How to Tell if Your Car Loan Payments Are Going Toward a Worthless Lemon

After haggling with dealer after dealer, you finally landed a seemingly great bargain on a car. Yeah, the salesman said you were taking food of his table and probably mumbled a few choice words as you drove off, but you got the deal you were looking for nonetheless. However, a month later, you’re stranded on the side of the highway for the fifth time and wondering why you continue making auto loan payments on this hunk of junk.

Whether intentionally or not, auto dealers sell defective vehicles to unsuspecting customers. These “lemons” have been frustrating drivers for many decades and have even led to so-called “lemon law.”

How can you spot a lemon car? What should you do about it?

How to Spot a Lemon Car

What is the lemon law? They are the local state laws that provide legal protection from getting ripped off and stuck paying an auto loan on a defective or malfunctioning car. The following guidelines will help you figure out if you really have a lemon car, according to the law.

#1. A Lemon Car is New

In most cases, a defective vehicle has to be new to qualify as a lemon. However, you don’t have to necessarily be the original owner. For example, under California lemon law, your vehicle is considered “new” if it is under its original warranty, regardless of whether you were the first to drive it off the lot.

Your state may provide recourse for used lemons, but at varying levels. What is the lemon law in your state regarding used cars? That depends.

For example, New Jersey treats used vehicles the same as new ones in regards to its lemon laws. On the other hand, Missouri’s lemon laws don’t cover used vehicles at all.

As for leased vehicles, the level of legal recourse (if any) varies from state to state.

#2. A Lemon Car Has a Substantial Defect

According to Nolo, a vehicle must have a substantial defect to be considered a lemon in most states. A substantial defect impairs the vehicle’s safety, use or value. For example, a faulty transmission would be a substantial defect, but a small tear in the back seat wouldn’t. And, this defect must be covered by the warranty.

Additionally, the defect must occur within a specified time period or mileage count, as notes Nolo. A common limit is one to two years or 12-24,000 miles.

#3. The Car Remains Unfixed

“Your honor, my car made a funny noise and I drove it straight to my lawyer’s office. Please tell the manufacturer to replace it now.”

The above would be a humorous moment in court, but lemon laws don’t work that way. You have to give the dealer a reasonable opportunity to repair your vehicle.

In cases of a serious safety issue such as brake failure, the manufacturer gets one crack at repairing it. If it remains unfixed, your vehicle may be legally considered a lemon. For less serious (but substantial) repairs, the manufacturer will get three to four attempts at fixing the problem.

But, if your vehicle is in the shop for a certain number of days in a given year (commonly 30) or longer, it may be considered a lemon.

What to do With a Lemon Car

Get it Fixed: Be sure the manufacturer has a reasonable opportunity to repair your vehicle. Doing so is both fair and legally required.

Document Everything: Document everything related to the problem you’re having with your vehicle. Items you’ll want to hold onto include:

  • Sales ads (ex: claiming car is in excellent condition)
  • Receipts from repairs, roadside assistance, etc.
  • Email exchanges with the dealer, manufacturer, auto mechanics, etc.
  • Notes from conversations with anyone involved

Ask for a Refund or Replacement: If you’re not satisfied with the dealer’s repairs, ask for a refund or replacement. Then, if you get one, you’re done! Otherwise, continue reading.

Contact the Better Business Bureau: The Better Business Bureau (BBB) Auto Line program assists consumers with vehicle warranty complaints. It’ll use mediation and, if that doesn’t work, arbitration to work out the dispute between you and the manufacturer. You are free to accept or reject the decision, but the manufacturer must accept it if you do.

Most major manufacturers participate in this program. To confirm, just ask the BBB if your vehicle is on its list of lemon cars.

Contact a Lemon Law Attorney: If you believe the BBB erred in its decision, contact a consumer law attorney. Note that the BBB’s decision will weigh against you in court. Keep this in mind as you weigh the costs and benefits of pursuing legal action, as you could end up pumping more time and money into this mess with a slim chance of winning your case.