Dealing with car repairs can be a frustrating experience if you recently purchased the vehicle. If your vehicle isn't running as it should or keeps breaking down, it might be a “lemon”—a word coined to describe a car that repeatedly malfunctions, often due to a chronic problem. If your vehicle qualifies as a lemon under state or federal law, you might be entitled to a refund or to have the car replaced.
Is Your Car a "Lemon"?
Lemon owners often find themselves taking the car to the repair shop multiple times, and sometimes the problems are so extensive that you can't—or shouldn’t—drive it. Taking your car to the shop repeatedly doesn't necessarily mean that the vehicle is a lemon, however. If you are dealing with a problem that is fixable with a single repair, you should consider resolving the repair under the car's warranty or service contract. For more information, see Disputes over Vehicle Warranties.
How Lemon Laws Protect You
Most state and federal lemon laws enforce an existing warranty on the car. If the manufacturer or dealer fails to repair the vehicle under warranty, a lemon law might require the noncompliant party to replace the vehicle or refund your money. This obligation is not automatic, however. The law allows the dealer or maker to fix the problem within a reasonable amount of time.
(You can read about things that you should know before buying a used car from an individual in Buying A Used Car Privately.)
Car Warranties: The Basics
It’s important to know something about car warranties and how they relate to lemon laws. Here are a few brief explanations.
Express warranty. If you purchased a new car, it likely came with a written warranty (sometimes called an express warranty). An express warranty is an explicit promise (usually made in writing) from the car manufacturer or dealer that the car will perform as it should for a particular time. In most cases, express warranties don’t cover everything that could go wrong. For instance, warranty coverage might limit repairs to the first three years or 36,000 miles of ownership, whichever comes first. State and federal lemon laws are used to enforce an express warranty when the dealer or maker fails to honor it.
Implied warranty. An implied warranty is neither spoken or written—and it’s not a promise that everything in the car will operate correctly and that the car won't break down. Rather, it’s a promise that the car has no defects that will prevent it from running as it should. An implied warranty is automatic and effective when you purchase the car. However, the dealer can disclaim an implied warranty in the buyer's guide. (The buyer's guide is a notice that a dealer must post on the car that states whether the car comes with any warranty, and if it does, what the warranty covers.) The dealer can disclaim any implied warranties in the buyer's guide. Specifically, the guide will say that the dealer is selling you the car "As Is” (the car has no written or implied warranties). Most state lemon laws do not apply to implied warranties. However, the federal lemon law might protect you if the dealer breached an implied warranty (more below).
Service contract. A service contract, or "extended warranty," isn’t a warranty at all. Instead, it’s a separate contract that covers particular repairs within a specified period. Service contracts apply when the new car is out of warranty, or when a used car doesn’t have an implied warranty.
These requirements only apply to dealers. A private seller usually sells you the car "as is" because a private seller is not required to provide you with a buyer's guide or sell you a car with an implied warranty unless your purchase agreement specifically includes one.
(For more about warranties, visit our Consumer Law Warranty FAQ.)
State Lemon Laws
Many states have lemon laws that protect you if a dealer sells you a defective car that came with an express warranty. Typically, this protection covers new cars within a certain age or mileage range, such as the first 12 months or 18,000 miles, whichever occurs first. Some lemon laws apply to used vehicles, too, depending on whether the used car came with an express warranty.
Most laws require you to give the dealer a reasonable opportunity to repair the vehicle. Some states, such as Ohio, specifically describe what that means. For example, in Ohio, one of the following conditions must be met before you can seek relief under its lemon law:
- The car was in the shop for 30 continuous days or more.
- The car was in the shop on three occasions for the same problem.
- The car was in the shop at least eight times for different problems.
- The car was in the shop once for a problem severe enough to affect its safety.
California's version is slightly different. One of the following conditions must apply:
- The car was in the shop for 30 continuous days or more.
- The car was in the shop four times for the same problem.
- The car was in the shop twice for a problem severe enough to affect its safety.
If your vehicle qualifies as a lemon and the problem persists even after you gave the dealer or maker a reasonable opportunity to fix it, then you might be entitled to the following:
- a refund of the car's purchase price, or
- replacement of the vehicle.
Also, you might be entitled to attorney fees if the dealer or maker denies your request for a refund or replacement and you file a lawsuit under your state's lemon law.
Be careful, though. Even if your car is a lemon, you’ll likely remain liable for payments on the car loan or lease because lemon laws do not typically cancel the debt related to the vehicle. However, your state's consumer laws might give you the right to cancel or rescind the car loan under certain circumstances.
Lemon laws are complicated and vary from state to state. You should consult with a consumer attorney in your state to determine your rights.
Federal Lemon Law: The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act
If your state’s lemon law doesn’t provide you with relief, you might find protection under the federal law—the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (MMWA). Specifically, if you purchased a service plan or extended warranty within 90 days of buying a new or used car, the MMWA protects you. While many state lemon laws only cover express warranties, in some instances, the MMWA applies to implied warranties, which is helpful if your vehicle is outside of the written warranty.
As with state lemon laws, under the MMWA the dealer gets a reasonable opportunity to fix the problem. Unlike some state lemon laws, however, you aren’t entitled to a replacement vehicle under the MMWA. Instead, you can seek a refund of the purchase price, as well as attorney fees, in some cases.
When Your Car Is out of Warranty
Some states have consumer protection laws that prohibit dealers from misrepresenting the condition of the car. So if your car repeatedly breaks down after your warranty expires, or if you bought a used car as-is and did not get a service plan, you might be entitled to some form of relief.
(For an overview of consumer resources, see Consumer Protection Laws.)
Questions for Your Attorney
- How many times do I need to take my car in before the car is a lemon in my state?
- Do I need to file a complaint with a state or federal agency before I sue under the lemon laws?
- How long do I have to sue?