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What is a Lemon Car?

What is a Lemon Car?

Buying a new or new-to-you vehicle is always exciting. But what if your new dream ride isn’t so dreamy? If your recently purchased vehicle has significant defects requiring lots of repair time, you may have a lemon. Here’s everything you need to know about lemon cars.

What is a Lemon?

A lemon is a vehicle with manufacturing defects that affect its use, monetary value, or safety. Defects include those caused by poor design, gaps/errors during the manufacturing process, or defective materials. Examples of defects that would be covered under a lemon law include a faulty transmission, engine, suspension, or brake system. Lesser defects such as loose radio knobs, radio static, and damaged antennas are not covered under lemon laws. Issues such as unremovable bad odors and defective paint have been included under lemon laws in rare cases.

New Car Lemon Laws

In the United States, lemon laws are the responsibility of each state, resulting in different criteria for lemons depending on where you live. Most new car lemon laws deem a vehicle a “lemon” if it meets the following criteria:

  • Multiple Repair Attempts: The vehicle was in the repair shop for the same issue multiple times during its first 24 months and is still not fixed. Some states use a minimum of three times in the shop, others use four.
  • Serious Safety Hazard: The vehicle has a serious defect or malfunction that creates a life-threatening situation when used.
  • Out of Service: The vehicle was out of service or unable to be used by the consumer for an extended period of time due to repairs without resolution of the problem. Depending on the state, the “out of service” clause may be anywhere from 15 to 30 days. In addition, some states allow you to use non-consecutive days, whereas others do not.

Most states require that manufacturers repair a vehicle issue within a prescribed number of days. If repairs cannot be made within that time frame, the car manufacturer must buy back the defective car from the owner or replace it with a new vehicle. All lemon law claims are handled by the vehicle manufacturer, as they provide the new vehicle warranty. Car dealerships are not involved in lemon law claims in any way.

Used Car Lemon Laws

At this time, only seven states provide consumer protection under a used car lemon law. These states include Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. State lemon laws regarding used cars are more limited than those covering new car purchases.

If you live in a state that does not have a used car lemon law, you may find relief under the Federal Lemon Law. This Act allows used car owners to claim damages for a defective product. There is no mileage limitation, and it applies to both new and used cars.

Unlike most state lemon laws, the Federal Lemon Law allows used car owners to get a cash settlement while keeping the car. The Federal Lemon Law also includes a provision under which consumers can force the car manufacturer to pay all legal fees associated with the Lemon Law claim.

What to Do if Your Car Is a Lemon

If you think your car may be a lemon, follow these steps to protect yourself:

Keep Detailed Records

Lemon laws allow manufacturers several attempts to fix a defective vehicle. If you think your vehicle may be a lemon, be sure to keep detailed records of all vehicle issues, repairs performed, time spent in the shop, and mileage. Use a journal or calendar to keep track of all details as well as correspondence with the vehicle manufacturer and dealer. It may also be helpful to save any manufacturer brochures or ads that include claims about the vehicle in question.

Contact Your Vehicle’s Manufacturer

Contact the manufacturer of your vehicle in writing. Your correspondence should include information such as:

  • The contact information for the dealer where you purchased your vehicle
  • Your vehicle purchase information
  • A detailed timeline of vehicle issues
  • Descriptions of all repairs attempted and the results of each repair attempt
  • Copies of dealer correspondence

It is important to contact the manufacturer directly rather than the dealer that has failed to fix your car in a timely manner. The manufacturer can take action against that dealer, refer you to another dealer, and do many other actions that an individual dealer can’t take.

Attend Arbitration

If your correspondence with the vehicle manufacturer doesn’t end in a satisfactory settlement, you will need to resolve your issues via the legal system. All lemon law cases must go through arbitration before going to court. During the arbitration, both you and the vehicle manufacturer will present evidence about the vehicle to an impartial arbitrator. Although you can go through this process solo, most consumers hire an attorney with experience in lemon law arbitration.

The arbitrator is responsible for deciding whether or not your vehicle is a lemon. If your car is deemed a lemon, the arbitrator also decides if you get a refund or a replacement vehicle. Arbitration rulings are considered final in most states, although either party can appeal a ruling. If you or the manufacturer file an appeal, the case will be taken before a judge.

How to Avoid Purchasing a Lemon

Use the following tips to avoid purchasing a new or used lemon:

New Vehicles

Check all new vehicles for current recalls. Use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website to look up the vehicle’s make and model to make sure it hasn’t been recalled. All outstanding recalls and repairs should be made to a new vehicle before you buy it, so be sure to ask the dealer if they have been done to the car you are looking at.

Used Vehicles

Search the vehicle’s VIN number to learn about any past/present issues and the steps taken to correct them. You can also use CARFAX to search any vehicle’s history. These reports include major accidents and service history. Even if the vehicle reports look promising, be sure to inspect the vehicle’s interior and exterior, take it for a test drive, and have it looked over by a mechanic you trust.

When inspecting a used car, be on the lookout for unmatched paint, new parts, and extensive welding. Many severely damaged cars are repaired via “clipping,” a process where accident-damaged portions are cut off and replaced with undamaged parts from a similar vehicle. These “zipper cars” may look fine from the outside, but they are not nearly as safe and strong as their original counterparts.

Even the best car manufacturer can produce a lemon. If you think you have ended up with a lemon car, know that there are options to recoup your investment. Use our tips listed above to find a resolution and get back on the road again.

FIXD Research Team

At FIXD, our mission is to make car ownership as simple, easy, and affordable as possible. Our research team utilizes the latest automotive data and insights to create tools and resources that help drivers get peace of mind and save money over the life of their car.

We’re here to help you simplify car care and save, so this post may contain affiliate links to help you do just that. If you click on a link and take action, we may earn a commission. However, the analysis and opinions expressed are our own.


About the Author

FIXD Research Team

FIXD Research Team

At FIXD, our mission is to make car ownership as simple, easy, and affordable as possible. Our research team utilizes the latest automotive data and insights to create tools and resources that help drivers get peace of mind and save money over the life of their car.

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