Think You've Been Stuck With a Lemon?

Here's How To Know — and What To Do


  • Stranded Driver

    Stranded Driver

    "Just what I needed right now." A lemon could leave you stranded by the side of the road...or it could just be a tremendous waste of time and energy. | March 18, 2010

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You only have a lemon, by common definition, if it has a persistent defect that substantially impairs its use, value or safety. It's actually rather difficult to end up with a lemon today; production quality across the board is far better today than even five years ago and certainly much more than a generation ago.

But manufacturers certainly mess up on occasion. If your car has had a "reasonable" number of repair attempts for the same defect within the car's warranty period and the defect still hasn't been corrected, the car may qualify as a lemon. If this sounds like your situation, don't fret. With a little persistence, a lot of knowledge and — worst case — the help of a lemon law attorney, you can achieve a satisfactory resolution to your automotive angst: a real fix, another vehicle altogether, or monetary compensation for the piece of junk. Here's how to think about it and what to do.

See If Your Problem Is Common

If you're having a persistent problem with your vehicle, go online to learn if the same thing is happening to others. Edmunds' Forums are a good place to start your research by chatting with other owners. You may get quick confirmation that you're dealing with a prevalent problem, which may make things easier when you speak to the dealer service department — at least in terms of your sense of conviction.

Also check out Edmunds' Consumer Reviews, where vehicle owners often detail their complaints for each make and model.

Of course, just because no one else may be experiencing your particular form of frustration with a vehicle doesn't make your dilemma any less real. That's why it's important to let your dealer know right away whenever your car has a problem. Early identification of a problem to a dealership gives you solid proof of your efforts to get a warranty remedy.

Find Out What the Manufacturer Knows

As recently as 10 years ago, it was possible for auto manufacturers and dealers to arrange for "secret warranties" for particular, acknowledged defects. Fixes would be granted only to consumers who were persistent in demanding repair and/or compensation. Typically, secret warranties have been outlined in what the industry calls Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) that automakers send out to their dealer service departments.

But it's much more difficult to keep these kinds of problems secret these days. For one thing, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains a database of recalls and TSBs filed by manufacturers for each make and model, and that information is easily accessible through Edmunds' Maintenance Calculator.

"The Internet is imposing a new transparency on auto companies," said Alan Dean, vice president of business information for BrandIntel, a Toronto-based company that tracks and evaluates online conversation for companies. "People are even posting some of these Technical Service Bulletins."

Does Your State Think It's a Lemon, Too?

State laws vary in what constitutes a "persistent" problem or the "reasonable" number of repair attempts that would get you over the border into lemon territory. In Connecticut and New York, for example, four repair attempts is the state standard for "reasonable," according to Connecticut attorney Sergei Lemberg, whose site, Lemon Justice, can help determine if you've got a lemon. But in Massachusetts, the law requires three attempts to repair the same problem in the first 15,000 miles — and one last attempt to get the manufacturer to address the defect after that.

At the same time, state standards also differ on what types of problems are substantial enough to qualify for their lemon procedures. Typically, Lemberg said, any persistent problem having to do with the engine, transmission or brakes has the making of a lemon. On the other hand, cosmetics such as paint problems, soft trim falling off, or even radios going on the fritz aren't significant enough. And some things, such as air-conditioning systems, the attorney said, are in a gray area.

Engaging the Lemon Law Process

If you don't get satisfaction after a couple of service visits, you're ready for the next stage. Edmunds' story, "Getting Some Lemon-Aid From Your Lemon Maker", outlines the process you should follow if you believe you've been stuck with a lemon.

It might cost you $200 to $300 to follow the procedure, depending on what state you live in. The chances of winning in arbitration on your own are about 50-50, according to Lemberg. Or you can get help from an attorney.

In any event, victory consists of getting the manufacturer to buy back your vehicle, refund the purchase price or replace it with another vehicle, depending on the specific remedy called for in each state's lemon law. In most states, the manufacturer also has to reimburse you for your direct costs in pressing the claim, or your legal fees, if you win through arbitration.

And the U.S. government's Federal Citizen Information Center's Consumer Action Web site provides a great overview, with searchable access to the free 2007 Consumer Action Handbook, a 176-page guide that helps consumers make decisions in all categories of transactions, including autos.

"The auto industry is more concerned than ever with quality and safety, and if you follow the procedures we outline, you'll have an excellent chance of getting your problem solved," said Mary Levy, director of consumer information and outreach for the Federal Citizen Information Center.

Reckon With the Dealer's Role

A principled and friendly dealer can make your experience with your lemon much more pleasant and easy to resolve — or just the opposite. This is one very important reason to be extra careful where you buy your vehicle. Before buying your car, ask your salesperson for the dealer's Customer Satisfaction Index scores from the manufacturer. Research the dealer through the local Better Business Bureau. And check out Edmunds' Dealer Ratings and Reviews.

A dealer who has a great reputation for trustworthiness wants to guard his good name, so this research could act as good inoculation against buying a lemon in the first place. And if the dealer values you as a repeat customer, so much the better.

Dale Buss is a journalist in Michigan and has covered the auto business for more than 20 years.

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