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Lemon Law

Find out how you are protected under the lemon law.

Lemon laws are in place to protect consumers from faulty products. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Lemon laws are in place to protect consumers from faulty products.

Every so often, a recently purchased new or used car will have irreparable problems to such a severe degree that the cars are deemed lemons. It's every car buyer's worst nightmare. In the past, the buyer of a lemon would be stuck with their purchase, but buyers are now protected under a variety of consumer-protection laws collectively nicknamed "lemon laws."

What is a lemon law?

Though consumers are generally protected to a certain extent under the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act -- sometimes called the "Federal Lemon Law" -- individual states also enact their own lemon laws to specifically protect motor vehicle buyers. These laws vary from state to state, but they generally establish guidelines regarding the procedure and requirements for manufacturers or dealers to replace a "lemon." Lemon laws also provide guidelines for how to go about taking advantage of a lemon law. This may be through mediation, arbitration or a court process.

In general, lemon laws rely on two factors. First, the vehicle's problem must be detrimental to the safety or use of the car. Second, the problems must occur within a certain time frame of purchase, known as the warranty period. This warranty period varies depending on the type of vehicle and whether it was used or new.

It's important to note that a lemon law does not provide blanket protection for buyers of motor vehicles. The laws are in place to protect consumers from faulty products, not to bail them out if they are having second thoughts or buyer's remorse.

Lemon Laws by State

All U.S. states currently have some form of a lemon law on the books, meaning that no matter where consumers live, they'll be protected. Each state has its own version of a lemon law, therefore there is no universal rule about what officially constitutes a "lemon." Nor is there a universal rule for which types of vehicles are covered.

For example, some states, such as California and Florida, only provide protection for new car purchases, while other states, such as Massachusetts, have legislation in place to protect buyers of both new and used vehicles. Additionally, some states have special provisions for RVs, motorcycles and other types of vehicles.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) provides a summary of each state's lemon law.

More information about individual state's lemon laws can be found by contacting the local Better Business Bureau, or by contacting a local consumer protection office.

How to Take Advantage of Lemon Laws

Taking advantage of lemon laws can sometimes be just as much of a hassle as dealing with a lemon vehicle in the first place. Again, these laws vary by state, but there are a few tips that apply to everyone dealing with a lemon.

  • Keep a copy of all written records regarding the vehicle.
  • Keep a record detailing telephone and in-person conversations with mechanics and dealers about the vehicle's repairs.
  • Create a timeline of all the repairs, discussions and problems with the vehicle. Lemon laws are highly time-sensitive, so being able to prove when problems occurred can make all the difference.

These may seem like tedious tasks, but written evidence is very important when it comes to arbitration or a court decision about a vehicle.

When dealing with a lemon, first try to work out the problem with the dealer or manufacturer. In a perfect world, the dealer will be willing to buy back the defective vehicle, or replace it with a new one.

If the dealer refuses to make a deal, or insists that the vehicle is not covered under the lemon law, the consumer will have to contact the local consumer protection office. Just as each state enacts its own lemon laws, each state has its own way of resolving lemon-law conflicts.

The first step in many states is mediation, in which a government-appointed mediator attempts to bring the two sides together to make a deal. However, if the sides are uncooperative, the case may go to arbitration. During arbitration a government-appointed arbiter hears both sides and makes a definitive and final judgment. In some cases, lemon-law cases might go to court. If that's the case, most experts suggest contacting a lawyer who is familiar with the lemon laws in the state where the dispute is taking place.

Though most administration of lemon laws is conducted through state consumer agencies, the Better Business Bureau might be able to help if the vehicle was purchased new. Through its BBB AutoLine program, the bureau helps mediate and arbitrate disputes between consumers and a number of major auto manufacturers. For more on the BBB AutoLine program, as well as a complete list of participating manufacturers, visit the BBB AutoLine Web site.

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