What to Do if You Were Sold a Lemon Car

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Everyone knows what you’re supposed to do when life gives you lemons. But if you’re constantly taking your car into the shop, it may take more than a cold glass of lemonade to cool you off. The good news is that the U.S. Congress, and many state legislators, think the same way. They’ve established laws that require automakers to refund your money or replace your car if it can’t be fixed in a reasonable amount of time.

So if you’re having a sour experience with a newer vehicle, there are some ways to sweeten the outcome.

Man sitting in car

Cracking the Code

The federal “lemon law” that covers most of these situations can be found in Title 15 Chapter 50 of the U.S. Code, in Sections 2301-2312. Also known as the Magnuson Moss Warranty-Federal Trade Commission Improvements Act, the law sets down regulations for consumer products that are covered by written warranties. To be clear, it doesn’t require companies to offer written warranties. The Act only provides legal guidelines when they do. So if you’re making a lemon-law claim, you’re essentially saying your car didn’t live up to its warranty. That means you have to buy a car with a warranty to have a good case. Just remember that you don’t have to buy a car that’s brand new to get lemon-law protection. Pre-owned cars and trucks with warranties can be covered as well.

At the heart of the matter is Section 2304(a)(1): “If the product (or a component part thereof) contains a defect or malfunction after a reasonable number of attempts by the warrantor to remedy defects or malfunctions in such product, such warrantor must permit the consumer to elect either a refund for, or replacement without charge of, such product or part (as the case may be).”

In other words, if an automaker can’t make things right in a reasonable amount of time, it has to let you choose between a refund or a replacement.

Many states then complement the U.S. Code with their own lemon laws for motor vehicles. They can vary in the details but work much like the federal statutes. Consider Michigan, where the U.S. automakers have their headquarters. The Great Lakes State will let you sue for a replacement or refund if an automaker hasn’t been able to fix the same problem after four tries. Alternatively, you may have a claim if your car has been kept out of action by repairs for at least 30 days. Another qualification has to do with when the problem initially appears. It has to be within a year of the original new-vehicle delivery date or within the coverage period of the warranty, whichever comes first.

Prepare to Provide a lot of Paperwork

Keeping careful track of your vehicle’s service records is a good idea in any case, but it’s vital if you want to prove that your car is a lemon. Consumer advocates actually recommend that you keep copies of all correspondence with automakers or car dealers. This includes holding on to your receipts and work orders from any repairs so you have a timeline of exactly when the service occurred. It can also be helpful to see if other drivers are having the same problems. You can do this by searching your car’s vehicle identification number online at places like the Carfax Vehicle Recall Check page and the website for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The latter can provide additional data, too, such as information about NHTSA investigations and manufacturer Technical Service Bulletins. None of these may rise to the level of a recall, and they may not affect your individual vehicle. However, this info can still be important when you’re trying to prove your car or truck is a lemon.

Man looking at car engine

Follow the Rules and Hire an Attorney

You usually have to take your vehicle to the dealer for repairs or you will void your warranty. Additionally, it doesn’t make sense to sue an automaker right off the bat. First, you need to send a formal letter to the company outlining your claim and asking for your preferred remedy. It’s easy to find templates for these kinds of letters online, and you can simply adjust the details to fit your specific case. If your claim is denied, you’ll need to decide if you want to go through an arbitration process. The Magnuson Moss Act encourages companies to set up informal dispute-resolution programs like that to deal with warranty issues. If a company does so, as most automakers have, then you need to go through arbitration before you can go to court.

The court only comes into play as a last resort or if someone questions the fairness of the arbitration program. At that stage, provided you win your case, you can get a replacement car or a refund along with costs and expenses that include lawyers’ fees. The same doesn’t hold true for arbitration, although you should still think carefully about hiring a lawyer if you have to go through that process. You can be sure the automaker will have paid experts on its side.

How to Avoid Picking a Used Lemon

Getting rid of a defective vehicle can be challenging enough. According to a 2018 article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a woman won almost $410,000 in a case against Mercedes-Benz, including attorney’s fees. However, she had to spend four years pursuing her claim. If you’re a used car buyer, you need to be particularly careful during the shopping process. You won’t necessarily know if a car is a lemon from a test drive. What can help in some circumstances is checking the title. The car may be branded as a lemon, or the title may use different language that only notes the vehicle had been repurchased by the automaker.

CARFAX Vehicle History Report can disclose title issues like that when you’re shopping for a pre-owned car or truck. However, more than two-thirds of all states don’t require any special title branding for lemons. This means that you should pay attention to the parts of the Vehicle History Report that show a car’s ownership and service records. If you see the manufacturer has owned the car after it had been purchased by an individual, or if there are three or four repairs for the same issue in a short period of time, those are major red flags that could end up costing you a lot of green in the future.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2015. It has been completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

By | 2019-05-15T15:01:29+00:00 May 15th, 2019|Inspecting a Vehicle|13 Comments


  1. Jazmin September 27, 2015 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    Hello, I purchased a certified vehicle from Renton Honda July 1st 2015, Ive have break issues 3 different times and now a 4th time since I’ve had it, Issues with the battery it has been such a hassle dropping it off to the service center over and over again. I honestly think that this car is no good its been issue after issue. What are my next steps to get out of it or am I protected by the lemon law.

  2. Diana barron November 19, 2015 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    I bought a used car after the warrenty which was 30 days the differential went out . The certifia mechanic said they was no fluid in it . He said it was damage due to no fluid it had metal shavings from it being dried. Now the used car place won’t fix it now it’s going to cost 1300 to repair what can I do

  3. wanda May 25, 2016 at 10:52 am - Reply

    I bought a new car… sold as new 3 months ago. a 2015. Car fax has some missing info,..but it does say its over due on oil change,…overdue on tire rotation,…and some milage is missed. 281 miles when I got it. said it was from being driven from another state to the dealership. This car was way overpriced. The car is skipping. Thought it was the gas. ITS THE OIL. CARFAX DOES NOT HAVE WHEN THE CAR WAS SERVICED,..OR WHEN IT NEEDS IT AGAIN. OIL WAS LOOKED AT AND IT IS BAD. ITS A LEMON AND IM READY TO SUE! IM GETTING EVERY SINGLE PENNY BACK AND MORE.

  4. Ariana June 23, 2016 at 8:57 am - Reply

    Bought a car 1 month ago 2 weeks later when car bought check engine light turns on they say its a fales alarm then air bag light turns on turns off comes n goes then yesterday 6.22.16 services engine light turns on again wat should i do

  5. Danna January 9, 2017 at 11:15 pm - Reply

    I bought new Toyota Rav4. From the first week i heard wisping sound,its increased with time and i brought the car back to the dealership-transmission box was changed but problem was not solved . Toyota is refusing to take that car back. What i should do?

  6. Sandy February 24, 2018 at 4:59 am - Reply

    I bought a Lincoln Navigator.. 5 miles from the car lot it wouldn’t move out of gear. I signed “as is” I paid $3, 050.00 to drive this pos 5 miles. Am I able to reverse the sale and receive my money back? Please help!

  7. Mildred Martinez March 21, 2018 at 2:03 am - Reply

    Wow am sitting here wondering where all this happen bought a Chevy Malibu as 2006 for 7800 and come to find out that the traction control light comes on noe my engine light and pops goes the engine white, smoke tail pipe under the car oil now the car won’t turn on motor is done now what should I do

  8. kim hall July 11, 2018 at 11:34 am - Reply

    I broyght a car 2 weeks ago and was told there was no major issues but now I was told it has a blown gasket can I get my money back?

  9. Germaine M StJulien November 5, 2018 at 3:14 am - Reply

    Hi I purchased 2008 Audi Q7 from a Dealer here in Lafayette Louisiana on 10/10/2018 Drove for 3 days found a Massive oil leak drove to the Mechanic Shop learned the leak was from a Oil Pan Seal r Gasket Warranty Company denied the Claim refuse to cover the work! I called the Dealer he refused to help I did my best to Convince him to help me he finally gave me 700 dollars toward a 3500 dollar job he also refused to allow the Contract to be dissolved So I was stuck trying to fix the Vehicle when the Mechanic shop started the work on the leak they also found that the Engine had a water and Oil mixing!!!! More then likely a blown Head Gasket I drove this car for 3 days after I purchased it on the 10 of October I gave this Dealer 4000 for a Downpayment also the warranty Company is giving me the run around with replacing An Engine that i had nothing to do with it Malfunctioning This Dealer has since told me to stop texting him and calling him or he will call the Authorities on me Saying I’m Harassing him can I get my money back from this Dealer who obviously sold me a Bad Engine???????

  10. Travis November 12, 2018 at 7:03 pm - Reply

    I traded in my Toyota Tacoma prerunner for a Toyota Tacoma 4×4 the delear said everything was good got it home witch it drove all over the road . It has a body lift , I looked under the cab and the lift boots are punched through the undesrside of the cab witch causes very bad squeaks and don’t drive safe.

  11. Keith Jubilee January 15, 2019 at 5:37 am - Reply

    Wow I when threw the same thing u have. I bought. A car in VA. I never drove it when I got it the battery was dead. Then i call them about a battery. They said bring car. Which I got a jump and then drove it for 2 hours. When I came back the engine was running hot. I call them. However I forget to say the first week I had it. It was smoking. I got oil change and it was still smoking. I call them. They say bring it and told me it had a lot of promblems. I ask could they fix it. They say No. It be ok. I kept it and drove it and then it ran hot. It is over 3900 or more to fix.

  12. Judy christensen March 28, 2019 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    I purchased a certified Chevy truck. I was sold what the warranty department said was six year bumper to bumper warranty. I asked if that was parts or did we have to pay for labor, he said you pay nothing. Even if you damage a hubcap it covered. To get to the point it was all lies! Now they are telling me that it’s only 1 1/2 years and so far has cover nothing. We are seniors on a fixed income we can barely afford the pay. In the past year we have paid out almost 4000 on repair! Is their nothing that can be done about. Robing people like this!

  13. T. R. April 2, 2019 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    Bought a Tuscon from a used car dealer. 5 months later found metal shavings in the motor. Now my daughter has no vehicle to drive . Is there something I can do. It’s been 2 months she has been without a car cause we can not afford another vehicle. Please help if you can.

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