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What is a lemon car?

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    The excitement of buying your next car might end with a sour taste in your mouth if it ends up being a lemon — a car with irreparable issues that deem it unfit for the road. Luckily, you may find some aid in the form of various consumer protection laws designed to help you if a car turns out to have significant defects — but first, it might be essential to clarify ... what is a lemon car?

    What is considered a lemon car?

    A lemon car refers to a car with one or more issues that make it unsafe to drive. While it varies state by state, lemon laws exist to protect consumers by generally outlining that cars covered under warranty with significant defects must be fully repaired by the manufacturer. If that vehicle is deemed irreparable after a reasonable number of attempted repairs (as defined by your state’s lemon law), it's considered a lemon car and may be refunded or replaced by the manufacturer.

    What qualifies as a significant defect?

    Significant defects are typically qualified as issues that would significantly impact the safety or functionality of the car. Additionally, to qualify as a lemon car, the defect typically needs to be a component that falls under the vehicle's original warranty coverage, like problems with the brakes or drivetrain.

    What qualifies as a reasonable number of repair attempts?

    What qualifies as a “reasonable” number of attempted repairs varies state-by-state, as does the amount of restitution manufacturers are legally bound to provide. Depending on your state, the number of “reasonable” repair attempts may also depend on the severity of the defect, with urgent issues like faulty brakes often requiring fewer attempts before a vehicle is given its lemon car status.

    Can used cars be lemon cars?

    Lemon laws for used cars, once again, vary state-by-state, but some used car dealerships offer extended warranties on used vehicles, potentially giving them a brief window of time where certain lemon laws may be applicable. Private sales are generally not covered by lemon laws. That said, most states have additional regulations to legally determine what is considered a lemon car, so it's best to consult your local consumer protection office or Better Business Bureau for information related to your state.

    You have a lemon car, now what?

    It’s likely that you won’t know a vehicle is a lemon car right away — unfortunately, these issues may present themselves long after your initial test drive. However, if you suspect your vehicle is a lemon car, there are steps you may take to help you file an official claim.

    Understand how lemon law applies to you

    Lemon laws vary between states, so it may be especially important to read through your car’s warranty and your state’s lemon laws to understand what's covered and what might potentially void your claim, like taking your vehicle to a third-party repair service.

    Save your records

    You may need to present substantiating documentation that a dealer has attempted to fix your vehicle’s defects. So, it’s helpful to keep a record of any communication between you and your dealership or manufacturer to help paint a full picture of the steps you (and the other party) have taken to resolve your car’s issues.

    Research similar vehicle make and models

    If you have a hunch that you bought a lemon car, you could research your make and model to see if your vehicle’s issues are commonly experienced by other owners. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may be a useful resource to check for safety issues and recalls on your vehicle.

    File a claim with the help of an expert

    If you’re certain your vehicle is a lemon car, your next step will likely be to file a claim. However, since lemon laws vary greatly between states, it may be wise to consult with a legal professional who specializes in this area of lemon laws. Working with a qualified legal professional may help you better understand if lemon law applies to you and help you determine your next steps if it does.

    Tips to avoid buying a lemon car

    Finding out your new vehicle is a lemon car is frustrating, but it could potentially be avoided with careful pre-purchase planning. Knowing how to spot a potential lemon car may be especially helpful if you’re thinking about buying from a private seller, since lemon laws generally offer little-to-no protection for private sales.

    Do your research

    When it comes to lemon cars, ignorance isn’t bliss. Gathering as much information as you can on the car before making a purchase is one of the best defenses against potentially purchasing a lemon. This may include engaging in a few fact-finding missions such as:

    • Researching recalls: The NHTSA website could be an effective tool to discover if your potential next vehicle carries any active safety concerns or recalls — this may be an indicator of future issues to come.
    • Obtaining a vehicle history report: If you’re buying a used vehicle, it’s helpful to check for any undisclosed issues or damage through an official vehicle history report. While lemon laws vary with used cars, as the potential new owner, you may be on the hook for repairs if undiscovered damage comes to light after the car title is released over to you.

    Purchase your car from a trusted dealership

    There are a few reasons why it’s generally a good idea to buy a new or used car from a dealership, especially when it comes to protecting yourself from a potential lemon car.

    • Reputation for reliability: Dealerships keep themselves in business by selling reliable vehicles to happy customers, and they will likely be a great source to find high-quality, dependable vehicles that you can count on.
    • Personalized help: Another perk to purchasing through a dealership could be access to an informed representative who can walk you through your manufacturer’s warranty and lemon law protections.
    • Potential warranty: As discussed earlier, purchasing a used car through a dealership may be a way to secure an extended warranty, which could potentially give you a small window where lemon laws apply to you.

    Take it for a spin

    It’s usually always a good idea to take any prospective vehicle for a spin before making a purchase to see if it feels right. On your test drive, it may be helpful to try and simulate your typical driving conditions to be sure that the car drives smoothly, brakes efficiently and will operate properly through your typical day-to-day life.

    Get your vehicle inspected

    Putting your potential vehicle under the microscope with a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) could be an effective way to verify the health of your car with the help of a trusted mechanic. If you’re buying a used car from a private seller, a PPI might be a crucial step as a mechanic could outline any current or potential vehicle issues that could make your car a lemon.

    In summary

    Now that you know what a lemon car is, you can start to look out for any red (or, in this case, yellow) flags that might be steering you toward a purchase you’re likely to regret later. And, just in case you encounter any issues, there are consumer protection laws in place that may be able to help you turn this sour situation a little sweeter.

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