What Is a Lemon Law?

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by Carter Kilmann

When life gives you lemons, make sure you know your lemon laws.

When you buy a car, you have certain expectations. While every car, truck, or SUV is unique, every motor vehicle should perform as advertised.

Buying a car, used or new, is already a time-consuming process. The last thing you want is to find out you have a defective vehicle. But, in the event that it happens, it’s important to know your options.

If you’ve recently purchased a car, or you’re in the market for one, you should understand lemon laws.

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What Are Lemon Laws?

Lemon laws protect consumers that buy faulty products.

What kind of consumer protection? Your vehicle’s manufacturer might have to either fix, replace, or buy back your vehicle. That depends on if it qualifies as a lemon under your state’s lemon laws. But, as you’ll soon find out, lemon laws vary from state to state.

For example, South Carolina’s lemon laws cover state-registered motorcycles. But Kentucky’s lemon laws don’t protect motorcycles at all. And while used cars can qualify as lemons in some states, they’re not covered in most.

What makes a vehicle a “lemon”? 

A lemon is vehicle with a significant manufacturing defect that impairs the vehicle’s safety, utility, or value. (Note that this does not apply to defects that result from an accident, abuse, neglect, modification, or alteration.)

The legal definition of a lemon (which, again, depends on your state) can be a little more complicated. Generally speaking, a motor vehicle is a lemon if it meets one or several of the following criteria:

  1. The vehicle has a significant defect.
  2. The significant defect occurred within a certain amount of time or miles.
  3. There has been a reasonable number of attempts to repair the vehicle.
  4. The vehicle’s repair process has exceeded a certain number of days.

Now that you know what lemon laws are, let’s walk through a few lemon law terms.

3 Lemon Law Terms to Know

To understand your rights under your state’s lemon laws, it’s important to know these three terms: express warranty, rights period, and repair attempts. These terms and the specifics of these definitions will depend on your state.

1. Express Warranty

Express warranties document the manufacturer’s promises of product quality, performance, and repair. In essence, it’s the manufacturer’s guarantee that your product meets a certain standard. You might receive your new vehicle’s express warranty in marketing materials or your owner’s manual.

2. Rights Period

Lemon laws are usually constrained to a certain period of time or number of miles. For example, in Hawaii, a significant defect must occur within the earlier of (a) the manufacturer’s express warranty period, (b) two years, or (c) 24,000 miles. Otherwise, it’s not considered to be the manufacturer’s problem.

3. Repair Attempts

In most cases, before a car becomes a lemon, the manufacturer has several chances to fix the vehicle’s defect. Important: The same defect must be the subject of each repair attempt.

The exact number of attempts allowed depends on your state. For instance, South Carolina’s lemon laws define “a reasonable number of repair attempts” as three attempts. In comparison, Arizona requires four.

On top of that, the manufacturer usually has a limited amount of time to repair your vehicle’s defect. If your car’s service takes longer than a set time period (usually around 30 days), your car can also be a lemon.

Note that some states use calendar days while others use business days. For example, Hawaii uses business days while Nevada uses calendar days.

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Which States Have Lemon Laws?

The good news: Every state has lemon laws.

The bad news: Most states don’t have lemon laws for used vehicle purchases. But, there are a few states that have lemon laws or some form of car-buyer protections. Nine states have lemon laws that apply to used vehicle purchases too.

  1. Arizona: The Arizona Used Car Lemon Law covers your vehicle if a major component breaks earlier than 15 days or 500 miles after the purchase.
  2. Connecticut: Under the state’s used car lemon law, used vehicles purchased for $5,000 or more have a warranty lasting 60 days or 3,000 miles covering all parts and labor.
  3. Hawaii: Used vehicles meeting lemon law requirements (less than 5 years old, costs more than $1,500, between 12,000 and 75,000 miles, among others) must be sold with a written warranty ranging from 30 to 90 days. Coverage is for specified mechanical parts only.
  4. Massachusetts: Dealers must provide a warranty for all used cars under 125,000 miles that sell for $700 or more. If mileage is under 40,000 miles, warranty period is 90 days or 3,750 miles.
  5. Minnesota: The lemon law covers lightly used vehicles that are still under the original manufacturer’s warranty. Defect(s) must be reported within the warranty period or two years.
  6. New Jersey: Lemon law covers used passenger vehicles that are seven or less model-years old. Price must be $3,000 or more and mileage cannot exceed 100,000 at the time of purchase. Warranty period ranges from 30 to 90 days or 24,000 to 60,000 miles.
  7. New Mexico: Dealers must provide a 15-day, 500-mile warranty on all used vehicles. During this time, any repairs must be done by the dealership.
  8. New York: Lemon law coverage applies to personal used cars purchased, leased, or transferred after 18,000 miles or two years from original delivery (whichever is earlier) in the state of New York. Vehicles purchase price must be at least $1,500 with less than 100,000 miles. Warranty ranges from 30 to 90 days, 18,001 to 100,000 miles.
  9. Rhode Island: The state’s lemon law covers defect and malfunctions in used cars up to one year or 15,000 miles from the date of the vehicle’s delivery to the customer.

 

U.S. States With Lemon Laws for Used Cars

 

The lemon law requirements of these states can be quite different. Arizona’s and New Mexico’s lemon laws cover used cars with significant defects if they occur before the earlier of 15 days and 500 miles. But, in states like Massachusetts, your warranty period changes depending on the car’s odometer reading or car’s age.

If you’d like to read more about your state’s specific lemon laws, check out the Better Business Bureau’s state-by-state overview.

How to Deal With a Lemon

The exact process for dealing with a lemon is different in every state. But, in most cases, you have to notify the dealership or manufacturer of your car’s defect. States allow for a “reasonable number of attempts” to fix the defect. Until that happens, you can’t take further action.

Make sure to document everything — like your vehicle’s issues and attempted repairs. Otherwise, you’ll have a harder time making your case.

It’s important not to rely on your dealership or manufacturer’s records of your service requests, repair history, or warranty claims. Keep organized records of your repairs and correspondence with your dealership and manufacturer. Always review invoices and repair orders before signing them — if you catch an error, make sure it’s fixed.

Once you notify your manufacturer, one of three situations will play out:

  1. The manufacturer will fix the defect.
  2. The manufacturer can’t fix the defect — but offers to take the vehicle back and reimburse you or issue you a replacement vehicle.
  3. The manufacturer can’t fix the defect and doesn’t make an agreeable offer.

In the first two scenarios, your manufacturer solves the problem without much trouble.

But, if you happen to find yourself in the third situation, you have a couple of options. You can either file a lawsuit or bring your case to arbitration.

For instance, you can seek resolution through the Better Business Bureau’s Auto Line dispute program. It’s free and most manufacturers take part in the program. You can file a complaint through the BBB’s program here.

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What If My State Doesn’t Have Used-Car Lemon Laws?

If your state doesn’t have used-car lemon laws, you still have rights under federal laws. Which ones? The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act.

Under the UCC, dealers have to include an implied warranty with all used-car sales. The implied warranty guarantees a basic quality standard and performance capability.

That said, dealers can sell vehicles “as is,” which means they’re not responsible for the car’s condition. If the car turns out to be below quality standards, they’re not on the hook.

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act protects consumers from deceptive warranties and disclaimers. The act prohibits dealers who offer a written warranty for a vehicle from disclaiming the implied warranty. Consumers can file claims against manufacturers that breach their warranties or contracts.

If you happen to find yourself in this situation, speak with a lawyer before moving forward.

How to Avoid Buying a Lemon

The thought of having to take a lemon law case to court sounds like an expensive headache. So, what can you do to avoid buying a lemon altogether? While you can’t erase your chances of purchasing a lemon, there are several precautions you can take.

Do Your Research

Buying a car is a big decision — one you shouldn’t underestimate or rush. If you’re in the market for a car, do your research before you even visit a dealership. Familiarize yourself with websites like Edmunds.com, KBB.com, and Consumerreports.org. They can provide you with a wealth of information and help you find a reliable vehicle.

Test Drive

One way to catch a car’s noticeable defects is to test drive it. You need to know certain facts, like a car’s price, gas mileage, and safety rating. But test driving gives you a more holistic perspective of a potential car. Be sure to drive the vehicle at various speeds and on different types of roads (i.e. highway and street).

You might even realize you don’t like the way a particular car feels to drive.

Review Title History

Before purchasing a used car, check its title history. Sites like Carfax.com can generate a report of your vehicle’s history. That includes repair history, history of accidents, open recalls, and total prior owners. The reports aren’t always 100% accurate. But they can help you uncover hidden defects or histories of recurring problems.

Hire an ASE-Certified Mechanic

The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) tests and certifies automotive professionals. If you’re in the market for a used car, hire an ASE-certified mechanic to inspect your potential car before you buy it.

These professionals provide an unbiased opinion and can spot a potential lemon.

If the dealer or seller refuses to let you bring in an independent mechanic, that’s a major red flag.

Check the Warranty

While new cars have the manufacturer’s warranty, that’s usually not the case for used cars. Beware of vehicles sold “as is.” The dealer doesn’t take responsibility for the condition of the car. Anything that happens once you take it off the lot is your responsibility.

The Federal Trade Commission’s “Used Car Rule” helps consumers spot these non-warrantied cars. The FTC requires dealers to provide a Buyer’s Guide in every used car they offer for sale.

This guide identifies critical information about the vehicle. For example, it tells you whether the car is being sold with a warranty or “as is.” It also lists the dealer’s repair responsibilities and possible used-car defects.

One Last Thing About Lemons

Before you buy a car, it’s important to understand your state’s lemon laws. That’s especially true if you’re looking at used vehicles. The best defense in this situation is a good offense. In other words, if you want to avoid buying a lemon, conduct in-depth research ahead of time. You’ll want to test drive any potential cars and have an independent mechanic inspection too.

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About The Author


Carter Kilmann

Carter Kilmann is a personal finance writer and editor for hire, covering topics like credit cards, mortgages, budgeting, banking, and investing. He's written for The Points Guy, Investing.com, Thrive Global, Day to Day Finance, Money Mini Blog, and more.


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