What is a Lemon?

Sami Haj-Assaad
by Sami Haj-Assaad

If you think a car is extraordinarily unreliable, then maybe you have a lemon.

Specifically, a car can be labeled as a lemon if it is proven to be defective, with reoccurring problems that happen in a short period of time.

Lemons can be the result of an anomaly during the manufacturing process, like a worn out tool that couldn’t apply the right torque, or a missed item during quality inspection. One small imperfection can compromise a whole car, it’s like the butterfly effect, but for vehicles.

Although lemons are rare, they do happen, and the problem was big enough that the government got involved by passing legislation to help protect consumers.

“Most states deem a vehicle a lemon when it has been out of service more than three or four times,” explained Steve Lehto, a Lemon Law Attorney based in Michigan. He also points out that a car can be deemed a lemon if its been in service for 25 to 35 days. Lehto is the author of The New Lemon Law Bible, and has plenty of experience helping consumers with lemons.

“As you approach either one of those criteria, it would be a good idea to consult a lawyer to see what your state’s guidelines are. Too many people wait too long, and time is not on your side,” he said.

ALSO SEE: Toyota Tops, Fiat Flops in AutoGuide’s 1st Annual Lemon List

If you’re convinced your car is a lemon, then you can go through a process to get your vehicle bought back by the automaker or dealer that sold it to you. Understandably, it’s not always a pretty process, so attorneys like Lehto often have to get involved.

“Many of my my clients tell me they never thought they’d have to sue someone,” said Lehto. “But most car companies make you file suit to enforce your rights. It’s just business to them.” It’s also worth noting that any legal fees incurred during a Lemon Law suit are paid by the automaker.

When a car is found to be a lemon, the automaker will reimburse your down payment, all of your monthly payments, your current registration fee, and any outstanding balance left on the loan of the vehicle. Then the manufacturer will take the vehicle and brand the title as a lemon law buyback. It’s worth noting that sometimes the automaker will deduct some of your refund based on the mileage of the vehicle.

But what about lemons on the used car market? Some people will find it too much of a hassle to go through the buyback process and will try to unload their problems on an unsuspecting used car buyer. This concern is why it’s recommended to get an auto-repair history from CarFax or Auto Check.

“One of the great things about a CarFax report is that you can see the details of a service,” explained Christopher Basso, from CarFax public relations. “You can see what was done and when it was done and if there’s anything that has been repeating.”

Basso says that anyone buying a used car should make sure to do three things: “One: take a real test drive on city streets and on the highway. During this, you should keep an eye out for anything that’s not working. Two: Get a Carfax and take a thorough look at it and the items listed. Three: Get a pre-purchase inspection.” Basso explains that you should see any repeating problems or service visits that are too soon after one another on the CarFax report, which are a red flag for spotting a lemon. “You can also use that information to tell the mechanic what to look out for when doing the pre-purchase inspection.”

Basso also explains that if a car has been bought back by an automaker then, it will say it’s a lemon right in the title of the vehicle. “Vehicles that have been bought back are deemed as lemons and reported as such.”

But Lehto counters that this isn’t always the case. “Most states do not require branding the title of a lemon law buyback and many car companies simply sell the buybacks at auction as late-model used cars,” he said. “Since the lemon law only applies to new cars in most states, these cars should be avoided by consumers.”

Still, Lehto suggests checking the title and title history on a vehicle. “Do a title search and look to see if the manufacturer ever sold the car at auction after it had entered the stream of commerce,” which would show that the car was bought back and then sold at a dealer auction soon after.

Lemons are serious business and are a real worry for both new and used car buyers. If your new car is regularly acting up and is consistently in need of service, then you may have to get a lawyer involved to deem it a lemon and get your money back.

Sami Haj-Assaad
Sami Haj-Assaad

Sami has an unquenchable thirst for car knowledge and has been at AutoGuide for the past six years. He has a degree in journalism and media studies from the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto and has won multiple journalism awards from the Automotive Journalist Association of Canada. Sami is also on the jury for the World Car Awards.

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  • Randy wellman Randy wellman on Sep 16, 2016

    why is a CAR called a lemon? ...look at the reels on a slot machine from the 1920's...if you got a LEMON, you didn't get paid anything....that's where the saying "i got a lemon" came from....BTW, it was the flavors of the GUM many slot machines vended from 1910 on....lemon, cherry, orange, plum...