An estimated 150,000 cars each year (or 1% of new cars) 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.
In order to take advantage of these laws, you need to know what qualifies as a lemon and how to get a refund or replacement car.
In order to qualify as a lemon under most state laws, the car must:
In most states, the lemon law only applies to new cars—but see below.
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 is not 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 certain number of miles. The defect must not be caused by abuse.
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 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.
Manufacturers use a number of different arbitration programs. In many cases, the manufacturer will select the program for you. If you are 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.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) runs a free dispute resolution program, called BBB Auto Line, to help you resolve a lemon law dispute. The settlement process is voluntary, and you may proceed to arbitration (if eligible) at any point. The program will guide you each step of the way, including collecting documentation, negotiating a possible settlement, and navigating the arbitration process.
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:
It is important to take the process seriously and be as prepared as possible.
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 lemon law. (To find your state's lemon law, visit the Autopedia website, the Lemon Law America website, or the BBB Auto Line State Lemon Laws website.)
Some laws, for example, will cover a car that was bought with a certain amount of mileage on the odometer. In others, the lemon law applies 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 the average Americans most frequently asked legal questions.