Purchasing a used car is a great way to save yourself thousands of dollars on a vehicle – that is still new to you. Even if a vehicle is just a couple years old and has only a few thousand miles on it, the price can be significantly lower than the cost of a brand new model.
However, there are certainly risks associated with purchasing a used vehicle – particularly the risk of ending up with a lemon.
While the term lemon is often used to describe a car that is riddled with mechanical problems, having a car legally deemed a lemon is actually a good thing (relatively speaking).
If a car meets the state’s requirements regarding lemon law, the buyer could receive a full refund of the vehicle cost in addition to incidental costs like a rental car or towing fees) – as well as payment of all legal bills.
But many states are quite strict about the circumstances that deem a car to be a lemon. The common stipulation is that all mechanical issues must arise while the vehicle is under the manufacturer’s warranty, which can range from 18 months to 3 years or a specified number of miles.
Therefore, if your used vehicle is past the original warranty or dealership warranty timeline/mileage mark when it starts exhibiting issues, it will be extremely difficult – and likely impossible – to deem it a lemon.
If you are considering a newer used car and want to avoid getting stuck with a lemon (or you simply want to be sure you get a good quality used vehicle), there are some things to keep in mind during the shopping process.
Know What Red Flags to Avoid
While there are plenty of common mistakes to avoid when shopping for a used car – such as taking the first deal you come across or not researching the dealer – there are some signs that could signal a lemon.
One of the biggest red flags to steer clear of are vehicles sold “as is”. Buying a car “as is” means you take full responsibility for any issues once you drive it off the lot. While these types of cars can be quite tempting (with a price tag that might be lower than average), it also means that you will receive no warranty whatsoever.
So, “as is” could be code for “lots of problems” – and you will have no manufacturer’s warranty to fall back on.
It is also generally recommended that you do not purchase from a private seller if you are worried about getting a lemon. A dealership will generally offer a full vehicle history and an additional warranty – which might not be the case with a private seller.
Plus, most dealership cars have undergone some sort of inspection already. A private dealer could easily lie about the condition of the vehicle, and you cannot return the car if things start to go wrong.
Carefully Inspect All Nooks and Crannies
Even if you aren’t the savviest mechanic, you should make a fairly thorough examination of the car before you decide to buy. Conduct an inspection to look for notable issues like rust, corrosion, strange smells, or weird noises during the test drive. These little issues could be symptoms of much bigger problems.
Also, be sure to check out safety details like seatbelts. If the clips do not fit together properly or the belts themselves seem to be worn or frayed, it could be a major safety hazard.
Pay close attention while you take the vehicle on a test drive. Don’t just focus on how smoothly it runs or how comfortable the seats are. While driving, safely test brakes and acceleration to see if there are any weird noises or jolts.
And finally, if you have a vehicle that you are interested in, take it to a trusted mechanic to inspect before you sign the paperwork.
Search the VIN
Every vehicle has a VIN (vehicle identification number) that is generally listed on the exterior base of the windshield on the driver’s side or in the driver’s side door. You can use this number to do a little detective work of your own on the vehicle’s history, just to verify that you have all of the information.
You can enter this number into a number of sites to learn about the vehicle’s repair history, any reported accidents, and mileage markers. Some of the recommended sites include:
- NICB.org (National Insurance Crime Bureau)
Look out for major issues in these reports, like salvaged/junk titles or major reported accidents involved structural damage. This could immediately disqualify the vehicle as a lemon if there are mechanical issues. The manufacturer will likely argue that they are a result of a previous accident.
Search for Other Lemon Law Cases
You may also want to take a look and see if there are any other lemon law claims for the vehicle’s make and model. Unfortunately, some manufacturers are more likely to sell a lemon than others – so you might want to avoid certain brands if you don’t want to end up with a used lemon.
According to the Auto Guide Group, Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, BMW, and Buick produce the least amount of lemons – with just one reported out of millions of vehicles that are manufactured. Fiat, Cadillac, Porsche, and Jeep run lowest on the list and are well below the industry average in terms of lemon vehicles produced.
Be sure to look into the specific make and model that you are considering purchasing, too. If numerous cases have been filed for vehicles in the same year, it could indicate that the model might be a dud.
Now, if worse comes to worst and you end up with a lemon, there is no need to panic. You need to know how to file a lemon law claim and get your money back.
First, double check on the manufacturer’s warranty and be sure that any mechanical issues occurred and were attempted to be repaired during the warranty period. Even if the odometer is just a mile over, you might be disqualified from the claim.
Next, gather all of the necessary documents, including:
- Vehicle repair reports from the dealership’s mechanic
- Detailed information on the types of issues the vehicle is presenting
- Timeline of repair attempts and dates that the vehicle was out of service
- Receipts of additional fees, such as towing charges or registration fees
The next step is to consult an attorney that specializes in your state.
The laws vary quite a bit across the country – and unfortunately, used car lemon law doesn’t apply to all. There are only six states where used car lemon law applies: Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.
However, other states, like California for example, have used car lemon law – just with some restrictions. The used vehicle must be under the original manufacturer warranty or the dealership warranty (which is typically 3 months after purchase). Still, this does not mean the process is easy. The consumer would need to research specialized California lemon law lawyers to help them with the case.
Getting justice for a used lemon is generally a tough process with a small time window. As long as you know the qualifications, steps involved, and act quickly – you shouldn’t have too many issues getting your money back.
The risk of ending up with a defective product is typically higher if you are shopping for a used vehicle. You have a bit less legal protection – not to mention that the manufacturer’s warranty has already begun. It is important that you know all of the things to look out for in order to avoid ending up with a lemon.
Keep an eye out for major red flags and do as much research as you can before signing any paperwork to avoid this hassle. But, if you do end up with a lemon, don’t fret. There may still be time for you to file a claim and receive a full refund.