And what to do if you get stuck with one

The last thing you want to buy is a car with recurring problems that can’t be fixed. Fortunately, you don’t have to get stuck with a lemon. Laws protecting you against automakers for breach of warranties have gotten tougher. In general, a new vehicle (or certified preowned vehicle or used vehicle still under factory warranty) is deemed a lemon if it has been repaired more than three times for the same defect… or if the flaw substantially impairs the vehicle’s safety, value or use… or if it spent 30 days or more in the repair shop within your first year of ownership.

The laws vary from state to state, but often the manufacturer is required to replace the vehicle or buy it back from you. About 100,000 lemons are bought back annually by automakers in the US. Helpful resources: Find a guide to the lemon laws in your state at Or call your state’s attorney general’s office (


For new cars, do the following…

  • Compare reviews of different makes and models at Also, check Consumer Reports (available at your library or through subscription at
  • Review car complaint data about the vehicle you’re interested in. It is compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (888-327-4236, For 2008, the most problematic new models include Toyota FJ Cruiser, Dodge Nitro, Lexus ES and Hyundai Entourage.
  • For used cars that are still under warranty or certified preowned cars, do the following…

  • Ask the dealer if there is anything about the vehicle’s prior history that could void the warranty—and get his/her response in writing.
  • Check, which lets you perform a free check to see if there are any reports that the vehicle was ever in an accident or a flood. Also, your insurance company can run the vehicle identification number (VIN) to see if an accident claim was ever made.

  • Try to resolve repair issues with the dealer. The service manager knows that it is in his best interest to fix your car and retain a satisfied customer. Avoid throwing around the term “lemon” or threatening to sue. Once a customer mentions a lawsuit, dealers tend to be much less cooperative.

  • Maintain a good paper trail. Make sure the work order for each of your service visits clearly lists the following…
  • Odometer readings. Lemon law provisions are based on the mileage and age when the problem first occurred and vary by state. Example: In New Jersey, you can file a claim on a new car in the first 24 months or 18,000 miles from the date of delivery, whichever comes first.
  • Why the car was brought in. Lemon laws generally don’t apply until you have had the same recurring problem repaired more than three times. If the language on the work orders isn’t exactly the same, it could endanger your claim. Example: If you bring the car in for a defective starter on one visit, don’t let the same problem be referred to as an “engine problem” on a subsequent visit.
  • Dealer trick: “Forgetting” to give you paperwork for a repair performed for free. Always get an invoice.

  • Ask about Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs). These are instructions from the manufacturer that alert dealers about defects or repairs in certain models. You can find TSBs for vehicles dating back to 1960 at The site charges $26.95 per year for one vehicle and $16.95 for each additional vehicle.
  • Follow service protocols. Most lemon laws do not apply if the problem is deemed to be the result of owner “abuse,” including failure to maintain and service the vehicle correctly. Example: If you change your own oil, make sure you have proof that you did it per the factory time/mileage interval with the correct weight oil and an approved filter, not a generic off-brand. Otherwise, the dealer might claim that not following recommended protocols was responsible for the damage to your car.
  • Call the manufacturer if you’re not satisfied with how your dealer is resolving a problem. The manufacturer’s phone number is in the back of the service manual. If the manufacturer’s representative cannot help, he likely will recommend arbitration. (In some states, arbitration is mandatory before you can sue under a lemon law.) Arbitration is a process in which you present your case to a board that consists of consumer representatives, a new car dealer and an automotive expert.
  • If you decide to sue, consider hiring an attorney. Automakers tend to play hardball with customers who attempt to represent themselves in lawsuits. Be sure you find an attorney who specializes in lemon laws in the state in which you purchased the car. In most cases, a reputable attorney will not charge you for an initial consultation. Also, in most states, the lemon law includes a fee-shifting provision, which means that if you win your case, the manufacturer must pay all attorney fees and legal costs on top of what you, the consumer, receive.
  • Helpful resource: You can find an attorney specializing in lemon laws at

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