My Car is a Lemon: Now What?

  • by: Patrick Peterson
  • August 27, 2019

You saved and planned for months. You spent countless hours of exhaustive online and on-site research at dealerships all over town and finally found the car of your dreams. Those first few days were like driving on cloud nine, with the wind in your hair and not a care in the world. You’d even go as far as to say buying that car was the most wonderful experience of the year.

Until it wasn’t. On the third day, that new car revealed its true colors, and they were all yellow—the color of lemons. Instead of a monologue of platitudes for your new wheels; you had a laundry list of malfunctioning parts and sputters under the hood. You bought a lemon in the shape of a car. Now, what do you do?

lemon car

What is a Lemon Car?

If we’re not referring to the oval-shaped, tart fruit, a “lemon” is a term commonly used to describe vehicles (cars, trucks, RVs, motorcycles) that are operational duds. The term originated in the 19th century in general reference to unpleasant people or things and later evolved as a catch-all for anything that doesn’t work properly.

When thousands of car owners reported purchases of failed products, a lemon law was enacted covering motorized vehicles in all 50 states, and today from a legal point of view, “lemons” refer to cars that fail to work properly following a specific period of time after the sale.  

What does it take to be known as a lemon? What kind of qualifications must be met for a once-stalwart vehicle to tumble to such a state? Technically speaking, a lemon is a vehicle with repeated, unfixable problems. Astonishingly, roughly 150,000 cars every year (1% of new cars sold) meet this dubious requirement. If your car is included in that statistic, it’s important to understand your potential to recover a refund or replacement vehicle. Legal-speak for a lemon looks like this:

Substantial Defect

A lemon‘s “substantial defect” is a recurring issue covered by a used car warranty that impairs the vehicle’s use, value, or operational safety. This includes problems such as faulty brakes or failed steering, while minor nuisances like a loose door handle or finicky temperature fan control are not considered substantial.

The defect must occur within a specific time period or number of miles to qualify and cannot be the result of intentional acts or general abuse. However, there is a fine legal line between “minor” and “substantial,” and this can create challenging settlement scenarios. A terrible smell, for example, or failed paint job don’t appear substantial at first glance but soon become so.

Reasonable Repair Attempts

Vehicle owners must make a reasonable number of attempts through the dealer to repair a problem before the car will officially be declared a lemon. In most situations, at least one of the following criteria must be met regarding state law standards:

●    If the defect is not of a serious nature, it must remain unrepaired after three to four attempts.
●    If the defect is of serious nature, the issue must remain after one repair attempt.
●    If the vehicle is in the shop for an extended period to repair warranty defects, it can meet the standards of a lemon. Extended time is typically 30 days.

How does a Car Qualify for Lemon Law?

Lemon laws cover vehicles that require recurring repairs, typically to systems of the vehicle that are essential to its use and life-threatening if not addressed (think engine, transmission or brakes).
The bad news is that insurance companies don’t have a comparable program, and it’s not up to them to save the financial day for you. On a brighter note, insurance payments made on the lemon can potentially be refunded during settlement negotiations. But remember, you ultimately want to return to where you were in life prior to the purchase; this means any additional expense or insurance payments should be refunded.

lemon car laws

What to Do With a Lemon Car?

When the day comes, and you realize you bought a lemon, don’t wait to take action. Federal law allows the manufacturer three to four attempts (or sometimes less) in a 12-month period to resolve the issue. If not resolved in a specific time period, you can file a lemon law complaint.
Naturally, holding on to all applicable paperwork such as invoices, work orders, and repair estimates related to issues helps immensely when processing a complaint. Accurate records are critical to presenting maintenance activity in a settlement and also go a long way in boosting resale value.

Another important step during the specified repair time is that you provide written request to the manufacturer to complete repairs, every time they do them. This may very well become a solid base for a future lawsuit, so this might be a good time to bring in an attorney. You should also keep records of repair frequency and always try to get a signature from the manufacturer.

Should I Hire a Lemon Law Attorney?

Some scenarios will greatly benefit from the expertise and presence of an attorney well-versed in lemon laws. They are often able to secure expert witnesses to help support your case and will be familiar with the nuances and details specific to your state. As a bonus, some attorneys take cases like these on a contingency basis that requires the manufacturer to cover your legal fees.

How to Avoid Buying a Lemon

Detailed research skills are far more important than just good luck when it comes to buying a trouble-free car. Knowing how to recognize potential issues as well as a vehicle’s reliability can help clear the air between a good buy and future trouble.

●    A car’s reliability record is a solid way to reduce the risk of driving home in trouble on four wheels. Check popular consumer report resources to help weed out vehicles with bad track records.

●    Make a point of actually reading the window sticker. Dealers are required to post a buyer’s guide in every used vehicle, which includes warranty information and dealer repair obligations. Pay close attention to warranty parameters or if the vehicle is being sold “as is.”

●    Do a thorough check of the vehicle’s interior and exterior. Outside, look for things like dents, paint colors that don’t match, and chipped paint or glass. Paint overspray, for example, is a red flag of body repair. Inside the car, check for a sagging headliner, missing knobs or handles, cracks in the dashboard, frayed seat belts, and high-mileage signs including warning lights that stay on, mildew smells, electrical problems, and even sagging seat cushions.

●    Always check under the hood. The engine should be relatively free of grease and corrosion, with no melted or cracked wires or hoses. Belts should be free of cracks and be pliable. Check for clean fluids filled to proper levels and look for signs of leakage under the engine and on the ground.

●    Check the tires for even tread width and wear. Cupped tires, for example, are indicators of steering, suspension, or brake problems.

●    Be sure the steering is stable. Check for clunking or excess play and ensure the car doesn’t drift on the road. Shaking steering wheels are signs of alignment or more serious issues.
 

lemon laws

●    Do a suspension check by pushing down hard on all four fenders and letting go. Ideally, the car should bounce softly back up once; maybe twice. If the car keeps bouncing like a rubber ball, that likely means bad shocks or struts. If the bounce happens while driving on a bumpy road, that’s another sign of bad suspension.

●    Always check for recalls and for service bulletins for common repair issues. Service bulletins may indicate recurring or potential issues, and all recalls should be repaired prior to purchase.

●    Check the tailpipe when starting the car. A temporary puff of white smoke is typically not a big deal but if the car belches black smoke; that stems from an air-fuel issue (think dirty air filter or bad oxygen sensor). Another smoke color you don’t want to see is blue, which means burning oil and that’s a fast track to expensive repairs.

●    When you step on the gas, does the car rev high before going anywhere? That’s a sign of clutch problems or damaged transmission. Both of these issues will make a big dent in your bank account. Do you hear pings or knocks or other disturbing sounds during acceleration? It could be overheating or bad lifters.  

●    Finally, check the vehicle’s history for damage from fire, flood, or accidents; odometer fraud, title integrity, and any number of other unfortunate events. One of the best ways to get a thorough vehicle diagnosis, of course, is to bring the vehicle to a trusted mechanic. They can put the car on a hoist and check all the nooks, crannies, and important parts therein; and connect specialized testing equipment to check for overall engine health.

Remember that lots of lemons are sold every year. Federal and state-specific lemon laws are in place to protect buyers that end up with a dud vehicle, but you need to know your rights and take swift action to avoid the sour fruit.