What You Should Do if You Get a Lemon

Natalie Josef
November 9, 2010

Buying a new car is stressful—Can you afford it? Is it the right car to buy? Are you getting the best price you can? Should you go for the upgrades? How much will maintenance be? It stresses me out to even buy a plane ticket, so the thought of purchasing a new car makes my stomach hurt.

Back in the late 1990s, my best friend bought a new Honda Civic. It was a huge decision, especially considering we were right out of college. But she needed a car and Hondas are always reliable, right?


First she had starting and stalling issues. Then came the mysterious fluid leak that could never be found. Then came the endless visits to the repair shop to get the Check Engine Light to stop coming on all the time. Finally, enough was enough. She had to face the fact that she had a lemon.

So, what should you do if you have a lemon? First, let’s determine what qualifies as a lemon.

What is a lemon?
A lemon is any vehicle that repeatedly fails to meet standards of performance and quality. When you buy a vehicle, it comes with a warranty, which is an assurance from the manufacturer that your car will perform the way it’s promised to. If you have continued defects that affect the vehicle’s use, performance, and/or safety—and have had these defects “fixed” many times in a repair shop only to fail again—you have a lemon. Some examples are:

•    Overheating and coolant leaks
•    Surging, stalling, and drivablity issues
•    Warning lights come on repeatedly
•    Noises and problems with the suspension and steering
•    Power steering problems
•    Traction and stability control issues
•    Misfiring or knocking

What are lemon laws?
The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975 is a federal lemon law that governs warranties on consumer products. It requires the warrantor to remedy covered malfunctions, defects, or failures within a reasonable time frame and without charge. If the issue(s) cannot be addressed, the law stipulates that the consumer must be refunded or that the product be replaced without charge. Also, if the matter makes it to court and the consumer wins, the federal law obligates the warrantor to pay the prevailing party's legal fees. Each state also has its own lemon laws.

What vehicles are covered?
Obviously, if you buy a brand new car and it starts have problems, it will be covered. But used cars can be covered, too. If your used car is still under warranty, “certified” by the manufacturer, or you purchased an extended warranty, you are likely protected by your state’s lemon laws.

If your vehicle is not under warranty, you may still be entitled to compensation if your vehicle has a prior history of mechanical problems (a “laundered” lemon), was previously wrecked or salvaged, has a rolled back odometer, was a rental or police car, or a taxi, or if it was involved in a flood.

What should I do if I get a lemon?
Most experts advise getting a legal lemon lawyer to help guide you through the process of getting a new car or being reimbursed for the one you have. Whether you obtain an attorney or not, be sure to gather all of your vehicle’s documentation: warranty, purchase papers, registration, repair history, and receipts. You should also keep track of all of the correspondence you made with the dealer or vehicle manufacturer. When corresponding with them, use registered mail or email, so that the correspondence is traceable. All of this will help your case.

You can always ask the manufacturer for a refund or replacement vehicle, especially if you have all of the information listed above. Most manufacturers offer complaint arbitration programs, so be sure to check that out. In many states, you must first go through this process before you can sue the manufacturer in court.

The bottom line
Obviously, no one goes searching for a lemon, but there are things to do in order to minimize your chances of getting one, or maximize your chances of receiving a refund or replacement car if you do get one. Do your research before buying a car and know exactly what you want. Make sure you buy a car with a good, solid warranty. You should also research dealerships to see how they handle such situations—if they have a good track record for customer service, it is likely they will be helpful if you do get a lemon. You might also want to avoid private sellers since it can limit your claims if you get a lemon.

And finally, if you are buying a used car, get it checked out a mechanic. Of course it’s not fun to spend money on a car you don’t even own yet, but it could save you thousands of dollars—plus time and frustration—if you are positive your used car is up to snuff.


Natalie Josef

About the Author

Natalie Josef is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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