Car & Driver

The Lemon Law: What You Need to Know

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Buying a car can be an exciting -- and confusing -- process. Make sure you are familiar with your state's lemon law so you don't get taken for a costly car-repair ride.

You just bought a car. It looks great, drives great and even came with a warranty.

Before long, though, you start to notice some problems. You take the car back to the dealer to get it fixed. It runs better for a week or so, and then the problems are back.

You start to suspect that you’ve bought a “lemon car.” Can you get your money back because of your state’s lemon law? Maybe.

What is the lemon law?

Lemon laws are designed to provide options for people who’ve bought cars (and other products) that don’t meet quality and performance standards.

There is a federal lemon law and each state also has their own lemon laws. To review your state’s lemon law, check out the Better Business Bureau’s overview of lemon laws in each state.

Lemon law requirements

Lemon laws don’t apply to every situation. In general, the problems with the vehicle must occur while the car is under warranty. It doesn’t have to be a new car warranty, however. It could be a more limited warranty that came with a used car.

The federal lemon law requires that:

  • The manufacturer has tried to repair the same problem “a reasonable number of times” (usually three or four, but that’s determined by the court) without success — or that you’ve had several different problems with the same car that make it unusable.

  • Attempts to fix the problems happened within the first one or two years you owned the car.

  • You’ve been unable to use the car due to repairs for at least 30 days (not necessarily consecutively).

In addition to following the requirements for the federal lemon law (and any state-specific lemon laws), keep these tips in mind:

  • Only take your car to the dealership for repairs if you want to get results under a new or used car lemon law. If you take it to another mechanic, the manufacturer can’t be held responsible for the work.

  • Keep detailed records of every repair. If the case goes to court, you’ll have to show that the manufacturer had plenty of chances to fix your car but could not. You’ll also need to prove how long your car wasn’t available to you due to the problems and attempted repairs.

  • Consider hiring an attorney. Car manufacturers have teams of lawyers who know how to deal with lemon law claims. Having an attorney with lemon law experience in your corner can bring you peace of mind and, potentially, a better result. If you win the lemon law case, the defendant (usually the car manufacturer) is responsible for your attorney costs.

Before you go to court

Part of the agreement you signed when you bought your car may include an arbitration clause. That means that you agree to take any disputes to arbitration, which involves negotiating a settlement or agreement, instead of going to court.

Some states mandate the use of the Better Business Bureau Auto Line before you can file a lawsuit. In other states, you may have to use an arbitrator who’s been selected and hired by the manufacturer. Either way, having an experienced lemon law attorney on your side is a smart idea even if your case doesn’t end up in court.

Winning a lemon law case isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Learning as much as you can about the process, keeping careful records and working with an attorney will give you the best chance for success.

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