Lemon Laws, the Three-day Waiting Period and Some Other Costly Consumer Misconceptions

Don't I have three days to change my mind when I buy a car? Does my car qualify under the Lemon Law? Common and costly consumer misconceptions

When you buy a car, your best tools are lots of information, patience, and money. Ignorance can cost you, but sometimes the things you know that just aren’t so can cause trouble, too. Misconceptions about consumer protections are common and potentially damaging. Here are some of the favorite myths:

There’s a three-day cooling-off period. Perhaps the hardiest and most popular misconception is that after signing a purchase agreement the buyer has three days to change his mind about a possibly hasty judgment. Although purchases of some products or services are covered by a three-day cooling-off law, buying a car isn’t. You can take all the time you want to mull over a purchase before signing on the dotted line, and overheated buyers of either new or used cars should cool off at that time. The written agreement is binding immediately. California’s Civil Code sums up the situation with uncharacteristically direct language: "There is no cooling off period."

Dealers are required to diagnose used cars before selling them. In general, they are not required to check out a car and discover what flaws it may have.

Sellers have to disclose all a car’s faults. They don’t. Sellers are not required to ferret out a car’s flaws, if any, nor must they necessarily volunteer information about faults of which they may be aware. It would be pleasant to think that the owner of a used car would tell all, but such an expectation invites disappointment in many cases. This is why it’s important to have an independent mechanic or facility, such as AAA’s Auto Diagnostic Clinics, examine a used car before you buy.

A verbal warranty or guarantee is enforceable. Generally, these can be very difficult to enforce. Samuel Goldwyn supposedly advised that verbal contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. He was right. Warranties on used cars are scarce. Such vehicles sold by dealers must have a sticker stating whether they are covered by a warranty. If the sticker says there’s no warranty, believe it. If there is one, get it in writing. Even then, you might keep in mind how marvelously flexible and open to interpretation the English language can be. Private parties selling used cars aren’t required to supply a sticker, let alone a warranty. Any agreement you might reach about the seller’s fixing a car after the sale could prove extremely difficult to enforce. Motorists living in areas where smog checks are required must have a valid smog certificate to register a car. If you’re interested in a specific used car, be sure it passes its smog test before you agree to buy it. Bringing a car that fails a smog test into compliance is potentially expensive, especially if any of the required pollution control equipment (such as the catalytic converter) is missing or has been altered. Your best protection as a car buyer is what you bring to the process. Do your homework: Know what you want in a car, research prices, investigate financing possibilities beforehand, have any used car you’re seriously considering diagnosed by an independent expert, try to avoid momentary enthusiasms that could prove expensive, and impose your own cooling off period before signing anything. Read—and understand—everything you sign, and keep in mind that any agreements not actually on paper may be unenforceable.

Lemon Laws

Although you’re not protected by law against impulsiveness or buying a pig in a poke (you are an adult, after all), there is some post-sale protection for new-car buyers: lemon laws. Before lawyers got involved, a lemon was a car with more than its share of flaws or with problems that defied repeated attempts at a fix. That’s still basically true, but the definition has become a bit more precise and varies in detail from place to place.

California. The California Department of Consumer Affairs says "a new car which is leased or sold with a manufacturer’s written warranty may be returned to the manufacturer for a refund or a replacement if it is not repaired within a reasonable number of attempts or cannot be repaired." California’s lemon law "applies to used vehicles only when they are still covered by the manufacturer’s original warranty." It offers four keys to lemonhood; all four must apply to a car before it can be an official lemon:

1. Four or more attempts to repair the same problem or the vehicle has been out of service over 30 days while being repaired for any number of problems.

2. The four attempts or 30 days out of service have been within 12 months of the vehicle’s delivery or 12,000 miles on the odometer, whichever comes first.

3. The problems are covered by warranty, substantially reduce the vehicle’s use, value, or safety and are not caused by abuse.

4. The consumer has directly notified the manufacturer about the problem, if required by warranty.

Nevada. Nevada’s law is very similar to California’s.

Utah. According to Utah’s Division of Consumer Protection, the journey to lemonhood begins with seven steps:

1. The vehicle must have been purchased in Utah.

2. It must be new and under warranty.

3. It must be a car or truck weighing less than 12,000 pounds, or a motor home.

4. The defect must "substantially impair the use, market value or safety of the vehicle."

5. The vehicle must have been in for repairs for the same defect at least four times or out of service to the consumer a total of 30 days in either one year or the warranty period, whichever is less.

6. The defect cannot be the result of abuse, neglect, or unauthorized modifications of the vehicle.

7. The consumer must first go through any informal dispute settlement or arbitration procedure the manufacturer may have established.

As you might expect, it isn’t quite that simple. Vehicle types covered vary from state to state, and qualifying your car as an official lemon is a start toward satisfaction, but not the whole trip. Each state has individual filing procedures and possible arbitration before you can unload that hunk of junk. California and Utah motorists can get a brochure describing their state’s law and procedures:

California: Department of Consumer Affairs, 400 R Street, Sacramento, CA 95814. (800) 952-5210.

Utah: Division of Consumer Protection, Department of Commerce, Heber M. Wells Building, 160 East 300 South, Box 146704, Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-6704. (801) 530-6601.

This article was first published in July 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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