My Car is a Lemon! What Now?

Photo: Jurek Durczak

It all looked so great at the outset. But numerous trips to the mechanic and problems at the side of the road have shown you that you unwittingly purchased a lemon of a car. Here is some information to help you navigate the wonderful world of lemons.


Unfortunately, most measures of protection are only afforded to those who purchased the car new. And frugally speaking, it has been mentioned in more than one place here on Wise Bread that maybe buying a brand new car is not the wisest financial move.

Be that as it may, let's say you bought a new car and are stuck with a lemon.

Every state has lemon saws to help consumers, and you can receive help from them if:

  • Your car has a "substantial warranty defect" crop up within a certain time frame (usually one year) or a certain number of miles. Substantial defects are those that prevent safe use of the car, such as brakes, turn signals, or major mechanical defects. So that loose door handle won't qualify. There are a number of grey areas in these definitions though, so it always pays to check it out.
  • The defect has to be covered under the car's express warranty (which is the manufacturer's promise that your vehicle is protected against "xyz", which may be different from the official manufacturer's warranty).
  • The problem must remain after a few repair attempts (usually three or four) and have been in the shop for 30 cumulative days in the defined time or mileage periods.

Should you satisfy the rigorous requirements above, you are likely entitled to a refund or replacement car from the manufacturer. The first step is to inform the manufacturer of the warranty defect. Following steps vary from state to state, according to the respective lemon laws.

Make sure you have the following documentation for any eventual hearings or arbitration processes:

  • Detailed service records.
  • Brochures and ads about the vehicle, to illustrate that the manufacturer didn't live up to its claims (ie: express warranties).
  • Any other documentation you can find to illustrate contact attempts, phone records, calendars, or other attempts to talk to the dealer about the car.


There still may be recourse for you if your used car has a substantial warranty defect. Here are a few following possible signs of relief:

  • Check the written sales contracts or other ad documents from when you bought the car. They may indicate an express warranty that is enforceable.
  • Some states prohibit or limit "as is" sales, or require special disclosures.
  • Some states apply lemon law to demo cars.
  • Many states require used cars to satisfy certain minimum safety and equipment standards, which your lemon may be in breach of.


It sounds crazy, but almost all manufacturers have secret warranties or warranty adjustment programs. They want to avoid the public embarrassment and bad press of a recall.

Under these terms, the manufacturer will repair the problem free of charge, even if the initial warranty has expired.

And of course, since it's a secret warranty, you won't know about it! You must bring the problem to your dealer or manufacturer's attention and demand repair.

You can find out about secret warranty programs at the Center for Auto Safety.



And if you figure you have a lemon on your hands, check out Autopedia, which summarizes each state's lemon laws.

You can also find information about specific defects at the Center for Auto Safety, as well as the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.

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Guest's picture

Records, records, records. Phone conversations you had with service advisers, detailed notes of anything a mechanic told you, EVERYTHING you can possibly imagine. I sued VW under the Lemon Law back in the 1990's and they denied everything right up until just hours before we headed to court - then all of a sudden they took the car, paid all my lawyers fees, and gave me back my purchase price. But it took nearly 1.5 years to get to that point, and at first they said there was nothing wrong, then they started giving me offers like "we will give you $5000 but we get the car"...well, where would that have left me?

All I can say is keep every piece of paper you thought you did not need, and it will make your life easier. As for "you are likely entitled to a refund or replacement car from the manufacturer" - though we might be entitled, they don't just give us new cars or our money back. It's a big fight!

Guest's picture

I have just found out that we may have a lemon on our hands. A used car purchase.

So my possibly painful journey is just beginning.


Guest's picture

My car's problem isn't mechanical or making it unsafe. The air conditioner has stopped working 3 times and the sunroof is still leaking after 5 attempts by the dealer to correct. As a result of the leaking my car seems like it has been through a flood with the mildew and stagnant smell associated with it. The dealer and manufacturer have told me they are doing everything they can to make it like new again but the joy is gone. It's only 4 months old with less than 6,000 miles. Is it still a lemon with these problems? I am getting nowhere with the dealer or manufacturer in getting a buy back.

Guest's picture

Oftentimes it is better to work with the manufacturer directly rather than getting a lemon law attorney firm involved. Some manufacturers will trade you out of your old vehicle and into a new one but won't do that if you are working with an attorney. It is also faster and you get more money if you work with the manufacturer as the attorney takes a portion of your award. If you don't like the manufacturer's response or you need help you can go through the BBB Auto Line program. It is free and most manufacturers participate.