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When a new car goes bad

 Dear Money Matters,
Do you know anything about the lemon law? My sister bought a 2003 car off the lot with no miles. She has had it in the shop five times for either the engine light or the airbag light.

Dear Deborah,
How frustrating for her. We've all had to deal with cars that were bona fide clunkers, but it's particularly maddening when your snafumobile is fresh off the lot, all shiny and ready to drive you berserk.

There are effectively three different sets of laws that address lemons.

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First, on a national level, The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is a federal law that protects the buyer of any product that costs more than $25 and comes with an express written warranty. Here is a summary of the act, and here is a more detailed explanation of the act from the FTC. Additionally, The Uniform Commercial Code or UCC has been adopted in all 50 states and covers contracts dealing with the sale of products.


Finally, there are applicable state laws. I don't know where your sister lives, but all 50 states have lemon laws that protect consumers in these instances. Needless to say, they differ considerably from one state to the next, but the laws generally define a lemon as a new vehicle that's experiencing problems that cannot be addressed. As a rule, the owner has to make a reasonable number of attempts to get the car fixed or, alternatively, document that the car has been out of service for a specified period.

Lemon laws outline procedures to settle these sorts of new car problems. Again, laws differ from one state to another, but lemon laws in general are designed to provide the owner with a refund or replacement. For instance, some states mandate a refund or a new car if a significant problem cannot be repaired in four tries or if the car has been out of service for roughly a month within the first year or 12,000 miles driven. However, there are exceptions-for instance, some states only provide for one attempt for significant safety related issues such as the brakes or steering.

Some states don't stop with just providing lemon owners with either a refund or a new car. Some, in fact, also let you recover any sort of attorney's fees that you rack up during your pursuit of lemon law satisfaction.

My suggestion would be for your sister to contact her state's Attorney General Office or the state office of consumer protection for information on how she can take action regarding her lemon. They can also fill her in on the particulars as to how that particular state defines a lemon and how, if her car fits, she can proceed.

Several Web sites provide links to the lemon laws of all 50 states, including Autopedia.com, the Center for Auto Safety , the Car Talk section of Cars.com and the National Lemon Law Center.

I did some snooping for general advice so that consumers can get as much protection from lemon laws as possible:

  • First, don't have any repairs done by Joe's Garage and Croissant Drive Through. Make sure the work is done by an authorized dealer.
  • Be as thorough in your documentation as possible. Be certain that you obtain and keep detailed repair orders which include your description of the problem, mileage at the time of the problem and attempted repair procedures. If you don't happen to have a particular repair order or other pertinent piece of documentation, make sure you get a copy from the garage which did the work. I've also heard that you may get lucky and latch onto notes a mechanic made while working on your car-potentially powerful ammunition.
  • Additionally, be sure to document all communication you may have with your car's manufacturer or the service provider. That can prove particularly effective if you go to court or arbitration and, for instance, have written evidence showing that the dealer could not find a problem or was unable to repair it. As an added level of protection, send all written communication by way of certified mail or Federal Express to document that such communication occurred.

-- Updated: Oct. 10, 2003

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