Used Car Lemon Laws

Dustin Hawley | Apr 18, 2021

The urban definition of a lemon car characterizes it as a vehicle with severe defects caused by the manufacturing process or the previous owner. Failures are an inevitable part of owning a car, but lemons have so many problems that keeping them road-worthy becomes unsustainable. The worst examples can even pose serious safety and liability risks.

Used car lemon laws

In turn, several lemon laws have been instituted to protect customers from deceptive warranty practices and defective cars. When a widespread manufacturing fault emerges, car companies will recall the model in case of a safety hazard or offer partial compensation to avoid lawsuits or bad press. Dealerships are obligated to fully maintain a vehicle during its warranty period and even replace or refund it if the problem is severe enough.

Purchasing a used car inherently carries more risks than buying new, and unfortunately, the same level of protection cannot be expected. By law, the seller has to disclose any major accidents the vehicle has been involved in, and it is illegal to change the mileage. But that doesn’t mean these unsavory practices don’t take place. Hence, buyers are responsible for inspecting every aspect of the vehicle and agree to buy it in its current condition. 

Let’s explain how lemon laws work and the steps you can take to avoid purchasing one.

How Lemon Laws Work

Federal and state consumer protection laws have existed for a long time. Their main purpose is to hold the manufacturer and seller accountable for their goods. If the car cannot be repaired or the defect is too severe, the consumer is due a refund or a replacement vehicle. 

But the legislation hasn’t caught up with the market, and these laws are difficult to apply to used cars, especially if the manufacturer’s warranty has expired. Currently, only seven states have used car lemon laws: Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York. Sadly, even in the states in which they are active, the application of these laws is very limiting and rarely helps.

Vehicles can be sold in any condition, and it’s the buyer’s responsibility to determine its state before signing the contract. This can involve a visual inspection, test drive, and even a visit to a mechanic’s shop. Keep in mind; some issues can go unnoticed and appear days or weeks after the purchase.As the seller isn’t obligated to sell the vehicle in perfect condition, buyers cannot expect to receive a perfect car. This means that new or unnoticed issues may not be susceptible to lemon laws, with a few exceptions.

Accident History

Most states have laws that require the seller to disclose the vehicle’s accident history. This is important for a number of reasons, including the age of the car. 

Modern vehicles have unibody construction that makes them safer and lighter than their predecessors. In case of a significant crash, the body is engineered to absorb the impact in a way that prevents passenger injuries. Because the wreck is nearly impossible to iron out, damaged parts are cut off and replaced in a process called ‘cut and shut’ or ‘clipping.’ 

Even with expert welding, unibody construction cannot be restored to its original strength in terms of its structural integrity. These vehicles are known as ‘zipper cars,’ and they can be a safety concern. Some states prohibit the sale of zipper cars, while others require the seller to properly inform the buyer before finalizing a deal. 

The most basic way to begin discovering whether or not a vehicle was involved in an accident is to inspect the body, including the side panels and undercarriage. While elements like paint color naturally fade over time, a replaced or repainted panel will likely not be faded, but the color may be a slightly different hue. 

In cases of front and rear collision, certain features like the headlights, grille, or bumpers may be in unusually good condition. But signs of crumpling and welding are often difficult to hide, so by carefully inspecting every part of the body, you’ll likely be able to tell if the vehicle was damaged at any point.

Tampered Odometer

When buying a used car, it’s always recommended to review the service history. A well-maintained vehicle will have the date and mileage of the last checkup closely tied to the current mileage on the odometer. 

Odometer tampering involves lowering the mileage on the odometer, often making the car appear as if it has less wear and tear on its working parts. This makes it more appealing to potential buyers, and it is highly illegal.

These cases are not only covered by lemon law protection; they’re also grounds for criminal charges against the owner. To avoid unnecessary risks, you can take the car in question to a mechanic for a quick and relatively cheap inspection. Have them compare the interior wear with the mileage and age of the car, looking for signs like worn-out seats, steering wheel, and buttons that can be strong indicators of a tampered odometer.

Major Breakdown

The lemon laws don’t necessarily cover specific problems like a dead battery, worn timing belt, or transmission issue. However, when the sheer quantity of the problems is beyond a reasonable threshold, it’s time to take the vehicle into a professional.

Explain the situation to the mechanic, and they should be able to assess whether the issues were caused by neglect or from abuse at the hands of the prior owner. This can prove vital, as claims could be made that you’ve caused the damage yourself. You’d want to create a paper trail that validates your claims if it were to ever come to it.

Consult with a lemon law attorney and see if you have grounds for a serious case. Many attorneys will charge a small initial fee and hope to collect from the defendant (who has a strong case). In this instance, the process won’t place a huge financial burden on you.


Used cars have some level of protection from lemon laws, especially if the warranty hasn’t expired. Currently, only seven states have specific laws to make purchases safer for consumers. So instead of relying on the regulations, ensure that the car you’re interested in isn’t a lemon. If a vehicle has had several owners or the service book is incomplete and missing, consider finding another option. Enticing offers may prompt you to act hastily and miss crucial flaws that could come back to haunt you.

It’s worth spending some cash to have the vehicle inspected by a professional rather than repairing it in the future. Vehicles with less than 200,000 miles, a well-kept service book, and no more than one owner for every five years of service are generally considered safe purchases.

Explore new car previews
Volkswagen ID. Aero Concept Preview
Volkswagen ID. Aero Concept Preview
VW is looking to the future with a new concept car. The ID. Aero concept is a sleek premium electric sedan with stunning range and futuristic style, and it’s close to becoming a reality.
Read the full review
2023 Subaru Ascent Preview
2023 Subaru Ascent Preview
Subaru updates the Ascent SUV for the 2023 model year with a light facelift, new safety tech, and improved convenience features.
Read the full review
2024 Chevrolet Blazer EV Preview
2024 Chevrolet Blazer EV Preview
General Motors' (GM) vehicle-electrification strategy is accelerating, and its brands are announcing new models rapidly. Chevrolet has now set a date for the reveal of the new Blazer EV. Chevy will reveal the electric SUV on July 18 with an expected on-sale date of Spring 2023.
Read the full review
Read all articles

Scroll to the top
New Car Preview
2023 Alfa Romeo Tonale Preview
Most Dependable
2019 Vehicle Dependability: Most Dependable Trucks
Most Popular
10 Most Popular Large SUVs and Crossovers
New Model Update
New for 2019: GMC
New Car Preview
2023 Kia EV9 Preview
More related