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Most of us have heard the term “lemon” when referencing a car that has broken down or has had continuous problems. You may not realize, though; there are strict lemon car laws in this country to protect buyers and provide relief if your next automobile is a clunker.
A car that is labeled a “lemon” is legally defined as one with manufacturing defects that affect the use, safety, or value of the car. A car or truck is not classified as a lemon until the manufacturer or dealership makes a reasonable effort to repair the issues but cannot. The term lemon was coined at the beginning of the 20th century by British and American citizens describing any item that they purchased that was permanently flawed.
The United States federal government enacted the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. in 1975, and it protects consumers against deceptive warranty practices. The law requires that manufacturers make their warranties more understandable, and it also provides a means for enforcing the law if product manufacturers don’t comply.
The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. applies to any product priced at $25 or more that comes with a warranty. Along with the Magnuson-Moss Act. each state has its own lemon laws for automobiles and other products.
Whether you think the vehicle is a lemon car or not doesn’t matter, the law has specific guidelines you need to follow to determine if your vehicle is a lemon or not. Although state laws differ, it is typically based on three main factors.
First, the car’s issue must be a substantial defect (nothing you caused by using the vehicle) but something that affects the safety, use, or value such as unfixable breaks, steering, drivetrain, or other major mechanical or electrical issue. A broken glove box, radio, or ripped carpet does not qualify. The substantial defect must also be covered under the original warranty within a certain period of time or miles.
The second item the law uses to determine if a vehicle is a lemon car is that the owner must allow the manufacturer or dealer a reasonable number of attempts to repair the issue. Typically, they are allowed four tries to fix the problem. If, after the fourth visit, your car is still unworkable (or has been out of commission for at least 30 days in one year), you may have legal recourse and you can file a complaint with the NHTSA. Each state has specific timetables here, so check the laws in your area before pursuing legal channels.
Additionally, the defect must show up within a certain amount of time after you purchase the vehicle. This could be calculated in months or miles.
The new car lemon law may differ slightly from buying a used vehicle that turns out to be a lemon. State laws dictate the specifics on how much time or how many miles qualify your car as a lemon and how many attempts at repair you must allow. After that, you are entitled to contact the manufacturer to find relief. It makes sense to contact a lawyer well-versed in lemon law to help you in many cases. Lemon laws also apply to leases, so if you leased instead of purchased your car and it turns out to be a lemon, you have options there as well.
State lemon laws not only apply to brand new cars; they most also have protections for used car buyers. The laws governing used lemon cars may be a bit more strict such as mileage restrictions, the number of owners, and how many months/years since the original warranty expired. You will have to perform some research to find out the specifics of lemon laws in your state.
There is a process for dealing with a lemon car, and it involves contacting the manufacturer and possibly even arbitration (does not involve the courts). You or the manufacturer may choose to use arbitration, which is binding. Arbitration is where a panel of people or a single arbitrator hears both sides, reviews the evidence, and decides either awarding you a remedy or against you. If you lose during arbitration, you can appeal but should have an attorney working for you, and it could be expensive.
If you are awarded a remedy, you will most likely receive a full refund (less any taxes or fees you paid to the dealer) or a brand-new replacement vehicle (new cars only).
The number one thing you can do to protect yourself against buying a lemon (especially with used cars) is to perform a VIN number check and review the vehicle specs before purchasing. If it’s a used vehicle, you can check to see how many repairs have been completed and if the car was in any accidents.
If you purchase a new vehicle, keep all the documentation. If you have to call for service, keep records of every conversation, jot down the names of people you speak with, and the times. You must document everything, including pictures, if applicable. The more documentation you have, the easier it will be to prove that your car qualifies as a lemon, and the quicker it will be to get it resolved.
Additionally, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has a free dispute resolution program called BBB Auto Line. They can often help you resolve a lemon car issue, especially if you are having trouble getting a resolution from the manufacturer. Working with the BBB will not jeopardize your option of arbitration or using a lawyer to pursue things legally.