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October 2012

What to do if the car you bought is a lemon

After the last of the papers are signed and handshakes exchanged, you drive your new car off the lot.

What to do if the car you bought is a lemon

Full of excitement and pride, you can't wait to show your family and friends. A couple of days pass, and as you approach a red light, the car stalls. You re-start the engine and keep heading to your destination. This happens again a week later, and you grow concerned. You schedule a service appointment at the dealership, and their mechanic checks out the car, but can't find anything wrong. You continue to drive the vehicle, and the stalling persists. You bring it back to the dealer, and again, they state that there is not a problem with the car. What do you do? Do you have to live with it? Do you keep calling the dealer?

Fortunately, all states (including the District of Columbia) have laws designed to protect consumers from purchasing defective items (often referred to as lemons). These "lemon laws" guard against substantial defects that occur within a specified period after purchase. If a product is found to be defective, the manufacturer must either replace the product with a new, comparable one or refund the full purchase price. Read on to see what rights you have as a consumer.

If I think my car is a lemon, what should I do?
You should first contact the dealer you purchased it from. Let them know of the situation and give them a chance to repair the problem. Document any repairs performed on the car, using exact dates of when the car is being worked on, along with when your warranty expires (if the warranty has expired most lemon laws will not be applicable). If you still have the same problem after numerous attempts to repair your car, you may be justified in asking the manufacturer to either replace or refund the purchase price. For example, if the same problem has been serviced 4 or more times within the warranty period (without the defect being corrected) the car could qualify as a lemon. If a defect is safety related, the manufacturer is usually allowed a single instance to correct the problem.

Lemon laws cover only substantial defects, meaning defects that significantly impair the use, value, or safety of the vehicle. These laws may also protect you if a vehicle is out of service for a certain number of days due to defective manufacturing. The amount of time a vehicle is out of service is cumulative, and does not need to occur on consecutive days. The number of days a vehicle is out of service before it is considered a lemon ranges from 15 to 40 days, depending on the state of purchase. Note: things such as paint defects or cosmetic flaws, odd noises or an uncomfortable ride are not considered substantial defects.

Will I need a lawyer to be reimbursed?
This answer depends on the state in which you purchased the car. Some states allow you to file a complaint with proper documentation, while others require an attorney to help with the process. Find out what the laws are in the state in which you purchased the car. You can easily search these laws online by entering the words "Lemon Laws" along with the state at google.com to quickly look up the information.

Do Lemon Laws protect used cars?
It's more common for used car buyers to get stuck with an unreliable vehicle or to have large repair bills than purchasers of new vehicles. Due to this situation, some state legislatures have passed laws related to the lemon law and used vehicles. Unfortunately, only six states currently have enacted these laws: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York. The laws provide a used car warranty, often based upon the age or mileage of the vehicle. If the vehicle exhibits problems during this warranty period, the dealer is given a chance to repair them. If those fixes don't work after several attempts, the dealer must either replace the car or refund the buyer's money.

Some situations where the lemon law would apply to a used vehicle include:

  • History of mechanical problems known by the seller, but undisclosed to the buyer

  • The car was previously stolen, stripped and rebuilt

  • The car was involved in a flood, salvaged or involved in a major accident

  • The car was previously a taxi or police car

  • The odometer was rolled back 

A good suggestion when purchasing a used car is to first get vehicle history report from Carfax and Autocheck. Next, have a qualified mechanic put the car on a lift to look for signs of structural damage. It's best to do this before you purchase a vehicle but can still provide valuable information if you have it done after purchasing. It's important to determine the source of the vehicle's problem after you own it.

The Lemon Law and You
You don't have to be saddled with an automobile that spends more time at the mechanic's than it does on the road. There are lawyers that specialize in lemon law cases that can help protect your rights. So if you suspect your vehicle is a lemon, send a written complaint to the vehicle's manufacturer along with your state's attorney general or department of consumer protection. The Better Business Bureau has helpful links for each state regarding lemon laws. Additionally, lemon law specialists can be located through the National Association of Consumer Advocates, and free legal aid for low-income individuals is available through the Legal Services Corporation and National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Hopefully you'll never have to use these services, but it's nice to know they're available if needed.

Note: These tips are strictly for educational purposes and should not be taken as legal advice. Links from 21st Century Insurance to third-party sites do not constitute an endorsement by 21st Century Insurance of the parties or their products and services.

Sources: Edmunds.com; Carfax.com; usa.gov; ehow.com

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