Are you dealing with a problem car that might be a lemon but you don’t know what to do? Well, you may have more options than you think to get some financial relief for a vehicle that seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.
AskTheMoneyCoach.com recently spoke to Michael Sacks, the Director of Communications for LemonLaw.com, a legal advocate for consumers with recurring automotive issues.
LemonLaw.com is the online home of the law firm Kimmel & Silverman, which offers free information and no-cost help for consumers who have bought lemon cars. The firm also helps with dealer fraud cases, including dealer misrepresentation, odometer rollback and delivery scams.
Sacks offered a slew of insider tips on how to deal with a lemon car that’s been costing you time and money.
Here are five ways to get paid when a car you bought keeps having to go to a mechanic:
Start by knowing your state’s lemon laws
Every state has different rules for what qualifies as a lemon. But state lemon laws generally cover new motor vehicles – such as cars, personal trucks, motor-homes or even motorcycles – when those vehicles have a substantial defect that can’t be fixed after a reasonable number of repair attempts (usually three or four).
In some states, only financed vehicles are covered; in other states, leased cars are subject to lemon laws as well.
In determining what kind of remedy is available to anyone with a lemon car, experts will first try to determine how much the problem has affected the use, value or safety of the vehicle in question.
The good news is that if you do have a lemon, there are three ways you can be compensated for that under state lemon laws. Moreover, even if you don’t qualify for compensation under a state lemon law, you may be entitled to federal compensation for a lemon car.
1. Get a complete repurchase of your vehicle
The first remedy for a lemon car that is a personal vehicle is that you may be entitled to a complete repurchase of your vehicle. “That includes taxes, tags, finance charges, your down payment and trade in, minus a mileage offset,” says Sacks.
Under this scenario, you get a check and you don’t even have to pay taxes on it, he adds.
2. Get a new car as a swap for your lemon car
Another option for those with a lemon is to do an MSRP to MSRP swap. “It’s basically a trade without depreciation,” Sacks explains. So you might get, for example, a $25,000 credit for a new car even if you only paid $19,000 for your original vehicle.
This process allows you to have the same, higher amount of equity in your new car after a swap, although a mileage offset does apply in some states, Sacks notes.
3. Get monetary compensation for your problem car
A third and final way to get paid for your lemon car is to receive monetary compensation to reflect the diminished value of a vehicle. Under this scenario, “you keep your vehicle and your vehicle isn’t branded. It’s not on CarFax, and the warranty remains in effect,” Sacks says.
Furthermore, you don’t pay taxes on the money granted to you as compensation for a lemon car. And when you later sell the car, you don’t have to disclose those funds either, Sacks notes.
So how much cash can you get under this method? It depends on the nature of the problem and how much it affects the car.
LemonLaw.com has ASE-certified mechanics that review car reports. They use their expertise to assess a range of problem issues — like how much a vehicle is diminished from a check engine light that keeps coming on, or a window constantly falling into a door, or perhaps a chronic brake problem that won’t go away.
The cash compensation option also differs from the first scenario in two major ways: “If you get a buyback or repurchase, then the car is branded,” says Sacks. “But if you get cash damages, then you’re going to release your rights to certain things.”
Sacks says that many unsuspecting consumers talk to dealers who tell those lemon car owners: “We’ll give you back two car payments or about $900. Just sign this release.” Customers who do this, Sacks warns, are likely forgoing their right to much larger cash claims – usually several thousands of dollars.
If you think you might have a claim, attorneys from LemonLaw.com provide free legal help for consumers in the District of Columbia, and 13 states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Delaware, Wyoming, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, New York, Wisconsin and Maryland. (In all other states, the firm refers consumers to legal specialists who can help. Consumers nationwide can also call the firm’s toll-free number: 800-LEMON-LAW).
4. Get other cash compensation
If your car doesn’t fall under the guidelines of any state lemon law, you may still have economic protections under federal law.
The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is a federal law that essentially says that if you have any car problems and they’re not fixed properly, you can file a suit against the car company on the grounds that as a consumer you didn’t get what you paid for. The company named as the defendant would be the car manufacturer, not the dealer; the dealership is just the middleman.
And the federal remedy for your trouble is cash compensation. Just like with the lemon law protection, the federal compensation is non-taxable, it doesn’t affect resale value, and you don’t need to disclose it to a buyer down the road. But unlike the lemon law, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act can also help those with used cars too.
“Most people don’t realize that their sour car could pay them for the aggravation that they’ve been through,” says Sacks.
5. Get your legal bills paid
Finally, if you have to sue over a problem car, you can be entitled to more than just the replacement cost for the vehicle or the funds necessary to fix the car. You might also recoup your legal costs.
According to Sacks, the “fee shifting provisions” of state lemon laws and federal warranty laws work tremendously in a consumer’s favor. In a nutshell, “if you prevail in court, they (the auto manufacturer) must pay attorney fees on top of what you receive,” Sacks says.
“It’s often a lot easier than people think,” he adds.
Commenting on what consumers should know, Sacks summarized the issues this way: “There are so many myths and misconceptions out there pertaining the lemon law. Most people have no idea that in most states, the laws provide completely free legal representation, many claims are settled very quickly and car companies do buy vehicles back and provide new vehicles all the time.”
“Also, if you fall outside of the lemon law, but suffer repetitive problems under your warranty, there is a federal law that will help you get back thousands of dollars to reflect the diminished value of the car – plus you get to keep your car. And again, the legal representation costs the consumer nothing.”
How to Avoid Being Taken for a Ride
Before you purchase your next vehicle, there are a few things you can do to avoid buying a lemon.
For starters, “try it before you buy it,” Sacks recommends. That means take it out on the open highways and do an extensive test drive of the exact car you want; not a similar car, but the actual car you will drive home.
You should also pay an outside mechanic to check out a used car. Says Sacks: “$150 spent now can save you thousands of dollars down the road.”
And finally, don’t ever toss out any car repair or maintenance receipts. Those will come in handy to prove your service records. You should also make sure you get an invoice or even a record of service when you have to visit a dealer or car shop.
Sometimes, a mechanic or dealer might say: “this is covered” or “we’ll keep this job ticket open for you,” and you might think: “Great! I don’t have to pay.” But be careful that you’re not falling for any dealer tricks or attempts to fail to keep an accurate log about a vehicle’s work history. Always get some documentation, even if no funds change hands.
Knowledge of the “fee-shifting provisions” alone, and the assurance that you can get free help from a lawyer, should be enough to cause some wronged consumers to act, Sacks says.
“Why are we letting billion-dollar car companies off the hook?” he asks, when they could be held accountable for faulty vehicles.