Lemon Law for New Cars

If your car turns out to be a "lemon," you might be able to get a refund or a replacement vehicle. Here's how.

By , Attorney (Northwestern University School of Law)
Updated by Amy Loftsgordon, Attorney (University of Denver Sturm College of Law)

An estimated 150,000 cars each year (or 1% of new vehicles) are "lemons"—cars that have repeated, unfixable problems. Every state has enacted some type of "lemon law" to help consumers who get stuck with these defective cars. To take advantage of these laws, you need to know what qualifies as a lemon and how to get a refund or replacement car.

What Qualifies as a "Lemon"?

To qualify as a lemon under most state laws, the car must:

  1. have a substantial defect covered by the warranty that occurred within a certain period of time or number of miles after you bought the car, and
  2. not be fixed after a reasonable number of repair attempts.

In most states, the lemon law only applies to new cars, but see below.

Substantial Defect

A "substantial defect" is a problem covered by the warranty that impairs the car's use, value, or safety, like faulty brakes or steering. Minor defects such as loose radio knobs and door handles don't meet the legal definition of "substantial defect." As with most legal definitions, the line between a "minor" and a "substantial" defect isn't always clear. Some not-so-obvious conditions, such as defective paint jobs or horrible smells, have been found to be substantial defects.

In all states, the substantial defect must occur within a certain period of time or within a specific number of miles. The defect must not be caused by abuse.

Reasonable Repair Attempts

You must allow the dealer or manufacturer to make a "reasonable" number of attempts to fix a substantial problem before your car is considered to be a lemon. Usually, you must meet one of the following standards to be protected under a state lemon law:

  • If the defect is a serious safety defect—for example, involving brakes or steering—it must remain unfixed after one repair attempt.
  • If the defect is not a serious safety defect, it must remain unfixed after three or four repair attempts, though the number varies by state.
  • If the vehicle is in the shop a specific number of days, usually 30 days in a one-year period, to fix one or more substantial warranty defects, it might fit the definition of a lemon.

Getting a Refund or Replacement Car

If your car meets the lemon law requirements for your state, you have the right to obtain a refund or replacement car from the manufacturer. Although the process for getting this relief is different in each state, in all states, you must first notify the manufacturer of the defect. If you're not offered a satisfactory settlement, most states require you to go to arbitration before going to court.

Preparing for a Lemon Law Arbitration

Manufacturers use a number of different arbitration programs. In many cases, the manufacturer will select the program for you. If you're given the opportunity to choose, you'll probably do better if you choose a state consumer protection agency program rather than a manufacturer's in-house program or a private arbitration program.

Consumers who provide substantial documentation and evidence tend to do better than those with little evidence to support their claims. The types of documentation that can help include:

  • brochures and ads about the vehicle (the manufacturer will likely have to live up to its claims)
  • vehicle service records showing how often you took the car into the shop, and
  • any other documents showing your attempts to get the dealer to repair your car.

It's important to take the process seriously and be as prepared as possible.

Finding the Lemon Law in Your State

Although most state lemon laws apply to new car sales only, a few states have lemon laws that also cover used cars. You should check the definition of a "new car" in your state's lemon law. To find your state's lemon law, visit the Autopedia website and the Lemon Law America website. Some laws, for example, will cover a car that was bought with a certain amount of mileage on the odometer. Other lemon laws apply to used cars that were still covered by the original warranty at the time of purchase.

To learn more about leasing or purchasing a used or new car, get Nolo's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law by the editors of Nolo. This handy guide contains hundreds of answers to frequently asked legal questions.

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