Don’t get stuck with a lemon

Don’t get stuck with a lemon – Statistical Data Included

Russell Shew

New-car quality is high, but mistakes still happen. If you buy one, you may be due a refund.

The quality of new cars and trucks continues to improve each year. But vehicles still roll off the assembly line with defects. If you discover a serious problem with your new car or truck that the dealer just can’t seem to fix, you may be able to get your money back, or at least exchange the vehicle for a more reliable one.

Improving your odds

To avoid getting stuck with a problem car, here are a few precautions you can take:

* Inspect your new vehicle before you accept delivery. If you detect any problems, refuse delivery until they’ve been corrected. Don’t accept a dealer’s promises that everything will be taken care of at the first service.

* Review and keep copies of the manufacturer’s literature about your model, especially advertisements, brochures and warranties. Any statements the carmaker makes about performance could help you get a refund or replacement if a defect keeps the car from living up to the claims.

* Follow the guidelines in your owner’s manual for routine maintenance. Keep thorough records of all service and any problems that crop up.

* Whenever you take your car in for repairs, give the service adviser a dated note that describes all of the conditions you’re concerned about. Keep a copy of the note in your files.

* Get a detailed repair order every time you take your car in for repairs, even if the shop isn’t able to diagnose or fix the problem. Be sure all repair orders indicate how many days the vehicle was in the shop.

* Keep copies of the repair orders and other paperwork somewhere other than in your car, where they could get lost.

State lemon laws

If your new car is spending more time in the shop than on the road, you may be able to get relief from your state’s lemon law. These laws are designed to ensure that new-car buyers aren’t stuck with manufacturers’ mistakes.

Lemon laws in some states cover leased or used vehicles as well as new ones. To find out about the lemon law that applies to your car or truck, contact the consumer affairs office or attorney general’s office in the state where you bought the vehicle.

Generally, lemon laws allow a car owner to seek a refund or replacement if a vehicle has a defect or condition that substantially impairs its use, market value or safety, and the defect is not fixed within a “reasonable” number of repair attempts–usually defined as four repair attempts or 30 days out of service within the first 12 months or 12,000 miles of ownership. (In some states, the lemon law applies for different periods; see the table on the next page.)

Arbitration is state-run in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Vermont and Washington. In other states, arbitration programs are run by the automaker, the Better Business Bureau or the National Automobile Dealers Association.

In most states, you present your case to an arbitration board, either in person or by telephone or letter. The automaker also presents its side. If you prove your case, the arbitration board can force the automaker to buy the car back.

The automaker is usually required to abide by the arbitrator’s ruling if you win. But if you’re not happy with the arbitrator’s decision, you can usually still take your case to court.

Arbitration advice

If you decide to seek a refund, there are several ways to increase your chances of winning at arbitration:

* Prepare an outline of the vehicle’s problems by component. Under each heading, such as “brakes,” list each problem, a description of the repair work that was done, the dates of repair, the number of days out of service and any amount you had to pay. This outline will help the arbitrator sort through your car’s repair orders and other paperwork.

* Let the dealer and manufacturer have a fair chance to detect and repair all problems. Make sure you adhere to the lemon law’s requirements for reporting problems to the dealer or the manufacturer. Also keep paying your car loan. Most states will reimburse you for loan payments plus interest if you win at arbitration.

* Be sure you notify the auto manufacturer and the dealer of your intent to pursue the lemon law by sending a certified, registered or express-mail letter. Keep the return receipt. * Use arbitration that’s run by the state rather than the automaker if it is available.

* Consider retaining a lawyer who has lemon-law experience to present your case. For names of “lemon lawyers” in your state, contact your state attorney general’s office.

* Ask an independent mechanic who is familiar with your vehicle to corroborate its problems and to appear at the arbitration hearing.

For more information on lemon laws, the non-profit Center for Auto Safety publishes The Lemon Book, by Ralph Nader and Clarence Ditlow ($16.50; Center for Auto Safety, 2001 S St., N.W., Washington, DC 20009).

What is a lemon?

In most states, you can seek relief under the lemon law after a certain number of unsuccessful repair attempts for the same defect, or if the vehicle is out of service a certain number of days. The definition of a defect varies, but in all but a few states, it must significantly impair the vehicle’s use, safety or value. (In a few states, you can seek arbitration sooner for “safety lemons”–if the defect is serious enough to cause injury or death.)

# of repair attemps/or Within this time

# of days out of service or mileage limit

Alabama 3/30 shorter of 2 years or 24,000 miles

Alaska 3/30 shorter of 1 year or warranty terms

Arizona 4/30 earlier of 2 years or 24,000 miles

Arkansas 3/30 later of 2 years or 24,000 miles

California 4/30 earlier of 1 year or 12,000 miles

Colorado 4/30 1 year or terms of warranty

Connecticut 4/30 earlier of 2 years or 18,000 miles

Delaware 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

District of 4/30 earlier of 2 years or 18,000 miles

Columbia

Florida 3/30 earlier of 18 months or 24,000 miles

Georgia 3/30 earlier of 24 months or 24,000 miles

Hawaii 3/30 terms of warranty

Idaho 4/30 earlier of 1 year or 12,000 miles

Illinois 4/30 1 year or 12,000 miles

Indiana 4/30 earlier of 18 months or 18,000 miles

Iowa 3/20 earlier of 2 years, 24,000 miles or warranty

Kansas 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Kentucky 4/30 earlier of 12 months or 12,000 miles

Louisiana 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty terms

Maine 3/15 earlier of 2 years, 18,000 miles or warranty

Maryland 4/30 earliest of 15 months, 15,000 miles or warranty

Massachusetts 3/15 shorter of 1 year or 15,000 miles

Michigan 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Minnesota 4/30 earlier of 2 years or warranty

Mississippi 3/15 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Missouri 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Montana 4/30 earlier of 2 years or 18,000 miles

Nebraska 4/40 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Nevada 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

New Hampshire 3/30 terms of warranty

New Jersey 3/20 earlier of 2 years or 18,000 miles

New Mexico 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

New York 4/30 earlier of 2 year or 18,000 miles

North Carolina 4/30 later of 1 year or warranty

North Dakota 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Ohio 3/30 earlier of l year or 18,000 miles

Oklahoma 4/45 earlier of 2 years or 24,000 miles

Oregon 4/30 earlier of 1 year or 12,000 miles

Pennsylvania 3/30 earlier of 1 year, 12,000 miles or warranty

Rhode Island 4/30 earlier of 1 year or 15,000 miles

South Carolina 3/30 earlier of 12 months or 12,000 miles

South Dakota 4/30 earlier of 24 months or 24,000 miles

Tennessee 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Texas 4/30 24 months or 24,000 miles

Utah 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Vermont 3/30 terms of warranty

Virginia 3/30 18 months

Washington 4/30 earlier of 2 years or 24,000 miles

West Virginia 3/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Wisconsin 4/30 earlier of 1 year or warranty

Wyoming 3/30 1 year

COPYRIGHT 1999 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group