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What is a Lemon Car

Woman with broken car

Did you know that around 5% of every car on the road is a lemon car—and that this number is possibly even higher than that?

If you’ve just bought a car, or are looking to buy one, then you want to watch out for lemon cars. After all, you don’t want to buy a car that looks like it works, only to spend even more money (over and over again) on repairs that never seem to make any difference.

If you’re afraid of buying a lemon car, then you might be asking yourself questions such as:

“What is a lemon car?”

“How can I avoid buying a lemon car?”

“What if my car is a lemon? What do I do?”

It can be confusing to have all the information you need, and when so much of your money is at stake, it’s stressful, too.

That’s why we’ve put together this guide. By giving you all the information you need about lemon cars and lemon car law, you can buy the right car or know what to do if you’ve bought a lemon car. Read on to learn more.

What a Lemon Car Is

It’s important to know the lemon car meaning so you can avoid buying one or deal with a lemon car if you have one. Under most state laws, a lemon car has at least one of two issues:

  • A repeating issue that is unfixable, even after multiple attempts to make the repair
  • A “substantial defect” that's under the purchase warranty and that has come up within a certain number of miles or amount of time after you’ve bought the car

By looking at these terms in detail, you can be aware if the car you’ve bought is a lemon. Keep in mind that lemon law usually applies when you’ve bought a new car—though there are exceptions to this.

What Is a Reasonable Repair Attempt?

When it comes to the first definition of a lemon car under car lemon law, it’s important to know what counts as a “reasonable repair attempt.” If you buy a car from a dealer, there is a certain number of repairs they can make on your car that count as “reasonable.” If that number is lower or the same as the “reasonable” number, then your car isn't a lemon under the lemon car law.

If you want to argue that your car is a lemon and you want to lemon law to protect you, then one of the following must be the case with your car's repairs:

  • If your car is being repaired for a long time, anywhere from a month to a year, so that a substantial warranty defect or defects can be fixed
  • If your car is being repaired for a defect that is not a serious safety defect, and it is not able to be fixed after the “reasonable” number of times that is usually three or four (though it might be different depending on your state)
  • If your car is being repaired for a defect that is a serious safety defect, such as steering or brakes, and it is not fixed after the “reasonable” number of times, which is one repair attempt

If you’re asking yourself the question “How does a car qualify for lemon law?” then these points above are some of the ways your car can qualify. Additionally, a lemon car definition is that your car has a substantial defect.

What Is a Substantial Defect?

When it comes to lemon car meaning, you need to know what counts as a substantial defect. A substantial defect is defined as an issue with your car that affects its safety, value, or use—for example, the steering or brakes not working. These issues are usually covered by your car’s warranty count as substantial defects.

However, other issues might be substantial defects. This might depend on the lemon law for car ownership in your state. If it’s an issue that isn’t related to safety but that makes the car unusable or unsellable—for example, a horrid stench that just won’t go away—then this can count as a substantial defect.

The Definition Can Vary by State

The answer to the question “What’s a lemon car?” also depends on what your state laws are. Additionally, you should be aware that lemon car law usually applies only to new cars. However, there is a used car lemon law in some states.

We suggest looking into the lemon law for used cars and regulations in your state in case you think you need to use lemon law on a used car you’ve just bought.


If you find that you have a lemon car, then chances are you’ll have to engage in the process of arbitration with the car manufacturer or dealer. To avoid having to do this, we recommend reviewing your state’s lemon laws before purchasing your car. That way, you are more likely to not end up with a lemon—but if you do, you’ll be prepared for the arbitration process.

Where the Term Lemon Car Comes From

There are quite a few theories about where the term “lemon car” comes from. One of the theories is that you make the same face when biting into a lemon as you do when you’ve realized your car is a lemon.

Another theory is also related to the lemon you eat. When you buy a lemon car, everything looks great on the outside. Whoever’s selling it to you might have even repainted or reupholstered it would look appealing. But under that appealing peel...just like with a lemon, there’s a sour taste on the inside. There’s a hidden problem.

There are two theories that the term “lemon car” comes from popular culture. The first is that it comes from a Volkswagen ad that was popular in 1960, a time when people used the word “lemon” for faulty cars often.

Additionally, there’s a theory that “lemon” comes from the 1900s slang, when people described someone hustling them, they were dealing with a lemon.

Wherever the term comes from, it’s definitely not something you want happening to you. Read on to learn more about how to avoid buying a lemon car—and what to do if you’ve bought one.

How to Avoid Buying a Lemon Car

To avoid buying a lemon car in the first place, there are different strategies you can use when buying your car. That way, you won’t find yourself at the side of the road with a broken-down car thinking, “I bought a used car and it’s a lemon.”

Take a Look at the Window Sticker

Dealers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to post a Buyer’s Guide in every car that they sell. Usually, this appears on a window in the form of a sticker. This window sticker contains information about the car, including how much repair costs the dealer should pay and if there’s a warranty.

The Buyer’s Guide overrides anything in your contract that says anything otherwise. Therefore, anything stated there is something your car dealer must honor.

However, note that if the window sticker says the car is being bought “as is” then this means your car isn’t under warranty. If you buy a car with a window sticker that says this, you are more likely to buy a lemon. You also won’t have much legal recourse.

Look at the Interior of the Car

A place where you can look to avoid buying a lemon car is a car’s interior. If there are any issues in the cabin such as missing buttons, handles, or knobs, a damaged dashboard, or a headliner that sags, then chances are this car hasn’t been kept in the best condition.

Additionally, look for signs that the car has been in a serious collision. One of these signs is if there are damaged safety belts, which might be frayed or have melted fibers. If there’s an airbag warning, then there could have been an accident, after which the airbag wasn’t replaced.

You also want to look for signs of the car having high mileage. These include the driver’s seat that sags and worn pedals. Signs of flooding, such as a musty smell, are also something to look out for.

Get a Vehicle History Report

It also helps to get a vehicle history report. When you get a vehicle history report, you’ll get information that includes liens, vehicle title major accidents, and registration records. From the liens information, you’ll know if a previous owner of the car has debts, so you can avoid having your car repossessed.

From the vehicle title major accidents information, you’ll find out if the car has ever been in an accident. You’ll also find out details about its repairs. Even if it turns out this didn’t cause your car to be a lemon, you can use this information to get your car for cheaper.

From the registration records, you can find out if your car was imported from out of the country or out of your state, and you’ll also know if your car was stolen.

Get the Car Inspected

Getting your potential new car inspected is also a good way to determine if it’s a lemon. An expert will be able to tell you if the car has ever been in a serious accident, or if there are any repairs that you will have to continuously make during the time you own the car.

Considering that you can lose a lot of money (and time) if you have a lemon car, it’s worth the investment of paying for a car inspection.

Stick to Reliable Brands

Some car manufacturers have many more lemons than others. This is because, if a car manufacturer is reliable, their cars are less likely to have serious repeat problems. When researching the cars you want to buy, take a look at how often manufacturers’ cars end up being lemons.

Broken car

How to Find Out if Your Car Is a Lemon

There are also some ways to find out if the car you’ve bought is a lemon. Depending on your state, you might be able to use these signs with lemon law with your used car or new car when claiming against your dealer or the person you bought the car from.

Take a Look at the Reliability Record

If you suspect you’ve bought a lemon car, you should look at its reliability record. If you look at Consumer Reports’ annual subscriber survey, you can find out if your car is on the list of the most reliable used cars or ones that are more likely to end up as lemons. Reliability history charts are also helpful.

Study the Exterior

Maybe when you bought your car, the exterior looked fine. But if you do a closer inspection, you might find that there are signs your car is a lemon. If there are any small dents, chipped paint, or there are signs of repainting, then someone might have been in a collision with your car. Someone also might have repainted it.

Some signs that someone has repainted the whole car are inconsistent welds around the trunk, doors, and hood. If it looks okay, there’s a test you can do to find a hidden sign. Run a magnet along the car. If there are any areas where it doesn’t stick, then there someone might have put filler under the paint.

Test Out the Steering

You’ll also want to test out the steering. To do this, have your car idle while you turn the steering wheel from side to side. Ensure that there isn’t any slack when you do this, or strange noises such as clunking. If there’s too much play, then the steering gear might be worn down from overuse.

When on the road, you want to ensure that the car doesn’t steer too much in one direction or another—or slightly veer off course. If it does, then this might be a sign of steering issues.

Take a Look at the Tires

When you’re buying a car, the tires should all have the same amount of wear. They should also look even with each other. If there’s heavy wear on any of them, this is a sign that the car has been driven roughly. This in turn is a sign that other parts of the car might be worn down from overuse.

If the tires have worn unevenly, or are cupped, then this can be a sign of serious problems with the breaks, suspension, and steering of the car.

What to Do if You’ve Bought a Lemon Car

If you’ve bought a lemon car, there are certain steps you’ll need to take. These might vary from state to state. Additionally, some states will not protect you if you’ve bought a used car that’s a lemon, while others might.

Look Into Lemon Law

The first thing you need to do is look into lemon law. If your car has any of the issues we reviewed when defining what a lemon car is at the beginning of the article, then it’s likely lemon law will cover you.

Generally speaking, most states have some form of lemon law. Though the laws can vary, some usual guidelines apply to most lemon laws:

  • Usually, lemon laws apply to vehicles that are for personal use; if you plan on reselling the car for profit, for example, lemon law won't cover you
  • While lemon law can protect you, not all of them will get you a full refund on the car you’ve bought, even if your lemon law complaint is successful
  • In some states, you will receive another car in exchange for the one you bought that has equivalent mileage to the one in the vehicle when you discovered the repair issue with it
  • Usually, lemon won't cover used cars, though it does in some states

By looking into lemon law, you can find out what your legal rights are and what you can get from the car dealer you bought the lemon car from. When you do your research, you’ll also want to ensure you...

Research Your State’s Lemon Law

Because lemon law can vary so much from state to state, you’ll need to research your state’s lemon law. We recommend you go online and visit several sites: your state consumer protection office’s site, your state attorney general’s website, and your state’s department of motor vehicle website.

We also recommend going to the Better Business Bureau’s Auto Line State Lemon Laws, where you can read up on lemon laws there.

You can always get in touch with a lawyer. However, looking into the state lemon laws yourself will at least help you understand if it’s worth pursuing a lemon law complaint in the first place.

How to File a Lemon Law Complaint

Once you have a good idea of how you’re covered by your state’s lemon law, you might decide to file a lemon law complaint. Just like with lemon laws generally, this process can vary from state to state.

Some states require you to send a letter of complaint to the manufacturer of the vehicle. In this letter, you’ll include details such as the issues with your car, the solution offered, and the number of repair attempts. This solution might be, for example, the dealer giving you a replacement car with similar mileage.

In other states, you’ll write the same letter, but instead of sending it directly to the manufacturer, you’ll send it to the dealer you purchased the car from.

Wherever you end up sending the letter, you’ll need to provide additional evidence demonstrating what you’ve stated in it. This would include documentation of the attempted repairs.

It’s also important to keep in mind that many modern car purchase contracts require that there be an arbitration clause for the settling of disputes. Additionally, when you’re doing your lemon law research, check if your car’s manufacturer is a participating manufacturer with the Better Business Bureau’s Auto Line dispute resolution program.

If this is the case, then there will already be processes in place for dealing with your lemon law claim.

Keep Paying Your Car Loan

If you’ve discovered that your car is a lemon, and you start dealing with the legal process of filing a lemon law complaint, it can be tempting to stop paying your car loan. After all, you bought a defective car, and that’s not something you want to pay for.

However, you need to keep paying your car loan. If you don’t, then you could end up with a repossessed vehicle, and lose all your rights related to the lemon law complaint you’re filing. We also recommend that you get in touch with your lender once you start filing the lemon law complaint. There may be effects on your own loan.

Need More Information?

Do you need more information on what to do if your car is a lemon car? Maybe you want to learn more about the best lawyers to contact, or you want to learn more about the different types of history reports you can get for your car.

Whatever you need help with, we’re here to help. At VINinspect, we’re experts when it comes to lemon law, history reports, and how to find out if your car has had any repeat issues in the past. To learn more about how we can help you, visit our contact us page.


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