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What to Do if You Were Sold a Lemon Car

It happens every now and then in the life of a shopper -you’ve bought a product that doesn’t work right even though it’s fresh out of the packaging. This can be something as little as an appliance like a blender or something much bigger such as a car. It isn’t unheard of for someone to drive their new car off the lot, only for it to have a mechanical issue five minutes later. It’s not the driver’s fault; they were just sold a car that doesn’t work or has an underlying issue(s) that severely impacts its performance and safety.

A lemon vehicle doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. In fact, there are several laws and practices created to remedy the issue of a lemon vehicle. The post serves as a guide to the laws behind a lemon car, what to do when your car is discovered to be a lemon, and how to avoid or look out for lemon cars.

What Makes a Product a Lemon?

What is a lemon? As the name implies, it’s a product that has gone sour. Mass production isn’t perfect and can produce some errors every once in a while. Cars are complex machines with all their engine and electrical parts, so there’s always a possibility that one of those moving parts doesn’t function right. A car would officially be deemed a lemon if the automaker it was purchased from can’t fix the problem within a certain amount of time. If this happens, lemon laws compel them to provide a refund or replacement. This amount of time is usually determined by the state’s lemon laws. We’ll get into what specific problems a car may have that qualifies it as defective in a later section.

What Are The Different Types of Lemon Laws?

Let’s look at buying a defective vehicle and what laws come into effect. There are both federal and state government laws regarding lemons.

The two types of legislation are:

  • Federal - Also known as the Magnuson Moss Warranty Federal Trade Commissions Improvement Act found in Title 15 Chapter 50 of the U.S. Code, in Section 2301-2312. But that’s just its address; let’s talk about its job. The federal lemon laws make the warranty of an item or car legally binding. This law states that the buyer of the defective product is to be issued a refund or replacement if the issue goes unresolved after a reasonable number of attempts, rather than time. This is written in fine print as Section 2304 of the federal act and is effective across all 50 states.
  • State - While every state follows the federal mandate, they do have their own laws to comply with it. The state laws work pretty much the same as the federal one, wherein the automakers must provide a full refund or replacement if service and repair needs are not met. Some states gauge it after a certain number of repair attempts, while others base it off a certain amount of time -it really all depends on what state you are in. It is usually after four attempts and 30 days of no auto shop intervention. Some states like Michigan even allow for lawsuits against the automaker if needs haven’t been met.

What Are Other Legalities of Lemon Cars?

After reading the previous section, you may have some questions about the legal terminology or how defective cars are classified.

Two significant terms to know are:

  • Substantive defect - This refers to what causes the car to be labeled as defective in the first place. A defect is substantive when it occurs within the warranty period of the car. This is usually when a car is brand new. Something as major as the airbag safety feature malfunctioning to something as minor as a botched paint job all qualify. These issues can’t originate from wear and tear or collision trauma -they will appear to be naturally occurring.
  • Reasonable number of fix attempts or time - A requirement of all lemon laws is to allow for the automakers to fix the issue within a certain amount of time, usually 30 days or at least four attempts. If a car doesn’t receive service at all for a certain amount of time, that is grounds for a replacement and refund.

What if The Lemon Car is Used?

Lemon laws usually apply to new cars from the factory within the first couple of years. However, there are a couple of states like New York and Massachusetts that have laws that apply to cars under a certain mileage, like 18,000 or 125,000. At the same time, states also have laws regarding defective, used cars. Used car dealers are often required to provide warranties for the vehicles they sell. The main difference between new car and used car lemon claims is that you appeal it to the dealership as opposed to the auto manufacturer.

Dealerships are the best way to get a deal on used cars because cars from a private seller aren’t totally protected by lemon laws. At that point, a lawyer would have to be consulted for the best way to remedy it. Again, used lemon cars must be serviced within a reasonable amount of time or have had repairs attempted on it a sufficient amount. Used cars are held to the same lemon standard as new cars; the only difference is the procedure.

Do Lemon Laws Apply To Both Major And Minor Defects?

Yes, as previously mentioned, something as minor as a paint job defection can qualify the car as a lemon. However, it becomes more severe when a safety feature like the brake system or airbags doesn’t work properly.

A car can qualify as a lemon and be resolved base on these types of damages:

  • Major safety defect - The steering, brake, and airbag systems are a couple of essential vehicle safety features. If defective, they must only fail one repair attempt to be deemed a necessity for a refund and replacement. The time frame to have it resolved is 30 days within a year.
  • Minor safety defect - The car’s door locking mechanism acting up is an example of an issue that must be resolved after three to four attempts as opposed to just one. Whether three or four attempts are required depends on the state’s laws.

How is a Lemon Vehicle Fixed or Resolved?

Now, let’s move on to the actual process of resolving a lemon car so that it’s out of your hair. The main drawback is that this process can take time to resolve completely. It’s not a matter of expertise; it’s a matter of knowing what to do and being patient with the results.

Here’s how to resolve a lemon car:

  • Gather paperwork - The vehicle paperwork, especially that of a lemon, should always be kept track of. This includes everything that proves the car is defective, like maintenance receipts to provide a tangential timeline of how often the car was serviced. If there was an email correspondence with the automaker or used dealership, that should be printed out and kept with the records.
  • Hire a lawyer - Not just any legal representative, but a consumer attorney who regularly deals with product recalls and warranty arbitrations. Note that you will have to pay their legal fees if the lemon claim is taken to court. The National Association of Consumer Advocates has a list of lawyers who specialize in such legal work.
  • File claim with automaker or dealer - A formal letter should also be included with the claim. Templates of such letters are available online if you aren’t entirely sure what to write.
  • Arbitration - Automakers are encouraged to go into arbitration or an informal meeting program where the car issue can be settled upon before going to court. If an automaker rejects a claim, then you can take them straight to court without arbitration.
  • Pursue claim in court if necessary - With the help of your consumer lawyer, take the case of your lemon car to court. This can be the most lengthy part. There was an instance where a woman in Milwaukee was in court for four years against Mercedes-Benz. But this is not the average. Pursuing the claim in court is only a last resort, as arbitration usually resolves the issue.
  • Receive refund or replacement as resolution - At this point, the automaker has agreed to provide a full refund or replacement of the car. You’ve paid your legal fees and are set to go with your new car.

How to Avoid Buying a Lemon Car

While you can’t help the quality control of an automaker, there are ways to be vigilant when car shopping and you come across a lemon car. These precautions are especially to be taken when shopping for used cars.

Here are ways to be on the lookout for lemons when car shopping:

  • Look at the reliability record of a vehicle - Every car model and make has a reliability record and rating. Lemons may be a recurring problem in other cars of the same make as yours. That can be a pattern. So when shopping for a car, try to steer in the direction of reliable automakers like Kia and Toyota.
  • Always consult the window sticker - Car dealers place handy buyer’s guides on the windows of their vehicles. This is a practice required by the Federal Trade Commission. The information it contains includes whether or not the car is being sold “as is” or with a warranty. It also includes the number of repair costs the dealer will cover.
  • Look over the car’s exterior - The exterior of a car can reveal telltale signs of lasting damage or issues. An example would be if the doors or trunk don’t close properly -this indicates there was previous repair work. A sign of paint filler would be the lack of magnetism of the panels. What’s more, a sticker from the Certified Automotive Parts Association means that the panel has been replaced entirely. The marks and exterior tell their own story, so it’s best to pay attention.
  • Inspect the car’s interior - Look around the inside of the car for cracks in the dashboard, missing buttons or knobs, or any issues with the headlights. Your driving setup should be absolutely perfect. Check the seat belts for frays as they can be evidence of a collision when the vehicle was going over 15 mph. Issues with the airbag can be revealed if the light on the dashboard is on.
  • See what’s under the hood - You don’t have to be a mechanic to tell a greasy or corroded engine from a clean one. Wires and tubes should also be checked for burns or extreme wear. Engine oil should normally look brown or black. It can be gelatinous and thick, but when it’s thin, frothy, and light brown -that can indicate a blown gasket or damaged cylinder. Transmission fluid should also be bright or dark red. Brown and darker fluid would have to be changed. We don’t need to stress how dire a problem beneath the hood can be for a car. It may one day just turn into a functionless brick.
  • Check the steering system - The telltale sign that something is wrong with a vehicle’s steering system is hearing a clunking sound when turning the wheel. Be sure that it doesn’t slack either. When the car is in motion, take note of how much you need to correct the steering.
  • Check the suspension system - There is a simple way to check your vehicle’s suspension. Push down on each fender, then release; if the car rebounds more than two times, then there may be an issue with the suspension system. This can also be tested by driving over a bumpy road.
  • Look at the tires - Tire wear should be even on all sides of the wheel. If wear is in the middle, then the tire is overinflated. Underinflated tires will have more wear on the sides.
  • Check smoke from tailpipe - The smoke color coming from the vehicle’s exhaust is a big indicator of auto health. White smoke is no cause for alarm, but when it becomes constant, that means there is water in the engine, and a gasket was blown. Black smoke means a dirty air filter and broken air intake system. Dark blue smoke means oil is burning, which is an emergency.
  • Startup the car and see how it reacts - The clutch of a vehicle can be judged based on how it starts up. If it revs often, then the clutch may be worn out or misaligned. Sounds like a knock or a ping can indicate an overheating engine.
  • Check for any recalls or technical service bulletins (TSB) - Recall service can be a red flag for vehicles. The seller should be able to provide any documentation on whether or not the vehicle was subject to such. A TSB is a report automakers send to dealers about common problems with their makes and models on the market. These should be checked, especially when it comes to used cars.
  • Look at the vehicle history - Consult online resources like CarFace and Experian to look up if a certain vehicle has had a salvage or rebuilt title along with the exact odometer amount.
  • Visit a mechanic - Having a vehicle inspected by a mechanic before buying it is a regular practice that costs around $120 for basic diagnostic. They look at and inspect all the parts of the cars we’ve just gone over.

What Does it Mean to Buy a Car “as is?”

An important note to make about buying a car is whether it is sold “as is.” A car sale that is labeled “as is” means that there is no warranty and doesn’t hold the vehicle to a standard. Due to this, the seller won’t be on the line for any lasting issues the vehicle may have since you’ve agreed to buy the car as it is. It’s best to find a car that is covered by a warranty if you are worried about receiving a lemon. This information is located on the buyer’s guide sticker.