You’ve probably heard of “lemons” as the term pertains to cars, but the details of consumer protections and lemon laws — and what to do if you find yourself with a useless vehicle — can get complicated quickly. Here we outline useful definitions and steps to take if your newest expensive purchase ends up leaving a bitter taste in your mouth.
What is a “lemon” in the automotive world?
A lemon is a vehicle — a car, light truck, SUV, or motorcycle — that doesn’t perform as expected after purchase and cannot be repaired in such a way that it will meet expected standards.
What is the lemon law?
Lemon laws exist to protect car buyers in the U.S. from fraudulent “lemon” sales. The law effectively functions as a state-issued warranty that extends to all new vehicles sold by dealerships in the state. Lemon laws are part of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, also known as the Federal Lemon Law, which protects all consumer goods. The details of lemon laws vary state to state, but they’re based on things like vehicle age and mileage, and they usually extend for 30 to 90 days post-purchase.
Some states, but not many, also have their own “Used-Car Lemon Laws.” More on that below.
When does the lemon law apply?
In every state, consumers purchasing new cars are protected by lemon laws. If you buy a new car and it has a major defect you didn’t realize beforehand, the dealership is either on the hook for repairs or a buy-back.
But when we think of a lemon, we most often picture a used car artificially made to look in better shape than it is in reality: a freshly painted exterior that hides extensive damage underneath—all epoxy and duct tape shoddy repairs. Surprisingly, though, lemon laws infrequently apply to used cars.
The particulars of lemon laws vary by state. Each state sets its own standards about:
- What qualifies as a lemon (For example, even though Massachusetts has a used-car lemon law, used cars sold in the state for under $700 or with more than 125,000 miles on them are sold “as is” and aren’t covered)
- How many times the owner must try to repair the car before it can be declared a lemon (In Connecticut, for instance, you’ll have to try to make a repair four times before the car will be declared a lemon)
- How long the owner can have the car and how many miles he or she can put on it and still have it declared a lemon
Which states have lemon laws?
While new cars are covered by lemon laws in every state, used car lemon laws are relatively new, and fewer than half of U.S. state legislatures have passed even minimal protections.
Just six states have used-car lemon laws: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York. In these states alone, if a used car breaks down in the first 60 days of ownership, and the dealer can’t repair it, the dealership must buy the car back.
Thirteen other states, plus Washington, D.C., have some protections for used car buyers: Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia.
Laws vary in these states, but dealers must abide by protections like avoiding deceptive selling practices and minimum warranties. In Arizona, for example, a dealer must either repair or buy back any used vehicle that breaks down in the first 15 days with a new owner. While that might not sound like much, it prevents egregious examples of exploitation like Jessie Nappier of Florida experienced. ABC News reported that Nappier paid $3,000 for a car that broke down 13 miles after he purchased it, and the dealer simply said, “tough luck,” and wasn’t required to take the car back for fix it under Florida law.
Why do so few states have lemon laws?
Legislatures might say used-car lemon laws would impede their state’s economy.
Consumer protection advocates might say dealership lobbies have deep pockets.
Some experts argue that even states with existing used car lemon laws don’t do enough to protect buyers. “Most existing used car lemon laws are so limited in scope — the number of days the car is covered and the allowable mileage — that the consumer may not experience the problem or won’t have a chance to act on the problem in that time period,” John Van Alst, used-car fraud expert with the National Consumer Law Center, told Edmunds.com.
What is your recourse if you live in a state with no lemon law?
If you buy a car “as is,” then you’re entering into a contract doing just that. If something major goes wrong really quickly with the car, you can turn to your state’s department of consumer affairs, DMV or attorney general’s office, explains NOLO. If used car lots are regulated in your state, one of these agencies might be able to help you resolve a dispute.
Or, you can choose to sue the dealer in small claims court, but it’s tricky. NOLO has some tips:
- You can argue fraud. If the car broke down very soon after purchase, you can argue that you were defrauded because you intended to purchase a working vehicle, not an unusable pile of metal.
- If the dealer made promises (either verbally or in writing), you might be able to make them keep their word, but you’ll probably need evidence (like an ad for the car) or witnesses.
Avoiding Buying a Lemon
The best thing you can do though when used car shopping is to put in the leg work on the front end to make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for. But any time you buy a used car, even if you live in a state with some consumer protections, it’s important to be proactive:
- Conduct thorough research about pricing with independent sources like the NADA, Kelley Blue Book, and Edmunds, and check out the prices for similar cars in similar conditions online or in the paper.
- “Even if a car has passed the dealer’s inspection, the wise buyer gets an independent mechanic and a body shop to inspect it on a lift,” says Edmunds.
Even “Certified Pre-Owned” vehicles sold from dealerships aren’t foolproof buys, explains Car and Driver. These cars are inspected according to the manufacturer’s standards and carry manufacturer-backed warranties. Still, read the fine print:
- Coverage is usually divided into a powertrain warranty covering the engine, transmission, and other major systems, and a limited warranty covering a myriad of other items—this coverage varies widely manufacturer to manufacturer. But things that are expected to show signs of use, like brake pads and paint, are almost never covered.
- Getting repairs outside the manufacturer’s network or missing scheduled maintenance could void your warranty.
We hope you shop with caution while still enjoying the experience!