues. They range from mechanical and electrical, to merely cosmetic. We’ll get into the specifics of these defects in a bit.
As you might imagine, there are set standards for claiming a car is a lemon. There are guidelines about receiving appropriate compensation.
“In most states,” notes ExpertLaw.com, “three or four repair attempts are required before lemon laws are triggered.”
It’s important to note that the claim you’ll be submitting goes to the manufacturer, not the dealership. The place you purchased your car from has nothing to do with manufacturer defects. Beyond requiring effort on the part of the automaker, you’ll want to keep all service documentation. It goes a long way in demonstrating how a vehicle may be deemed a lemon. The stronger your argument against the viability of the vehicle, the larger your chances in receiving compensation.
A word of caution, though. Often when lemon law cases are filed and won, the manufacturer is required to buy back the vehicle from the purchaser or replace it with another new vehicle. But what happens to the vehicle now deemed a “lemon”?
Well, Road & Track advises that less than a third of the 50 states “require any form of title branding when a vehicle is repurchased under a state’s lemon laws.” Even in states that do require this branding typically use phrases like “Manufacturer Repurchase.” So unless you know what you’re looking for on documents like a CarFax, you could purchase a “fixed” lemon without even realizing it.
Placing The Onus On The Manufacturer
Essentially, lemon laws force car makers to take responsibility for any substandard vehicles that roll off their line. They typically require that a manufacturer repurchase any vehicle that has significant defects. These are defects that cannot be repaired within a reasonable amount of time.
Lemon laws consider the nature of the problem, the number of days that the vehicle is unavailable to the consumer, and the number of repair attempts that have been made by the owner. If repairs cannot be completed within the total number of days described in the state or provincial statute, the car is declared a lemon. The manufacturer is obligated to buy back the defective vehicle. It’s some extra paperwork, but you’re essentially getting a refund.
You should note that the car dealership where you purchased the lemon is NOT obligated to buy back the vehicle. The dealership does not provide any warranty on the vehicle. Rather, the manufacturer does. The responsibility to buy back the defective vehicle rests with the manufacturer, not the dealer.
Going Beyond The Warranty
The obligation to repurchase a lemon goes beyond the scope of a typical vehicle warranty. Most warranties require a manufacturer to repair a vehicle (at no cost to you) for a certain period. Most warranties cover the first three years a vehicle is owned or the first 60,000 miles driven — whichever comes first.
However, warranties do not include specified time periods for the completion of repairs. They also don’t include buy-back provisions if the repair cannot be completed within a set time period. You should not try and go through the standard warranty coverage to have your lemon repurchased by the manufacturer. Instead, use lemon laws as your last resort.
If the manufacturer of your new car has tried (and failed) to fix a major issue multiple times, it might be time to go beyond the warranty. This is where lemon laws come into play. You will probably encounter some resistance, since no company wants to give back a sale. Especially not one that was worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Lemon Laws: New Cars
Most of the lemon laws in existence cover new cars. After all, you’re buying a brand new car because you want something with zero miles and zero history of repairs or failures. However, just like anything new off the shelves, there can be defects present. That’s where the lemon laws come in.
AutoSafety.org offers a listing of the lemon laws by state. It’s a great place to start. However, one of the best ways to take precautions against purchasing a lemon is to take time with the new car before you even buy it. Take note of any imperfections you might see. There are some issues you’d have to have a trained eye in order to notice. However, putting the car through its paces during multiple test drives should help to stave off any problems before you sign the paperwork.
If you do end up experiencing problems with your new car after driving off the lot, it’s best to return to that same dealership for any follow-up.
“If you take it to another mechanic,” cautions ARAG Legal, “the manufacturer can’t be held responsible for the work.” Keep any and all documentation you receive as well, because it shows reasonable attempts on the part of the dealership to resolve those issues.
Lemon Laws: Used Cars
When it comes to used cars, the lemon laws are a bit more complicated. Used cars have a history, a past that may or may not have contributed to the problems the vehicle is experiencing. That’s why dealerships market them “as-is.” Vehicles classified as “Certified Pre-Owned” carry a bit more warranty coverage with them. However, that’s not a guarantee against lemons either.
According to ExpertLaw.com, only six states have passed lemon laws which apply to used vehicles. They are Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York. If you are buying a vehicle in any other state than these sic, check out the above link for individual state listings. It’s important to know your rights before you begin the purchase process, in case you do end up with a lemon.
How to Turn Those Lemons into Lemonade (Sugar Optional)
If you’re reading this article in desperation, hoping there’s some way you can get rid of that lemon sitting in the garage, take a breath. Did you know that there are approximately 150,000 cars each year that are deemed lemons? You’re not alone.
One of the first things you can do to act against a lemon is to seek out a dispute resolution program, such as the no-cost one offered by the Better Business Bureau. Known as the BBB Auto Line, the “program will guide you each step of the way, including collecting documentation, negotiating a possible settlement, and navigating the arbitration process.” Rather than going out and hiring a pricey lawyer, you can easily refer to this resource. It will improve your chances of receiving proper compensation.
Researching lemon laws, as you are doing right now, is another great way to know your rights. The website LemonLawExperts offers a great FAQ list you can refer to. Since certain defects may not inhibit the operation of the vehicle or be life-threatening necessarily, you may be told that your lemon is still “good enough.” Don’t accept that answer. There is an unspoken contract between the consumer and the manufacturer, ingrained in the sale. You paid good money for a product and you should expect it to perform as advertised.
Exceptions To The Rules
As with most things, lemon laws are not completely cut and dry. Some lemon laws cover only certain types of vehicles. Others will cover vehicles purchased for personal use but not for business use. Some laws even exclude vehicles under a certain amount of weight. Some lemon laws apply only to vehicles that are purchased brand new, excluding second hand cars. However, there can be exception for “certified used” cars too.
It’s important that you understand the laws where you live. Every jurisdiction has their lemon laws written slightly different. Canadians should also be aware of the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan (CAMVAP). This is a dispute resolution program that exists to help Canadian consumers. If you encounter excessive problems with the assembly of their vehicle or with how the manufacturer implements its warranty coverage, you can engage CAMVAP. The process typically takes less than 70 days.
It provides third-party arbitration between you and the vehicle manufacturer. You can represent yourself in this process if you want, but it’s also possible to bring a lawyer. An inspection of the vehicle is usually part of any arbitration hearing. Arbitrators can order the manufacturer to buy back the vehicle, repair it at the manufacturer’s expense, reimburse you for repairs that have already been completed, or pay for other out-of-pocket expenses you’ve incurred, like towing, diagnostic testing, or rental cars.
Do Your Research
For the select few, purchasing a car is no different than selecting your next meal from a restaurant menu. However, for the rest of us, there’s a bit more that goes into the process than simply picking out colors and materials. With cars, like any other large purchase you make, the best way to prepare yourself is to research. The more you know about what you’re getting into, the more informed your decision will be. So skip the lemons and go for the diamond in the rough instead.