Is Your Car a Lemon?
by Steven Chabotte
There are very few things more satisfying than buying a new car. There is great pride of ownership and a feeling of accomplishment and pride as you drive around town in your new vehicle. For most of us, that new car excitement lasts until we must make our first payment or until we get our first parking lot ding. For an unlucky few, they wish these were the only negatives that they had to worry about.
These unlucky few are the people who find themselves with an automobile that will, after much frustration and exhaustion on the part of the owner, be classified on a lemon.
So just what is a lemon car? After all, we've all had the occasional breakdown of some part of our car. And no matter when it happens, it is extremely inconvenient (and often quite expensive.) When does "regular wear and tear" flow into the realm of having a true lemon.
Typically a lemon is a new vehicle (or in some states a used vehicle under certain circumstances) that has had a large number of repair attempts on a single defect or an overall large number of repair attempts overall. It can also include just a single repair attempt on a portion of the car where failure could be a life threatening situation. Each state has their own lemon law warranty act and each of them defines what will make a vehicle a lemon. For instance, in California, a lemon automobile can be summarized as follows:
Vehicles Covered by California Lemon Law - California lemon law covers any new motor vehicle used primarily for family, personal or household purposes. It also includes the chassis portion of motor homes.
Repair Interval / Coverage Period Details - To be considered a lemon law vehicle in California , the vehicle must either be out of service for 30 calendar days or have 2 repair attempt for a defect that could cause death or a serious injury or have 4 repairs for the same defect. The coverage period is for 18 months or 18,000 miles, whichever occurs first.
(Lemon law summaries and the statutes for all 50 states and Washington DC can be found at the Lemon Law Resources website at http://www.lemonlawresources.com.)
If you believe your car is a lemon, it is very important that you have proper records to show this. That means that each time you go to your service center, it is very important that they record exactly what you believe the problem is in the car and specify what they did to try to solve the problem. You need to do this for two reasons. First, you will need these records when making a claim for restitution. Second, for these "mystery" problems, dealers will try many different things and it may not be clear to an adjuster that they were all related unless you ensure this is the case on the receipts.
Once your car has passed the state hurdle to be classified to become a lemon, you must take actions to get restitution. Each state has a different procedure you must follow. Some states requre that you send a letter to the manufacturer to give them one last chance to repair the defect. Other states have arbitration panels you must deal with to get restitution.
No matter what method the state has in place for you to seek restitution, you always have the option of working with an attorney if you do not feel the issue was solved to your satisfaction. You should consider an attorney as a last resort as not all states allow you to be reimbursed for your legal fees if you win. (And of course if you lose, you would not get reimbursed.) So as frustrating as this situation may be, it is best to persue all state sponsored remedies before seeking legal help.
What happens if you win?
If your vehicle is determined to be a lemon under your state's law, you are entitled to a refund or a comparable replacement vehicle. A comparable vehicle most be indentical or a reasonable equivalent of your current vehicle. A refund will include your purchase price, taxes and any other options installed in the vehicle minus a usage fee based on how much you used the car. The terms will very a bit from state to state but this is generally what you can expect.
What happens to the car after the manufactuer takes it back?
The manufacturer will generally recondition it and put it back for sale within its network. Depending on the state where the problem occurred, the title may or may not be stamped with a phrase like "Lemon Law Buyback" when it is returned to that state for resale. However, not all states require this and if the car was transferred from one state to another, the information may not follow on the title issued from the new state.
Used car buyer beware!
While lemon cars are only a very small percentage of the used cars that are sold, this issue with titles not always conveying the true history of the car, it shows the importance of doing research on any used car purchase. If you are buying a used car from a dealer, you should insist on a Carfax lemon check report and if you are buying from an individual, you should do one yourself at carfax.com. It is a very reasonable price to pay to be sure your car has no hidden defects.