What Is the Lemon Law?

If your warrantied car has a qualifying defect, the lemon law can help you return it.

What Are Lemon Laws Elizabeth BlackstockShutterstock

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Have you ever bought a car that just didn't meet its advertised expectations? If your new vehicle is haunted by a problem that the dealership can’t fix, you may have purchased a lemon. Thankfully, there are federal and state laws that give you some recourse.

What Does a Lemon Law Cover?

Lemon laws vary by state, but typically a lemon refers to a vehicle that possesses at least one manufacturing defect covered by warranty that significantly impacts its safety, value, or utility and cannot be repaired in a reasonable period of time.

Reasonable means different things depending on the state and the type of defect. For example, California’s guidelines say that manufacturers have two attempts to fix a car-threatening problem — such as brake failure — before buyers should file a claim. For smaller problems, like a defective paint job that leaves the body susceptible to rust, the owner might have to take the car in four or more times. The law also stipulates that owners may seek recourse if their vehicle spends more than 30 days total in the shop for warrantied repairs.

If the manufacturer can’t fix these issues within the prescribed timeframes of the law, it must offer the buyer some sort of compensation, like a refund or replacement. To find out your state’s lemon laws, consult DMV.org.

What Doesn't a Lemon Law Cover?

Most states’ lemon laws cover only new cars, but California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York have limited provisions for used vehicles as well. Your vehicle won’t qualify as a lemon if it needs minor repairs, such as a loose radio knob or a torn trunk carpet.

What Should I Do if I Bought a Lemon?

You likely won't know if you've purchased a lemon until you drive it for a while. However, if you start to feel like your vehicle is plagued by recurring or dangerous issues and you’ve given the dealer a reasonable amount of time to address the problem, you'll want to follow these steps:

  1. Understand your warranty and your state's lemon law. Having your vehicle repaired outside of a dealership, for example, can void your warranty and disqualify your vehicle as a lemon.

  2. When you take your vehicle in for repairs, make sure the shop records all of your concerns before signing the order.

  3. Keep detailed records of your service and maintenance, particularly any communication you have with your dealership or the vehicle manufacturer. You may need this to prove your case.

  4. Do your research on the make and model you purchased. If your vehicle has a widespread, persistent problem, there's a chance other buyers have experienced it as well, and that could lend credence to your claim.

  5. File a claim. You'll need to send a formal letter to your dealership and to the automaker (preferably by certified mail) explaining your predicament. Provide copies of your records to illustrate the problem and your attempts to have it resolved. Most automakers have an arbitration process in place to handle warranty concerns.

The Manufacturer Won't Agree to Take the Car Back. What Now?

A manufacturer may deny a lemon claim, perhaps citing inadequate maintenance on the part of the owner, insufficient evidence of the problem, or a procedural issue. This can discourage a lot of consumers from going any further with their claim. But if you firmly believe your vehicle qualifies as a lemon, hire an attorney familiar with lemon laws to argue your case. You may need to file a lawsuit against the automaker, who will very likely have to pay your legal fees if you win.

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Elizabeth Blackstock
I’m Elizabeth Blackstock, and after growing up around the Detroit automotive industry, I’ve made it my life’s mission to make information about vehicles accessible for the average consumer. Whether you’re a hardcore auto enthusiast or someone looking for a practical machine for the daily commute, I’m here to help you make your most informed decision.