A Comprehensive Guide to California Lemon Law

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The lemon law is usually a topic that people don’t know much about until they run into problems.

In a nutshell, the lemon law was created in the United States to protect consumers from defective products – most notably automobiles. The lemon law applies to faulty vehicles that are still covered under warranty.

You may have heard the term “lemon” when someone refers to a junk car that comes with nothing but problems. This often happens when you purchase a new vehicle that was manufactured with bad practices – but it can also apply to used vehicles, too.

If you recently purchased or leased a vehicle that isn’t running properly, you may be covered under California lemon law.

In this guide, we’re going to cover the dense topic of the lemon law and how it might apply to you.

Lemon Law Basics: How Lemon Law Works

The lemon law, also referred to as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act was enacted in the United States in 1975.

The purpose of this law is to protect citizens against auto fraud and ensure manufacturers honor the warranties tied to their products. Additionally, lemon law works to reduce the chances that consumers are misled about the warranty when they purchase a product.

Now, you may be wondering what makes a vehicle a lemon?

Say you bought a new vehicle. After a few weeks – or months – of driving it, you start to notice weird sounds coming from under the hood. Assuming the vehicle is still under warranty, you can take it back to the manufacturer or dealership to have the issue repaired at no cost, as this is guaranteed under the warranty.

Lemon law follows a similar set of criteria across the board.

Now, the qualifications above may also describe the lemon law presumption.

With the help of a specialized lemon law attorney, you can potentially receive compensation for lemon vehicle. It is not necessary that the vehicle is still under warranty, as long as the problem began during the warranty period.

If your vehicle meets the requirements in accordance with state law, it may qualify as a lemon. In this scenario, you need to file a claim and go through the lemon law process to prove that the vehicle is indeed a lemon.

Once it’s proven that the vehicle is a lemon, you are entitled to compensation. These benefits can be a lemon law buyback or a replacement of the vehicle, as well as compensation from the manufacturer for all legal and incidental costs stemming from the lemon.

The lemon law applies across the entire United States. However, the finer details of the law vary slightly from state-to-state, and lemon law in California has a number of unique stipulations.

California Lemon Law

The lemon law in California – also called the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act – has its own unique set of qualifications.

California has an added layer called the lemon law presumption, meaning the vehicle may be presumed to be a lemon if the following apply:

It’s important to note that in California, there is a time limit for the defect to present itself – as a general rule the problem must first occur within the terms of the express warranty.

So, many people who have a lemon on their hands often wonder: 

When is a car a lemon?

How long do you have to file a claim?

A lot of what you might read online is that the defect and repair attempts must occur within the first 18 months after the date of sale or before the odometer hits 18,000 miles.

This is not technically true, however, if a defect occurs within these limits, the lemon law case will be much stronger – as these are the figures related to lemon law presumption. It is very important to note, you don’t have to meet the exact requirements of the the lemon law presumption to qualify. As long as the problem first occurred within the warranty, the vehicle still qualifies.

In terms a filing a lemon law claim, there is a four-year statute of limitations in California.

California lemon law applies to many different types of vehicles, including, but not limited to:

Some people believe the myth that used cars do not apply to the lemon law in California.

On the contrary, gaining benefits for defective used cars is one of the unique aspects of the California lemon law – with some restrictions.  

New Car Lemon Law

Buying a brand-new vehicle should be an exciting experience – there is nothing quite like that new car smell. However, if you start running into issues or notice strange sounds when the vehicle is running, it may turn out to be a lemon.

New car lemon law protects consumers who have purchased a new vehicle (either for personal or business use) with a defect(s) – of which is covered under the express written warranty. If you recently bought a car brand new and are experiencing issues, the lemon law almost certainly applies to you.

If you repeatedly have to bring a new vehicle back for repairs, you could be eligible for the protections afforded under the California lemon law.

Leased Car Lemon Law

Many people assume that the lemon law doesn’t apply to leased cars. In fact, auto manufacturers once even argued the lemon law does not apply to leases. Thankfully, as citizens of California, our legislature affirmatively states–there is a lemon law for leases in California to protect consumers.

Similar to a new or used vehicle, the key issue with a defective leased vehicle is that it is covered under the manufacturer’s express warranty.

In the scenario that these warranties are expired, you may very well be out of luck.

Car leases are often written with lots of legal jargon that can be confusing. But most do come with a bumper-to-bumper factory warranty covering everything from major mechanical issues to regular service.

Warranties with leased cars are typically effective for at least three years or 36,000 miles. However, these times and miles can change depending on the dealership you lease from.

Just like with a newly purchased vehicle, it is important to determine whether or not the mechanical issues, or other problems, that your vehicle is experiencing occurred while the warranty was still in effect. The warranty will run out the moment the odometer passes the specified mile mark or after the expiration date.

It is also important that you carefully read the fine print on the lease.

Some dealerships will include clauses to reduce their responsibility. Always negotiate to opt out of the arbitration agreement. If the dealer says the arbitration provision is not negotiable, consider walking away. It is best to work with a lemon law lawyer to help you go through the lease agreement and determine whether or not your personal or business vehicle is covered.

Used Car Lemon Law

Does the California lemon law apply to used vehicles? 

The answer is yes. Under California’s law, a pre-owned vehicle can still qualify as a lemon – as long as the vehicle is sold with a warranty from the manufacturer, distributor, or dealership.

This warranty does not have to be the original warranty from the manufacturer; one from the dealership is sufficient. These dealership warranties usually are good for about three months. Also, buy-here-pay-here dealerships are required to issue a warranty for a minimum amount of time, no matter what.

Used vehicle warranties vary from state-to-state. In California, buy-here-pay-here dealerships are required to offer a minimum 30 day or 1,000-mile implied warranty for every sale at no additional charge.

Dealerships may offer additional warranties – either for purchase or included with the vehicle.

The California lemon law used car guidelines are slightly less straightforward than those that apply to new vehicles. Depending on the year of the used car, it’s possible that it is still covered under the original manufacturer’s warranty – in which case you could be eligible for the lemon law, because in California the legal definition of new motor vehicle is one sold with the manufacturer’s express written warranty, or the balance of the warranty still in effect, for example a certified pre-owned vehicle.

If the original manufacturer warranty is expired, you will need to check if the car is covered under the dealer warranty or implied warranty of merchantability – of which will be specified in the buyer’s guide.

If you bought a lemon car from a private owner – rather than a dealership, it is far more difficult to receive protection under the California lemon law. If the vehicle is still under the manufacturer’s warranty and it has been transferred from the private party to the owner, then it may qualify as a lemon.

Typically, a vehicle purchased from a private party is sold “as is” – there is no additional warranty besides the one from the original manufacturer. Also, in California, the very first element to any lemon law claim, is that the vehicle is sold by a retail seller, in other words a car dealership. This is why it is always recommended to take the vehicle to a reputable mechanic for an inspection before making a purchase.

Vehicle Warranty Law

The California lemon law process is based on warranties. After all, the law is called the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act.

Let’s go over some of the major types of vehicle warranties that typically factor into lemon law.

New cars generally come with a written warranty from the vehicle manufacturer or dealership. This is commonly referred to as the “express warranty”. The express warranty is an explicit promise (in writing) that the vehicle will perform properly for a particular period of time.

Express warranties are usually good for a certain number of years or miles accrued on the odometer – whichever comes first. These numbers can vary based on the warranty.

Typically in relation to used vehicles, the implied warranty – or the implied warranty of merchantability – is not a written contract (or a verbal one). Additionally, it is NOT a promise that every part of the vehicle will function correctly.

The implied warranty is a promise that the vehicle will provide safe and reliable transportation for a specified amount of time. So, it may not cover problems with the stereo system or other components that do not impact the vehicle’s worthiness to be sold, i.e., merchantability. In other words, this warranty may be thought of as a very basic warranty which only covers the essential parts of the vehicle.

This warranty is automatic and goes into effect when you purchase a vehicle.

Under California lemon law, the statute generally imposes this implied warranty for a minimum of 30 days.

Dealer warranties apply to used vehicles and can function similar to the manufacturer’s warranty. It is a written promise that the vehicle is free of defects and will provide safe, reliable transportation over a specified amount of time or miles.

Be sure to check the buyer’s guide for information about the dealer warranty. Dealers are required by federal law to display the buyer’s guide on used vehicles for
sale.

Extended warranties may not really be warranties. In relation to California lemon law, these are more often “service contracts,” which the salesperson claims is a warranty. Service contracts are not a promise that the vehicle is free of defects and in good condition. Rather, they are a third-party’s promise to repair the vehicle if
it breaks down.

So, if the extended warranty, or service contract, is all you have covering the vehicle, you likely won’t qualify for coverage under California used car lemon law limits.

There is, however, one exception. If your extended warranty states that you must take the vehicle back to the dealership that sold it to you for repairs, there is a chance that you may be eligible for benefits. In this scenario, you need to reach out to a specialized lemon law lawyer ASAP.

This is not a warranty at all. If a vehicle is being sold “as is” – which will be noted in the buyer’s guide – it means the vehicle is being sold under the condition that the buyer takes full responsibility for any defects with the vehicle.

Under the Federal Trade Commission’s Used Car Rule, a dealership that is reselling lemon law buybacks is required by law to disclose this information with an “As Is” or “Lemon” sticker on the vehicle. If this information was not properly disclosed to you as the buyer, then you may qualify for benefits.

For the most part, if you buy a car “as is” and it’s passed the time or mileage noted in the original warranty, you’re more than likely out of luck in the eyes of California lemon law.

Just about every vehicle warranty comes with two limitations: number of miles and specific number of years. Most bumper to bumper factory warranties are for three years or 36,000 miles and cover a set list of specific issues, but this ranges depending on the manufacturer.

AutomakerBasic WarrantyDrivetrain Warranty
BMW4 years / 50,000 miles4 years / 50,000 miles
Chevrolet3 years / 36,000 miles5 years / 60,000 miles
Kia5 years / 60,000 miles10 years / 100,000 miles
Lexus4 years / 50,000 miles6 years / 70,000 miles
Toyota3 years / 36,000 miles5 years / 60,000 miles
Nissan3 years / 36,000 miles5 years / 60,000 miles
Ford3 years / 36,000 miles5 years / 60,000 miles
Volvo4 years / 50,000 miles4 years / 50,000 miles
Mercedes4 years / 50,000 miles4 years / 50,000 miles

Most car warranties are labeled as “bumper-to-bumper”. This essentially means that all parts of the vehicle are covered.
The bumper-to-bumper factory warranty often includes protection for:

However, some of these warranties do not cover regular maintenance, wear and tear, interior or exterior damage caused by improper care, or damage from an accident or environmental factors.

What Qualifies a Lemon?

To reiterate, the lemon law varies from state-to-state. The general qualification requirements for the California law are as follows:

Let’s unpack these terms.

In a nutshell, a “substantial defect” must be proven to impair the use, value, or safety, to a reasonable consumer, in the buyer’s specific situation. Additionally, the defect must be the fault of the manufacturer and not of the owner’s abuse or neglect of the vehicle.

Typically, the nature of the defect and days out of service for repair will help determine whether a defect or problem is substantial. Here is a list of common car problems that typically qualify as a “substantial defect” (but not limited to):

When it comes to “gray areas” of defects (such as a certain electrical problems), some of these issues might not qualify as a substantial defect that impairs the vehicle’s safety. However, they may still qualify because they affect the use of the vehicle, or value.

This is why it is best to contact a lemon law lawyer to determine whether or not your vehicle meets the qualifications.

Many states, including California, require two attempts as the minimum for a “reasonable number of repair attempts.”

However, this number could be as low as one if the issue is related to a substantial safety defect. This would commonly correlate to the number of days that a vehicle was out of service while receiving repairs – which is 30 days in California, or if the manufacturer refuses to repair the vehicle.

Car Repairs and The Law

First thing’s first, if your vehicle is exhibiting a defect and is still covered under warranty, the manufacturer is obligated to take action. You need to take it into a facility for repairs.

Unfortunately, you probably can’t take your defective vehicle into your trusted family mechanic. If your new, used, or leased vehicle is to be taken in for warranty-covered repairs, it MUST be taken to a facility authorized by the manufacturer – along with a copy of your warranty, if not issued by the manufacturer.

This is a HUGE mistake that many people make in the lemon law process.

If you take the vehicle into a mechanic that isn’t a manufacturer authorized repair facility, you will a) have to pay for the repairs out of pocket, and b) they won’t count as a “repair attempt” under California lemon law. Additionally, if you take your vehicle to an unauthorized location for repair, the manufacturer may void your warranty and your lemon law claim could be denied.

So, your first step in this process is getting in contact with the manufacturer or dealership that sold you the car. They will provide you with the information of the authorized repair facility to bring your vehicle to.

Be sure that you keep a record of all maintenance, even if it is covered under the warranty.

Repair Attempts

Under California state law, you must have records that you have brought the vehicle into a “representative” of the manufacturer for repairs and allowed a reasonable number of attempts to resolve the issue. These records are called the “repair invoices” – and they’re among the most important documents to have in the lemon law
process.

Final Repair Attempt

After the manufacturer or authorized repair facility has made a reasonable number of repair attempts, you need to gather all documents that makes it clear you’ve given the authorized repair facility an opportunity to repair the problem.

If there are ANY repair attempts still open, the manufacturer will claim it is not technically not done trying to remedy the problem. Therefore, the manufacturer may claim the open repair won’t count towards the “reasonable” number of repair attempts. This is not true, and should not delay your claim for the time being.

Getting All Documents in Order

Once you’ve given the repair facility a reasonable number of attempts, you will need to gather ALL of the relevant documents to support your case, such as:

Requesting a Buyback or Replacement

This is the point when you may need to reach out to a California lemon law attorney to file a claim for a buyback or replacement. It is highly recommended that you contact an attorney that specializes in lemon law in the state of California.

With all the proper documentation in place, they will submit your case to the manufacturer listing out the details related to the repair attempts, as well as state the request for protection under California’s lemon law. 

The lemon law buyback process can get complicated, especially if the manufacturer tries to fight your claim. In this case, you will definitely want to have a California lemon attorney on your side. 

Final Action

Once the manufacturer responds to the filed claim, your attorney may begin to negotiate a settlement. In “open and shut” cases the manufacturer may not refuse your terms, but in others they do, and your lemon law lawyer will need to take further action.

Now, this is where you need to be VERY careful. The big nationwide lemon law firms may encourage their clients to take a quick cash settlement. Resist the temptation. These are often times much lower than the amount you paid for the vehicle. If you have all the evidence and your defective vehicle meets the requirements of California lemon law, DO NOT take a cash settlement – seek the full buyback or replacement!

California’s lemon law requires the vehicle to be repurchased and the title rebranded as a lemon. Not only is this for your benefit, but as a matter of public policy, the law wants defective vehicles off the road and future consumers put on notice the car they are about to buy is a LEMON!

Auto Dealer Fraud

“Auto fraud” (or car dealer scams) is defined as the unlawful, deceptive practice of getting people to buy vehicles that are salvaged, damaged, or broken – without the consumer’s total awareness.

Some auto dealers are less than trustworthy when it comes to the buying process. Not all dealerships are acting in bad faith, but as in everything, there are some bad actors. These dealers will try to sell lemons with a few tricks up their sleeves.

The best way to protect yourself from auto dealer fraud is to keep a wary eye out for some of the most common red flags.

Arguably the biggest red flag to watch out for is “title washing.” This is when the dealership hides the true history of a vehicle by claiming that it isn’t salvaged when it is. You can quickly determine if the title is truly clean by using CarFax or Autocheck VIN checker to review the vehicle’s history.

This is when the dealership advertises a car for sale, gets people to come in, then tells them it has just been sold. From here, they will try to get you to buy a different vehicle – of which may have problems.

If the dealership avoids providing you with the repair records, this is a huge red flag that the vehicle has problems – and might be a lemon buyback.

A test drive is an integral part of buying a car. If the dealer doesn’t let you do this, head for the door.

Some dealers will say that it’s “against their policy” to allow you to bring the vehicle to your trusted mechanic. Don’t fall for this. If there is truly nothing wrong with the car, the dealer should have no problem letting you take it to your mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection.

Although many dealerships would never employ these scam techniques, it always pays to be prepared and conduct a thorough pre-purchase inspection. Walk into a dealership aware of common fraud schemes so that you can avoid them and purchase a car that’s truly reliable.

If you believe that the dealership you purchased or leased from used any of these illegal tactics, it is recommended that you reach out to a car fraud lawyer or dealership fraud attorney to file a claim.

How Do I File a Lemon Law Claim?

If you believe you have a strong enough case and evidence for a refund or replacement under lemon law, you will need to know how to open a lemon law claim in California. A big part of the process is simply getting all the proper paperwork in order and brushing up on lemon law knowledge.

Let’s discuss what the process entails.

Seeking Out a Lemon Law Lawyer

Hiring the right lawyer is the most crucial decision in the lemon law process. When shopping around for an attorney, there are several factors you need to keep an eye out
for.

The big automakers have some of the most powerful legal teams in the world at their disposal, with an unlimited amount of resources. You need a seasoned California lemon law lawyer who knows what they are doing and are passionate about consumer justice. 

Depending on your case, you may want to find an attorney that specializes in specific areas of lemon law or with particular manufacturers. For instance, a used car lemon law attorney can help if you want to file a claim on a used vehicle.

As a general rule, if they don’t advertise lemon law services, don’t let them handle your case.

In some scenarios, general practice lawyers will try to tell you they can take your case. Don’t do it – the results can be meager.

To reiterate from a previous section, the big nationwide lemon law firms are typically advertising or marketing geniuses to reel unsuspecting clients in. These firms generally make their money on client volume and have little concern for your justice. 

This can result in you getting a cash settlement – which is a fraction of what you paid for the vehicle. 

Always look for a California based lemon law lawyer to handle your case. They will know exactly what the state stipulations are and understand the process to getting full compensation against the auto giants. The best California lemon law attorney you can hire is the one that will fight for every last dime and work with you one on one until they get the job done. 

A good lemon law lawyer knows they will get paid by the manufacturer if they win, so you should never be required to provide money upfront. Moreover, a trustworthy lemon law attorney won’t take your case unless you have a reasonable chance to win. Therefore, they shouldn’t demand any upfront costs or retainer fees. 

Ask if the lemon law attorney charges an extra “contingency” or other hidden fees. These lemon law firms may take a percentage of your lemon buyback recovery, which can be as high as 4-6% of the purchase price of your vehicle. These extra “contingency fees” are not part of the California lemon law. It is not necessary to pay part of your lemon law recovery toward your attorneys’ fees. 

A good lemon law lawyer will understand that you probably know very little about the process. That said, they shouldn’t flood you with jargon and fancy lingo. You want a lemon lawyer with excellent communication skills.

A great place to start is with past client references. See if anyone you know has had a positive experience with a lemon lawyer and do some research online for solid reviews.

Technically speaking, a lawyer won’t really come into play until your vehicle meets the lemon law criteria.

However, it’s always best to reach out to a lemon law lawyer the moment you notice issues with your vehicle. Most trustworthy lemon attorneys offer free consultations and are happy to answer any questions you might have about what to do.

The sooner you begin speaking with an attorney about your situation, the quicker you can have a case evaluation under your belt. Before you reach out, do your best to be as prepared as you can for the first meeting.

What to Expect When You Win a Lemon Claim

If your new vehicle meets the criteria and qualifies as a lemon, you could receive compensation.

Even if it does not qualify under all of the general guidelines, you could still receive cash compensation – if the value of your vehicle diminishes due to these issues.

In regards to the compensation you receive, there are several routes to take in a lemon law case.

Buyback

For defective vehicles proven to be a lemon, the manufacturer is required to provide lemon law buybacks, or a complete refund. This includes:

If you have leased a lemon vehicle, the refund will include:

Buyback Calculator

When you seek a buyback from the manufacturer, they will give you the amount minus a mileage offset. This is a deduction for the time you drove the vehicle before the defect presented itself. In some cases, the manufacturer might be overly aggressive with the mileage offset – which is a big buyback issue that using a calculator should
help.

The offset is number is calculated by multiplying the original purchase price by the mileage at the time of the first repair attempt. Then, this number is divided by 120,000 – which the California legislature determined to be the average life expectancy of a vehicle in California.

So, let’s say you paid $30,000 for the vehicle.

At the time of the first repair attempt, it had 5,000 miles on the odometer.

The formula would look like ($30,000 x 9,000) / 120,000 = $1,250.

To get a better idea for all the compensation you might get, you can calculate the estimated amount by using a buyback lemon law calculator and entering in the following
values:

Replacement

If your vehicle meets the requirements of lemon law, you can receive a replacement vehicle from the manufacturer instead of a lemon buyback. This replacement must:

Now, it’s important to note that the manufacturer is not required by law to provide a replacement. This must be agreed upon by both parties.

If you win the lemon law case, the manufacturer is required by law to pay for ALL of the legal costs associated with the lemon. This includes both the expenses accrued to hire a lemon law lawyer and all of the courtroom fees.

This is perhaps the most important piece of information to know before starting the lemon law process. Many people try to go this process alone, thinking it will save them on legal fees. Often times, this choice ends up coming back to haunt them.

If you think you have a lemon, you should ALWAYS seek out a specialized, reputable lawyer. Even though they may command higher rates, they know that the manufacturer will cover them if they win.

More importantly, a good lemon law lawyer won’t take your case unless they think they can win. Due to this, most won’t charge you a penny out of pocket.

Incidental Costs

“Incidental costs” refer to all the collateral that resulted from your defective vehicle. This can be pretty extensive based on the circumstances.

Incidental costs can include (but are not limited to):

In order to get the most compensation, you MUST have ALL the proper documents, receipts, invoices, etc.

Lemon Law Arbitration

Lemon law arbitration is something you need to be VERY careful to avoid, as a general rule.

Manufacturers commonly encourage consumers to seek arbitration if they cannot repair the vehicle in a reasonable number of attempts. Lemon law arbitration is when you go before “arbitrators” to evaluate your case and come to a conclusion outside of court. Manufacturers will try to sell it as a cheaper and faster way to avoid the lemon law process.

In reality, most of these “independent” arbitrators are sponsored by the manufacturer to work in their favor. In this scenario, it’s like playing a basketball game where the referees are all on the opposing team’s side.

In other cases, there may be state arbitrators – which are neither on your side or the manufacturers’. You can still take the manufacturer to court after arbitration if you don’t like the decision of the arbitrator, however, any results of this process can, and will, be used against you in court. This will destroy your chances at any help from the courts.

In California, you are not required to use lemon law arbitration, it is completely voluntary. ALWAYS seek out a specialized lemon law attorney. As they are on your side through 100% of the process. They can help you decide if arbitration would be in your best interest.

CONCLUSION

The lemon law was put in place to protect consumers in situations where a vehicle could impair their safety or cost them exorbitant sums of money in repairs, and force the manufacturers and dealerships to honor the promise they made at the time of purchase.

Qualifying a vehicle under the California Lemon Law can be a complicated and time-consuming process – without the right help.  

Hiring a California lemon law attorney to fight for your case is really your best option. 

If you try to handle things on your own, you could very easily lose out on money the manufacturer owes you for a defective vehicle.

If you believe that your vehicle qualifies as a lemon and want to pursue a claim for reimbursement or replacement from the manufacturer, we strongly suggest reaching out to an experienced California lemon law lawyer to help guide you through the process and ensure that you receive due compensation. 

At Cline APC, we offer FREE consultations to evaluate your claim. If you have any questions regarding the California lemon law process, please reach out to us ASAP! We are here to help you.