What is the Lemon Law?

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 16, 2018
In troubles - unhappy woman in car

Lemon laws protect consumers who buy new cars. Those who have never had a bad experience with a new car may wonder why lemon laws are necessary. If the car is defective, the dealer will replace it, right? Maybe. But maybe not. Warranties usually offer repairs, not replacement. That's why every state in the union, as well as D.C., has its own lemon law requiring an automaker to replace or repurchase a vehicle with a significant defect that the manufacturer cannot repair within a reasonable amount of time.

Tip

A lemon law requires an automaker to replace or repurchase a vehicle, recently purchased by a consumer, if it has a significant defect that the manufacturer cannot repair within a reasonable amount of time.

What is a Lemon Law?

Lemon laws are enacted to protect car buyers who buy "lemons." Often people who buy new cars are delighted with their new wheels, but sometimes serious problems show up. The buyer heads back to the dealer and attempts are made to fix the issues, but it takes a long time or the problem shows up again and again, and the buyer wants out of the deal. But the warranty just talks about repairs; it doesn't provide for returns. This is where lemon laws can help.

All 50 states have lemon laws requiring an auto manufacturer to repurchase a new vehicle if it has a significant defect that will take a long time to fix. Details of lemon laws vary among states, but most state that, if the manufacturer is unable to repair a vehicle within a reasonable amount of time, it must repurchase the vehicle or replace it. The obligation to repurchase may be triggered by the nature of the issue, the amount of time the vehicle is in the shop for one mechanical problem, or the number of times the manufacturer tries to repair it. In general, if the manufacturer has tried to repair the car three or four times or it will be unavailable for use for 30 days or more, the state lemon law kicks in.

Lemon Laws by State

Each state decides on the specifics of its own lemon laws, including the events that trigger the manufacturer's obligation to repurchase. Some state lemon laws limit protection to personal vehicles and exclude business vehicles, and others exclude vehicles over a certain gross weight. But all are variations on the same theme.

In Arizona, lemon laws apply to a vehicle during the warranty period, for two years or for 24,000 miles. All vehicles are covered in this state, as long as they are primarily intended to transport people. Four repair attempts or a period of 30 calendar days out of service triggers the law.

California limits its lemon law protection to personal vehicles, and it applies for 18 months after purchase or 18,000 miles. You are entitled to return the car in this state if the manufacturer has tried twice to repair a defect that could cause death or serious injury or four repair attempts on a less dangerous defect. Thirty calendar days out of service will also do it.

Under the Minnesota lemon law, the only vehicles covered are those intended for personal or family use at least 40 percent of the time. The law applies for the warranty period or two years, and the obligation to repurchase is triggered by a single repair attempt if the issue is in the braking or steering system. Otherwise, it take four repair attempts or 30 business days out of service.

Can a Used Car Be a Lemon?

Some states include used cars in their lemon laws, while others have separate lemon laws for used cars. Many states include only new vehicles.

For example, the California Lemon Law covers new and used vehicles sold or leased in California that come with the manufacturer’s new vehicle warranty. Minnesota's law also covers used vehicles if they are covered under the original manufacturer's warranty.

New York, on the other hand, has a specific Used Car Lemon Law. A used car qualifies for protection if it meets these requirements:

  • It was purchased, leased or transferred after the earlier of (a) 18,000 miles of operation or (b) two years from the date of originaldelivery; and
  • It was purchased or leased from a New York dealer; and
  • It had a purchase price or lease value of at least $1,500; and
  • It had been driven 100,000 miles or less at the time of purchase or lease; and
  • It is primarily used for personal purposes.

How to Find a Lemon Law Lawyer

Lots of lemon law attorneys advertise on the internet, but that may not be the best way to choose a lawyer. The best way to find a good lemon law lawyer is to ask around. If someone you know can recommend an attorney who is honest and experienced, that's a good option. Otherwise, call your state bar association and ask for a list of highly ranked attorneys who specialize in lemon laws.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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