Lemon laws are in place to protect car buyers in all 50 states, who were sold defective vehicles. A defective vehicle is one that has serious problems that the manufacturer cannot fix. There is no standard in each state for what is considered a defective vehicle. If you’re in the market for a new or used car, knowing your lemon law rights will help you avoid getting stuck with a lemon and won’t drive you crazy.
Written by Todd Carney, J.D. Harvard Law 2021.
Updated October 31, 2021
For many people, a reliable vehicle is an important part of daily life. So learning you put money down for a car, only to discover you have a defective vehicle you can’t drive is frightening. Now you can’t make use of the vehicle to get groceries, pick up your children, or go to work. Fortunately, all states have lemon laws that protect buyers from being stuck with a defective car. But first, it’s important to be sure that your vehicle meets your state’s lemon law requirements. This piece takes you through these lemon law requirements and how to take action if you’re sold a lemon.
Every State Has "Lemon Laws" To Protect Consumers
While lemon laws vary by state, most state lemon laws consider a car a lemon if it has significant, frequent issues that can’t be fixed after several repair attempts. Each state has its own version of a lemon law, but the objective is generally the same: to help prevent consumers from being taken advantage of by dishonest sellers.
What Makes a Vehicle a “Lemon” Under the Law?
In most states, a car can be considered a lemon when:
It has a “nonconformity” or substantial defect that was covered by a warranty. The defect must have caused issues within a certain period of time or number of miles after you purchased the car.
You’ve made a reasonable number of attempts to repair the vehicle, but these attempts have failed and mechanics haven’t been able to fix the issue.
The issue with the car has arisen on its own and it’s the result of your abuse or misuse of the car.
Nonconformities & Substantial Defects
Most states’ lemon laws require there to be a “nonconformity.” This means there’s a substantial defect that’s covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. Importantly, the defect must also significantly impact the vehicle’s use, value, or safety. For example, if there’s an issue that’s causing significant problems in the brakes or steering, that’s a nonconformity. But smaller issues and defects like a loose knob on the radio don’t meet the legal requirement.
Seeing that the first requirement relates to a warranty, you may be wondering if used cars are covered by lemon laws. In most states, they aren’t. Lemon laws often only apply to new cars. But in some states, like California, lemon laws also apply to motorhomes and motorcycles. The California lemon law even covers some used vehicles. Remember that each state will have different laws, so you’ll need to review your state’s laws to learn about the ins and outs of what’s covered.
Reasonable Repair Attempts
Before pursuing legal action under a lemon law, the owner of the vehicle has to prove to the dealership or manufacturer that they’ve made a reasonable number of repair attempts to solve the issue. What’s considered reasonable depends on both state law and on the severity of the defect.
When the vehicle’s issue is a serious safety defect, you only have to make one repair attempt and prove that the issue remains unfixed.
If the issue doesn’t deal with a serious safety defect, you need to make three or four attempts to fix the car before it’s considered a lemon (because those attempts failed). The number of required attempts to fix the vehicle will vary from state to state.
A car may also be considered a lemon if it has to stay in a repair shop for a particular number of days. This is usually around 30 days in a year. The number of days doesn't need to be consecutive. If your car has been in the shop for a total of 30 days in the last year, it may qualify. Again, the car has to have been in the shop to fix one or more defects that are covered under the warranty.
Lemon Laws Provide for a Replacement Vehicle or Refund
If your car meets the legal requirements to be considered a lemon, you may be eligible for either a refund or buyback from the car manufacturer. First, you’ll need to reach out to the manufacturer to notify them of the issue. This is required by law in all states. If the manufacturer fails to provide an acceptable solution, you’ll likely need to go through an arbitration program before you can pursue the issue in court. The manufacturer will often have the power to choose the arbitration program. If you get to select the arbitration program, then you should choose a program provided by the state consumer protection agency.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) provides a free dispute resolution program — known as the BBB Auto Line. This program provides assistance to people looking to solve disputes around lemon laws. The BBB Auto Line is completely optional, and you have the option to go to arbitration (if you meet the eligibility for it) at any time.
If the case does eventually get heard in court, you’ll need to consider the cost of an attorney. Some states, like California, require car manufacturers to pay the consumer’s attorney’s fees, so long as they are reasonable.
Each state has its own set of laws governing defective vehicles. The details of these lemon laws vary by state, but they often cover vehicles with nonconformity issues that are covered by a written warranty. To qualify as a lemon, you’ll have to have made at least one attempt to repair the issue if it’s a serious safety defend. You’ll need to make a reasonable number of repair attempts for less serious issues. This number will be spelled out in your state’s law.
If you think your car is a lemon, you’ll need to contact the manufacturer or dealer first. They will have to replace the car or give you a refund. If you can’t come to an agreement, you’ll likely go through arbitration. Generally, lemon laws cover new cars, but a few states’ laws cover used cars and other kinds of vehicles like RVs.