“What’s wrong with your car? Does it have cooties?”

I was joking about a 2013 Ford Focus SE hatchback that an old friend of mine wanted to trade in. A little banged up, it had been owned by an older couple that could no longer drive, and the son, an unrepentant Mustang enthusiast, had decided to get their note paid off and walk away from it. 

This Focus was a lemon law vehicle. One of the thousands that were branded “Lemon Law” thanks to issue-prone dual-clutch transmissions that resulted in millions of dollars worth of repairs and buybacks and thousands of unhappy customers.  

2014 Ford Focus

What is a Lemon Law vehicle?

  • A lemon law vehicle is a car that supposedly has a defect that a franchise dealer could not fix after at least three attempts. If that vehicle is still under its warranty, you can file a claim with the manufacturer to have the vehicle bought back. It will then be fixed and resold with a limited warranty for the parts that were replaced. So-called lemons are not for the amateurs among us. 

Should I buy a Lemon Law vehicle?

  • Every vehicle that you want to consider purchasing should be inspected by a professional mechanic. That is especially true for a Lemon Law vehicle. You want to make extra sure that the repair that was performed at the time after it was bought back by the manufacturer is still holding up. A Lemon Law vehicle isn’t a rolling version of leprosy. But it does warrant a closer look at those specific components which were addressed after the vehicle was returned to the manufacturer.

Where can I buy a Lemon Law vehicle?

  • Lemon law vehicles are everywhere – at retail dealerships, private sellers, public auto auctions, and even fleet vehicles that are used by county and city governments. In fact, they are so common that as a car dealer I always ask for the Carfax history just to make extra sure that I know about this possible blemish on the title. It always pays to get a vehicle history report so that you can protect yourself from a Lemon Law brand on a title. This brand can significantly impact the value of your vehicle. 

What should I be careful of with a Lemon Law vehicle?

  • Three issues have to always be weighed before you take the risk of buying a Lemon Law vehicle. The vehicle should have a well-known fix, and learning more about the car should help you make your decision. 
    • For example, the F01/F02-generation BMW 7 Series has a fuel injector issue that was solved with a better part. Many previously lemoned cars might have that fix applied, making them more reliable than the title might suggest. However, some automakers merely apply longer warranties to their lemoned cars.
    • If the car doesn’t have a well-known fix, does it offer a warranty that will suit your needs? A Hyundai owner who buys a Lemon Law vehicle that was bought back for a bad engine may have plenty of time left on the 10 year / 100,000-mile warranty that covers the same exact issue. Some manufacturers also extend those factory warranties to provide additonal peace of mind to a potential lemon-law buyer.
    • If there is no extended warranty, was this a one-off or rare issue that was fixed and can it be verified with paperwork? For example, I bought a 2017 Kia Soul back in late-2020 with only 34,000 miles that was a Lemon Law vehicle for just $8,500 out the door. A lemon law buyback at around 5,000 miles for a braking issue, it received new braking components and sensors that fixed the problem. The Carfax history showed no recurrences and I was willing to take the risk given that track record. 

Keep in mind that you’re screwed if you buy a true lemon unless the manufacturer guarantees those parts and repairs. Figuring out the prior history and taking the car to an experienced mechanic before you spend a dime are the two best steps you can take when it comes to a Lemon Law car.

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