"Don't buy a lemon." It's the first thing many people say when you talk about buying a new car. But what exactly is a lemon? And what do you do if you just bought one? Despite all the talk about lemons, figuring out whether or not you have one can be a whole lot harder than most people expect it to be, and getting the problem fixed can be a sour deal indeed.

Your Warranty Is Key
Your new car is a piece of junk! The door sticks, the seat adjustment won't work, the steering wheel makes a funny noise and the turn signal stopped working. It's a lemon, right? Maybe, but determining whether a vehicle is a lemon can be a complicated and bitter process.

At the federal level, there is no specific "lemon law." The most applicable federal statute only covers what is stated in your warranty package. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which was passed by Congress in 1975, mandates that manufacturers and sellers of consumer products provide buyers with detailed, written information about warranty coverage.

Not Covered by Warranty
Using this law as the basis for deciding whether your car is a lemon means that if the issue in question is not specifically spelled out in the vehicle's written warranty, then you have no recourse under the federal law. So, if that sticking door, broken seat, funny noise in the steering wheel and broken turn signal are not specifically covered in the vehicle's written warranty, you could be out of luck. According to the government, you don't have a lemon - no matter how much your car's noises drive you crazy.

Covered by Warranty
If the items are covered by the warranty, you must give the seller the opportunity to correct the problems - you can't just cry "lemon" and demand your money back.

A single instance of mechanical failure does not qualify a vehicle for lemon status. In most cases, the seller must be given at least three opportunities to make the repair before the consumer can seek to return the defective vehicle.

State by State
To further complicate matters, individual states often handle lemon law cases in dramatically different ways. For example, Florida's lemon law applies to new or "demo" motor vehicles purchased or leased in Florida for personal use. The vehicle must have a manufacturing defect that substantially impairs the vehicle's value, use or safety.

The law covers the vehicle for a period of two years after the date of original delivery of the motor vehicle. The manufacturer must be given three attempts to make a repair or the vehicle must be out of service for a total of 15 or more days while repairs are being made. If these conditions are met, complaints must be filed withing 60 days through a state arbitration request or, if the manufacturer participates, the state-certified program.
In Maryland, the state lemon law only applies to new or leased vehicles registered in that state that are less than 15 months old and have been driven less than 15,000 miles. Defects covered include:

  • A brake or steering failure that was not corrected after the first repair attempt and that causes the vehicle to fail Maryland's safety inspection; or
  • Any one problem that substantially impairs the use and market value of the vehicle that was not corrected in four repair attempts; or
  • Any number of problems that substantially impair the use and market value of the vehicle that have caused it to be out of service for a cumulative total of 30 or more days.

Clearly, even under the state laws, a sticking door does not qualify the vehicle for lemon status, as it does not "impair the use and market value." Likewise, that car you bought from your Uncle Joe or through an auction on eBay was likely sold "as is," with no warranty at all.

Document Your Case
If the brakes have failed on your car for the fourth time or you still can't get it to accelerate to a speed above 50 miles per hour despite multiple trips to the dealer, you may have a case. If so, you need to prove it.

Documenting the problems that you are having with your vehicle will be crucial to making your case in court or before an arbitration panel. To demonstrate your point, you need to save all the paper work from the repairs. Keep copies of any letters you have written or correspondence that you have received. Create a timeline, detailing the dates of each occurrence of your problem, and any steps that you have taken to get it corrected. If you had the vehicle towed or were involved in a accident as a result of the problem, be sure to save any documentation that proves that these events took place.

Professional Assistance
Depending on your state, you may want to seek professional representation. If so, look for an experienced attorney and make sure that you are familiar with the applicable state laws regarding attorney compensation. In some states, the defendant must pay the lawyer's bill if the plaintiff prevails. In others, the plaintiff pays the bill regardless of the verdict.