Creative Consumer: Lemon Laws

To the general public, a "lemon" is slang for a crummy car — one that gives you a sour feeling and puts a grimace on your face. To the government, a lemon is a crummy new car. This distinction causes a lot of confusion.

Plenty of consumers contact me to complain about the lemons they've bought. The first thing I always ask is "New or used?" The callers always seem surprised. I guess they're wondering what could be wrong with a new car. The answer is plenty.

Each state's lemon law is a little different. Generally, you must have purchased or leased the car brand new. In some cases you can make a claim if the previous owner bought the car a short time ago and then quickly sold it to you.

Some state lemon laws only cover vehicles used primarily for personal use. Others include cars and sport utility vehicles but exclude motorcycles.

Each state sets a time and mileage limit. For example, you may be required to make a lemon law claim within 15 months or 15,000 miles of buying the vehicle. Explore the lemon law in your state for details.

Each state also defines what counts as a lemon. For example, in one state if the dealer can't correct critical brake or steering problems in one try, the car is considered a lemon. In another, a car is defined as a lemon if the dealer has tried and failed three times to repair a repeat flaw. In a third state, the lemon law covers new cars that have been in the shop for a cumulative total of more than 30 days.

If you believe your car is a lemon, it's your responsibility to notify the manufacturer. Let the dealer know, too. I recommend doing so in writing, by certified mail.

Once all the dealer's repair attempts have been exhausted, the manufacturer is required to repair or replace your car. Of course, many manufacturers fight this, and you may have to get help. Your state consumer protection office can give you guidance. Many manufacturers participate in arbitration, like the Better Business Bureau's Autoline program.

If all else fails, you'll have to sue in court. Lemon law procedures should be outlined in your vehicle's warranty manual.

Back to you used-car buyers. Some states now require vehicles that were returned as lemons to carry a permanent "brand" on the title. This lemon alert lets subsequent buyers know that they may be purchasing a problem car.

Do Your Homework

Learn the lemon law in your state.

If you believe your car may qualify, immediately send the dealer and manufacturer a certified letter putting them on notice that you may act under the lemon law. Don't wait — you don't want to miss the deadline.

Mark your calendar for each day your new car spends in the shop.

Keep detailed records of every repair and write down the names and numbers of everybody you speak with in connection with your claim.

You can check to see whether cars of your make and model are the subjects of any recalls or service bulletins. To obtain a list, contact the Center for Auto Safety at (202) 328-7700 and/or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at (800) 424-9393. Also try going online and typing your make and model into a search engine.

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