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Eric's Autos: What can You Do When Your Car's a Lemon?

Eric Peters on

In the first place, it takes a lot for a car to be officially acknowledged as a “lemon” insofar as the law is concerned. You usually have to wrangle extensively with the dealer who sold it to you – and after that, the manufacturer who built it – before you can get out from under.

The process can take a year or longer – and repeated service calls, breakdowns and pains in the rear in the meanwhile. The ugly truth is that once they’ve got your money, it’s very hard to get it back. So, what can you do?

The first thing to know is exactly how your particular state defines a “lemon.” Laws vary, but most have a few general provisions in common:

One, the problem(s) must be objective – for example, a prematurely failing head gasket vs. you don’t like the way the car feels.

Two, it must be an item initially covered by the manufacturer’s original new car warranty. For example, if your six-month-old car suffers a transmission failure (or has a sunroof that leaks).

The third lemon qualifier is recurrence of the same problem. If, despite repeated attempts (typically no more than three or four) the dealer has been unable to fix whatever the issue is - or the car has been “out of service” for a given period of time, typically, more than 30 days during the first year of ownership – your car meets the criteria.


In a nutshell: You’ve taken it back for the same thing several times, but the roof still leaks or the transmission still isn’t working properly. They can’t seem to fix it. The car’s in the shop more than it’s in your driveway, etc. But there are several catches to be aware of.

The first of these is that many state lemon laws have a so-called “presumptive period” – typically 18 months or 18,000 miles, whichever comes first, as in California – during which there must be tangible evidence of an abnormal, recurrent problem(s) in order for the full force of a lemon law’s protections to be available after the manufacturer’s new car warranty has run out.

This is why it is critical to bring any problems that crop up to the attention of the dealer as soon as they are discovered – and to document them. Keep records of every service visit – and make sure the work order/receipt clearly lists the reason why the car was brought in, as well as the date and the odometer reading at the time of service. The longer you wait – and the shorter the paper trail – the more the odds are stacked against you.

The second catch is that the dealer/manufacturer may acuse you of having “abused” the vehicle. Most state lemon laws do not apply if the problem is deemed to be the result of “abuse” – and the legal definition of “abuse” includes such things as failure to maintain and service the vehicle according to the factory recommendations, including the use of only factory-approved oil/filters.


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