So you’ve spent your hard-earned dollars on a car that turns out to be a clunker? Bum luck. Are you stuck with it or is there a way to make lemonade from a lemon?


Take heart. Consumer advocates tell us what to do if you have a car that’s a lemon.


“People don’t know there are a lot of protections out there,” says Patty Anderson, a consumer attorney in Virginia. “People get talked into trading a lemon in for a new vehicle at the same dealership. But that might not be the best solution. Under the lemon law, you can get out of the current car and go to a different manufacturer.”


Different states, different laws

Each state has lemon laws protecting the buyer of new vehicles but there are limited provisions for used cars. The average lemon law requires that manufacturers provide a refund or replacement for defective new vehicles not repaired within a reasonable number of attempts. For substantial defects, it’s generally four times. For life-threatening safety defects, some state lemon laws kick in after only one or two attempts to repair.


In addition, the laws typically apply to a car that’s out of service for 30 days within the coverage period. The coverage period tends to be the first 18 months or 18,000 miles.


The manufacturer is usually allowed to deduct for your use of the car, based on mileage, says Rosemary Shahan, the founder and president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) whose campaigns for car safety led to the current lemon laws around the country, airbag requirements and other consumer protections.


Expect an uphill battle

Used car owners can expect to face an uphill battle when trying to prove they have a defective vehicle.


For those who don’t fall under the lemon law, there are state consumer protection laws that prohibit unfair and deceptive practices and often cover legal fees, says John Gayle Jr., a consumer law attorney who helped draft Virginia’s lemon law.


Some lemon laws are more liberal than others. California has the longest lemon law coverage period. It’s the length of the manufacturer’s warranty, even if it’s up to 10 years or 100,000 miles, Shahan says. 


In comparison, Arizona’s used car lemon law only applies during the first 15 days or 500 miles of purchase, whichever comes first. That only addresses “defects affecting the safe operation of the vehicles or substantially limiting its use,” Bradley Gelder, a consumer attorney with Community Legal Services of Arizona, wrote in an email to MNN.

“Dealers can avoid even this limited protection if they disclose in writing particular defects, and the purchaser signs a prescribed written waiver.”


Take detailed notes

Some protections for used car buyers may provide the same coverage as a lemon law, but leave it up to the courts to decide whether the car meets the standards of a lemon to qualify for a refund or new car, according to those interviewed for this story.


The Federal Trade Commission’s used car rule requires dealers to post a Buyers Guide in used cars that indicate whether the car is sold “as is” or with a used car warranty, the percent of repair cost the dealer will cover under the warranty and a list of the major defects that can occur on used vehicles.


The consumer advocates consulted for this story agree that taking detailed notes on your efforts to resolve the complaint, including conversations and repair receipts, gives you the best chance of getting what you want.


Tips to resolving your dispute

Here are 10 other steps Shahan advises for resolving your dispute:


  • Check your state’s lemon law and the buy-back formula, including mileage deduction, to determine how much you are entitled to receive before you negotiate with the manufacturer. In some states, like Florida, it may not pay to use the lemon law because of the high mileage deduction.
  • Make sure you comply with the factory warranty.
  • Choose an authorized agent to complete the repairs and ensure you don’t void the warranty.
  • Contact the dealer to request the repairs. The manufacturer will have to approve all warranty work.
  • Keep a log of every time you do a repair. Even if the dealer says it can’t find the cause of the problem it still counts as an attempt. Ensure all of your concerns are noted on the work order.  You can also complain to your state motor vehicle department if you find inconsistencies in the work order.
  • When you suspect you have a lemon, contact the manufacturer through certified mail so it has proof of your complaint before you file a lawsuit.
  • If the dealer tries to trade you into a different car, ask to see the terms and check around to ensure you aren’t getting another lemon.
  • Notify the FTC if you suspect foul play, as it oversees the manufacturers, dealers and warranties. In some cases, you can double your damages if you can prove the manufacturer violated the lemon law willfully. 
  • Hire an attorney. Many state lemon laws pay legal fees to make filing a complaint more affordable. “Sometimes all it takes is an attorney letter to resolve [the case] quicker.” You can find one through the National Association of Consumer Advocates.
  • Consider using the state-run arbitration offered by the attorney general’s office. The Better Business Bureau’s dispute resolution program handles the majority of arbitration, but it’s funded by the manufacturer, Shahan cautions.   

Above all else: Be persistent, Shahan says. “All manufacturers buy back a lot of lemons. Don’t let them discourage you.”


For more information about state lemon laws, visit Lemon Law America or


Got other thoughts on what to do if you have a car that’s a lemon? Leave us a note in the comments below.

What to do if you have a car that's a lemon
So you've spent your hard-earned dollars on a car that turns out to be a clunker? Bum luck. Are you stuck with it or is there a way to make lemonade from a lemo