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How to Spot a Lemon: 6 Things to Look For When Buying a Used Car

There’s no feeling quite as defeating as purchasing a supposedly reliable vehicle at an affordable price, only to learn later that you just put money down on a lemon. A lemon, if you’re not already familiar, is a car that doesn’t perform to par with what its dealer promises. The etymology of referring to second-hand car in poor condition as “lemons” dates as far back as the invention of the automobile in the ‘30s, only to be later popularized specifically by the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach in the 1960’s to market the Volkswagen Beetle. Since then, it’s become a time-worn cry for every unfortunate car owner swindled out of a quality purchase. How common is it to get saddled with a Lemon? What legal recourse can you take to be reimbursed for a dishonest deal? And most importantly, how can you spot the warning signs and prevent yourself on making a purchase on a bum deal?

Here’s a list of important tips and precautions to keep you from accidentally purchasing a lemon or, in the unfortunate case you do get stuck with one, how to approach getting your money back and a better car to boot!


What Legal Protections Do You Have In A ‘Lemon Car’ Liability Case?


If you’re looking for the most basic form of legal protection in the United States against lemon vehicle purchases, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is it. Passed by Congress in 1975, it’s purpose was to make product warranties more easily understood and enforceable as a means of better protecting consumers. Although the act doesn’t force manufacturers to include warranties on their products, it does force them to be in compliance with the Warranty Act’s requirements. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is the most commonly cited law in the case of federal“lemon” warranty liability cases, but it’s far from the only so-called “lemon law.” There a multiple such laws on the state with regards to what exactly manufacturers are required to divulge to consumers and how liable they are for faulty products. In general, vehicle manufacturers view Lemon Law claims and the consumers who file them as nuisances, taking up valuable time that could otherwise be spent on manufacturing and selling more cars. Despite this, if you’ve been sold a faulty vehicle whose production is inherently faulty, then that is their problem; not yours. Generally, vehicle manufacturers view Lemon Law claims and the consumers with disdain; nuisances occupying valuable time that could otherwise be spent focusing on selling more vehicles. All that said, if you ever find yourself in the unenviable position of buying a lemon, the first and best piece of advice is to lawyer up, preferably with someone who has a proven track record with dealing with lemon law disputes.


What Vehicles Are Covered Under Lemon Laws in Illinois?

In Illinois, for example, only certain vehicle types are covered under the state’s “lemon” warranty provisions. These include new cars, light trucks, vans under 8,000 lbs., RVs, vehicles that are either a) one year old or less or b) within their first 12,000 miles, and vehicles purchased in Illinois. However, these laws do not insure consumers from predatory dealership practices in the case of used cars, motorcycles, trailers, boats, and vehicles that have been extensively modified by previous or current owners.


How to Begin Filing a Lemon Law Claim


Filing a claim on for a Lemon vehicle can be an intimidating process, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the legalese and decorum behind bringing a case against an automotive manufacturer. First of all, don’t be! If you made a binding purchase for a functional car and did not receive one, you’re entitled to a replacement or refund. And that’s only the start. In some cases, you’re entitled to even larger reward payments, depending on the severity of the manufacturing flaw and the endangerment of your personal safety. Here’s a list of the best-practice steps you need to take to build a winning case for ‘lemon’ reparations.


1. First things first— Make sure you have all your paperwork in order. This includes the correspondence record between the dealer and manufacturer, as well as assorted sales and service records. The only thing more important in a lemon case than having followed the warranty requirements of the vehicle in question is providing hard proof that you did so. When it comes to preparing to file a lemon case, make sure all communication is corresponded through writing, sent via certified mail with a return receipt or, failing that, recorded within accordance to state law. Save and organize multiple copies of everything for your personal records.


2. The second most important step is finding an experienced lemon lawyer. The importance of finding a lawyer with first-hand experience navigating these legal entanglements cannot be stressed enough. Here’s the obvious fact: You’re not going to be able to handle this on your own. If the lawyer you choose asks for a retainer or a fee, that’s the biggest sign that you should walk away and find another option. Any lemon lawyer worth their reputation knows that, if the case is won, courts typically order the defendant (i.e. the manufacturer) to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees as well as their remunerations. If you lose, you shouldn’t have to pay the lawyer anything. One highly-lauded recommendation is Vince Megna, the self-appointed “lemon-law king”, won a massive settlement against Tesla Motors for a combined total of $145,336, saying,  "We got back every penny we asked for." Megna’s case was a benchmark in the history of lemon law settlements, the first time an electric car manufacturer had been brought up on a faulty product. Just goes to show the unequaled value of a well-practiced lemon lawyer.


3. Lemon laws require that you notify the company that you intend to file a lemon law case against it. Your state's lemon law will spell out how and when you need to make this notification, but typically you need to send the manufacturer a letter explaining the problem, and what you want to do about it. It is generally recommended that you request that it buy the car back from you or replace it.


How Can You Spot a Lemon?

Defending your claim in a lemon case is one thing. Keeping yourself from ever being put in a position like that is another thing entirely. No-one ever wants to deal with the burdensome purchase of a car that just refuses to work as it should, especially when you need an operable vehicle to travel between your day-to-day responsibilities. Prevention is just as important as restitution. Because of this, we’ve curated a list of tips and advice to not only screen the lemons out of your bushel of options, but possibly secure a choice model at a reduced price!


1. Get a Vehicle History Report


The first step in acquiring a new vehicle, without fail, is checking its vehicle history report. There are several ways of going about this, as there are many different report services (each with their own pros and cons) such as Carfax or AutoCheck. The most important thing however, no matter what service you use, is that you receive a comprehensive report of the vehicle’s previous owners (if any), any accidents the vehicle may have encountered, as well as how many times it has needed repairs and what the current title is. That last part is the most pertinent element here — if the vehicle itself has been certified as a lemon, then the title will reflect that. As stated before, Illinois Lemon Laws do not pertain to used vehicles or automobiles that are heavily modified post-purchase. Dealers are not legally obligated to openly disclose a vehicle’s lemon title status, so it falls to consumer to research the car’s history report and find answers.



2. Pre-Purchase Inspection


The most important step in purchasing a new vehicle is making sure that it works. To do that, you’re going have to go beyond the history report and inspect the vehicle personally. If you think that the issues with the car are negligible or suspect that it may have been mislabeled as a lemon, you can send the vehicle to a trusted mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. Someone with automotive expertise would be able to better assess the cumulative costs behind the vehicle’s wear and tear and whether those issues are unsalvageable or not. Here’s what you should check for before purchasing a new vehicle:

  • Check the exterior: The best place to begin is to work from the outside and move inward. To start, take a full walk around the car to look for any dents, paint chips, mismatched components, broken light housing, or any other noticeable damage after use. Be sure to look for things like paint overspray on chrome, rubber trim, or the vehicle’s wheel wells, as this is a sure sign of extensive body-panel repair.

  • Check the interior: A long look from the outside can reveal a lot, but there’s no substitute for looking out from the inside yourself. Sagging headliner, cracked dashboard, and missing knobs and handles— all of these can revealed from an exhaustive interior search. Worn pedals or a sagging driver's seats are likely signs that the vehicle has high mileage. An air bag warning light that stays lit may indicate that a bag has deployed and been improperly replaced— or not replaced at all. Also, check for a smell: abnormal odors can either be linked to mildew damage or even transmission leaks.

  • Check under the hood: The engine, radiator, and battery should be grease-free, more or less, and not be leaking. Check the engine oil with a dipstick while the vehicle isn’t running. The oil level should be between the "full" and "add" marks. Normal engine oil is brown or black, depending on when it was last changed. Gritty or gelatinous oil may indicate long stretches between oil changes. Thin, frothy oil that's the color of chocolate milk may point to a blown head gasket or to a severely damaged block or cylinder head. Fine metal particles in the oil indicate internal damage or heavy wear. To check the vehicle’s transmission, the fluid dipstick should be located toward the rear of the engine compartment. According to Consumer Reports, you should, “check it right after the car has been driven for more than 10 minutes. With the engine at idle and both the brake and parking brake applied, shift through all the gears. Leave the engine running and put it in neutral or park (according to the owner's manual) and check the level in relation to the dipstick marks. Inspect the fluid's condition. The transmission fluid should be bright red to light reddish brown, not dark brown, black, or mustard colored; those colors can indicate serious problems. If it has a strong burned smell, that can indicate severe wear.”

  • Check the tires: Wear should be even across the width of the tread and the same on the left and right sides of the car. Tires that are frequently used while over-inflated tend to have more wear in the middle; tires driven while under-inflated tend to wear more on the sides. Heavy wear on the outside shoulder near the sidewall of the tire indicates a car that has been driven hard. This can be a sign that other parts of the car may suffer from excessive wear due to aggressive driving.

  • Check the steering: While the car idling, turn the steering wheel right and left. Check that there isn't any slack or "play," or clunking noise in the steering. Excess play may indicate a worn steering gear or damaged linkage. While driving at normal speeds on smooth, flat pavement, the car shouldn't wander or need constant steering corrections. A shaking steering wheel often indicates a need for a wheel balancing or front-end alignment, which are easily remedied. However, this may also be a clue that there's a problem with the driveline, suspension, or frame, which could mean expensive repairs are in order.

  • Check the Suspension: Check the suspension by pushing down hard on each fender and letting go. The car should rebound softly, once or twice. More than two severe rebounds indicate worn shock absorbers or struts. Also, drive the car over a bumpy road at about 30 mph. A car that bounces and slams at moderate speeds over common pavement may have a worn or damaged suspension.

  • Take it for a spin: While driving, does the engine rev excessively before the car accelerates? This is a common sign of a misadjusted or worn-out clutch, or a damaged automatic transmission. A clutch adjustment is a relatively inexpensive service, but a damaged clutch or automatic-transmission repair can be extremely expensive.



3. Bargain

Even if the car is a lemon, it may still be perfectly drivable. Realistically, a car can be a labeled a lemon even if there’s just something wrong the passenger side window that won’t open, a CD player that won’t play a certain CD or maybe just an unexpected ticking noise from the engine that may just be the direct injection system. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth buying. But since a car has that lemon label, it will have a seriously hindered resale value. You can use this as a bargaining chip to get a lower price on the vehicle. Keep in mind what the pre-purchase inspection revealed about the car, as the vehicle could need some attention after purchasing in order to be safe and reliable. That last word is the most important part of this whole question. Is the car going to be reliable to drive, despite having some known issues? Are the issues and headaches something you can deal with? If so, then make an offer. As the car is a lemon, it won’t be easy for the seller to get rid of.


What Else Should You Know About Lemon Law Incidents?

This year, Los Angeles-based law firm Consumer Law Experts conducted a study to find out the frequency of lemon cases and which automakers manufactured those units. Their results were equally fascinating and suprising. According to their study, Toyota was the major automaker found least likely to defend themselves in court over a lemon law case. Cosumers are eight times more likely to be hit by lightning in their lifetime than go to court with Toyota over a lemon law claim. Consumer Law Experts found that BMW was 30 times more likely than Toyota to sell a defective vehicle to a consumer, with a frenquency of lemon law cases filed against BMW averaging once for every 2,021 vehicles sold in the U.S. between 2013 and 2016. Ford didn't fare much better in the firm's research estimates, with lemon case losses occuring once for every 3,523 units sold. However, this is not conclusive as to whether BMW or Ford are really 20-30 times mroe likely to manufacture a lemon vehilce compared to Toyota according to Jessica Anvar, managing partner of Consumer Law Experts. A leading authority on lemon law cases with a winning court record to prove it, Anvar says, "There are many reasons why some manufacturers are more likely to lose a warranty case than others. How the dealershiop resolves complaints is probably the biggest factor. The best way to avoid a lemon law case in court is to make the customer happy at the first sign of a problem."


How to Avoid Buying a Lemon Car | Consumer Reports


How Hard is it to Win a Lemon Law Case against a Manufacturer? | Lemon Law Experts


An Interview with Vince Megna, the Lemon Law King of Wisconsin  | ClassAction.com


Man Awarded $482,000 In Lemon Law Claim | Autoblog


How to Spot a Lemon and Should You Buy It? | AutoGuide


'Lemon-law' lawyer declares victory against Tesla | USA Today


Study shows OEMs involved in most lemon law cases | Auto Remarketing