Lemon laws: How they can protect your vehicle purchase

Man talking on the phone while standing outside of his broken-down car with his sonImage: Man talking on the phone while standing outside of his broken-down car with his son

In a Nutshell

Most states have a lemon law to protect people if they buy a defective new car. But your vehicle may need to meet specific requirements related to things like mileage and repair attempts to file a lemon law claim. These requirements can vary based on the state where you bought and registered your car.
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If your vehicle has a safety issue or other known defect that can’t be repaired, your state’s lemon law may pressure the manufacturer to set things right.

Lemon laws may require an auto manufacturer to either replace or provide some reimbursement to the owner of a vehicle when it has a serious defect that makes it unsafe or inoperable, and unfixable. Lemon laws typically apply to new cars, but they also can apply to used vehicles in some states.

Of the millions of motor vehicles sold in the U.S. annually, there are always some that don’t perform properly. But what can you do if you can’t drive your new car or even resell it due to a defect that can’t be repaired?

That’s where your state’s lemon law comes in.

What is a lemon law?

Lemon laws typically require auto manufacturers to either replace a defective new vehicle you bought or reimburse you. Every state in the U.S. has some version of a lemon law. These regulations allow you to file a claim for a defective motor vehicle.

Each state’s law can have different requirements for claims. For example, some require that the car can’t be fixed after a certain number of repair attempts, or that the defect presents a safety hazard.

Lemon laws vary by state, each imposing its own restrictions on the types of vehicles covered and other requirements. For example, Colorado excludes motor homes under its lemon law, but Georgia’s lemon law covers motor homes. Georgia’s lemon law also typically requires three manufacturer repair attempts (as long as the defect is not a serious safety defect. If it is, just one attempt is required. Arizona requires four repair attempts before you can file a lemon law claim.

Generally, lemon laws apply to personal use vehicles. In some cases that includes leased or used motor vehicles or RVs.

Lemon laws can provide some backup when you buy a vehicle — but depending on the state you live in, even if you file a successful lemon law complaint you may not receive the full amount you paid for the vehicle.

Depending on the state you’re in, the manufacturer may be required to give you another new vehicle or a vehicle with equivalent mileage at the time the defect became known. In other states, you may be allowed an option to reject the manufacturer’s suggested replacement.

Lemon laws typically cover only new cars, but some state lemon laws also cover used cars. To find out where your state stands, look at how “used car” is defined in your state’s lemon law, especially with leased vehicles. Also, find out whether the manufacturer’s warranty on the used car must still be in effect to qualify under the applicable state’s lemon law.

Where can I find information on my state’s lemon law?

You can search your state’s department of motor vehicles website, your state attorney general’s website — or even your state consumer protection office. You can also look up lemon laws on the Better Business Bureau’s Auto Line State Lemon Laws.

What makes a car a lemon?

If your new vehicle has a “defect or condition” that an auto repair shop can’t fix despite repeated attempts — or the defect presents a serious safety hazard — the vehicle might be a lemon, says Steve Lehto, a Michigan lemon law attorney.

For instance, if your vehicle accelerates without warning, that defect likely qualifies the car as a lemon — potentially a lemon with with a serious safety defect. You might also have a lemon if a defect or condition “substantially impairs the use or value of a vehicle,” a commonly used lemon law definition that still allows room for subjectivity.

“Most people would agree that a car failing to start would have a substantial defect,” Lehto says. “But what about a car that makes funny noises or leaks water in heavy rain? Those issues might not be as clear, depending on how severe they are and how much they affect the owner’s use of the vehicle.”

For your car to be considered a lemon, the vehicle generally needs to fall into one or more of the following categories, which will vary based on the state where the vehicle was bought and registered.

  • It has a “substantial defect”: Generally, defects must be major and affect the car’s operation. This could include systems such as transmission, brakes, engine or other major parts.
  • It meets time or mileage limits: Sometimes a car can be considered a lemon only if it meets certain age or mileage requirements. For example, in North Carolina, a vehicle qualifies during its first 24 months or 24,000 miles — whichever comes first.
  • It meets a reasonable number of failed repair attempts: Some state lemon laws may require a certain number of attempts at repair before you can file a complaint.
  • It’s been in for repairs for a significant number of days: This also varies by state, but many lemon laws require that a vehicle must spend at least 30 days within a one-year period undergoing repairs. For example, the Texas lemon law requires that you have either taken the vehicle to the dealership two or more times for a serious safety hazard or at least four times for a defect that is not considered a serious safety hazard. You also may have recourse there if your vehicle has been out of service for repairs for a total of 30 days or 24,000 miles and the problem still persists.

Tips to file a lemon law complaint

Depending on state, lemon laws can require that you send a complaint letter to the vehicle’s manufacturer first, detailing the car’s problems, repair attempts and the solution requested, such as a replacement vehicle of equal value. In certain states you may be able to provide notice to the dealership rather than the manufacturer.

You’ll need documentation to prove the number of attempts made to fix the problem. Some new car contracts may include mandatory arbitration clauses to settle disputes. The Better Business Bureau’s Auto Line dispute resolution program can also help resolve your lemon law complaint if the manufacturer is a participating manufacturer.

Bottom line

State lemon laws are in place to help people, but it’s still a good idea to conduct some research on your own about new and used vehicles before you buy.

You can find customer reviews and ratings on different car makes and models, or you can use sites like Consumer Reports and Edmunds to compare similar cars. You can bolster that research on used cars by purchasing a CARFAX report, which checks the vehicle’s service and accident history, warranty information and numerous other factors.

About the author: Deb Hipp is a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. When she’s not writing about personal finance and news, she enjoys traveling to seas… Read more.