Buyers of new cars sometimes act as though they, as consumers, have numerous legal safeguards. While there are some protections, such as lemon laws, for you as a car buyer, it's more realistic and a lot safer to act as though you were your own best consumer advocate.
The old advice suggesting that if someone hands you a lemon you should make lemonade doesn't apply in the automotive world; you should investigate your state's lemon law instead. California, Nevada, and Utah all have one.
Lemon laws, while not free of complexities, basically are designed to provide some relief for a new-car buyer if the car doesn't perform as provided by its express warranty and cannot be fixed within a reasonable time. There are many ins and outs to lemon laws, but they have much in common. Here are the basics:
- Coverage is for new vehicles under manufacturer's warranty.
- With some exceptions, the vehicle must be used primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.
- The defect must prevent the vehicle from conforming to the manufacturer's express warranty.
- In most cases, the manufacturer must replace the vehicle or refund the price if it can't fix the problem in four tries, or if the total repair time is over 30 days.
- The defect must substantially impair the use, the market value, or the safety of the vehicle.
- Defects caused by neglect or abuse don't count.
- If there is a dispute settlement procedure, such as arbitration, established by the manufacturer, you may have to go through that first.
As the car owner, you have certain responsibilities under lemon laws. And there are some things you
should do to help ensure your success. Here are a few suggestions:
- Maintain the vehicle according to manufacturer's specifications.
- Don't modify or abuse the vehicle—you can't turn your car into a low rider or take it drag racing and then expect to be covered by a lemon law.
- Don't delay. Time limits for action vary. Act promptly to notify the dealer or manufacturer of the problem.
- Have all warranty repairs made by an authorized dealer.
- Describe the problem but leave diagnosis to the dealer.
- Document, document, document. Create a paper trail—keep copies of all contracts, service records, and bills; make notes of all dealer contacts, such as conversations and telephone calls, with dates, names of those involved, and summaries of what was said.
- If you communicate with the manufacturer or dealer by mail, save a copy of the communication and use certified mail with a return receipt.
- Be relentless. When you're dealing with bureaucracies, polite but dogged persistence can be an effective technique.
- Try to remain reasonable and even tempered under stress.
When you test-drive a prospect, be sure to use all the accessories. Turn the heater on. Run the wipers. Check all the lights. Toot the horn. Inspect the car yourself for all the usual trouble clues—puddles beneath, wear on the gas pedal, cracked glass, uneven tire wear, loose steering, brakes that pull, and smoky exhaust prominent among them. A test drive and your own nonprofessional inspection will give you an idea of how the car drives and whether there's anything really obvious amiss. But that's not enough. Take the car to a trusted technician for a thorough inspection. AAA can inspect cars at one of its diagnostic clinics or Car Care Plus facilities.
Even though the car has been inspected, unforeseen problems requiring repair soon may arise. Keep this in mind as you negotiate price, and leave yourself some reserve cash.
R E S O U R C E S
If you believe your car is a lemon, start by investigating the specifics of your state’s lemon law by using the addresses below. And keep in mind the California attorney general’s counsel: “For complete advice concerning your legal rights, you should consult your own attorney.”
- For California lemon law information, contact the Department of Consumer Affairs, 400 R Street, Sacramento, CA 95814. (800) 952-5210, or visit the Department of Consumer Affairs..
- For Utah lemon law information, contact the Division of Consumer Protection, Department of Commerce, Heber M. Wells Building, 160 East 300 South, P.O. Box 45804, Salt Lake City, UT 84145. (801) 530-6601, or visit the Division of Consumer Protection.
- For Nevada lemon law referral information, contact the Nevada Consumer Affairs Division, 4600 Kietzke Lane B-113, Reno, NV 89502. Phone (800) 326-5202. Visit the Nevada Consumer Affairs Division.
This article was first published in May 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.