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Buying & Leasing a Car

The Do-it-Yourself Remedy


If you seek satisfaction from a carmaker under your state's lemon law, be prepared to follow some simple steps that can help your case. You should also know that some state procedures have more teeth than others.

To start the lemon-law wheels rolling, you'll need to contact the manufacturer with copies of repair records, a history of your car's problems and a letter saying you want relief based on your state's lemon-law statutes. If the manufacturer does accept your lemon-law claim, you have several options, depending on your state's laws and on the manufacturer of your vehicle. These may include filing with your state's department of consumer affairs for a hearing, filing with the manufacturer's own system of dispute resolution, filing with a third party that handles such disputes, or filing suit in civil court.

Start a paper trail. No matter which avenue you choose, you must thoroughly document your problems. Your paper trail should show how many attempts you've made to get the car fixed. And when those attempts failed, you must show that you notified the manufacturer, in most cases by certified mail.

The more you understand about your problem, the better you will be at getting it resolved. Car companies frequently issue technical service bulletins (TSBs) about known defects. If one has been issued about your car, it will add leverage to your case. The manufacturer or dealer should supply any TSBs on request, but you can also find them online. To buttress your argument, check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site for bulletins, recalls and complaints.


States vary on how their lemon laws are administered. (The details of each state's lemon laws are listed on the Web sites of the Center for Auto Safety and Car Lemon. Seven states run lemon-law resolution programs themselves, using people employed by the state. Eleven other states certify programs: They set certain rules and guidelines for resolving disputes, but let the automakers or an outside contractor, such as the Better Business Bureau, handle the disputes within those guidelines. The remaining states and the District of Columbia allow the manufacturers or third parties to do the mediation and arbitration without state certification.

A fairer shake. You'll get a fairer shake in the state-run and state-certified programs. The state-run programs, especially, tend to consider a consumer's entire experience with the car, while the manufacturers' programs tend to focus on the performance of the vehicle at the moment the dispute is being resolved, even though previous attempts at repairs didn't work, says Phil Nowicki, the lemon-law expert who helped develop Florida's model lemon law.

Chrysler, Ford and Toyota handle their own dispute resolution under the lemon laws. But 32 other manufacturers use the Better Business Bureau Auto Line as the arbiter for their disputes. The BBB's programs range from mediation to legally binding arbitration, which precludes consumers from suing after they accept a settlement.

Whether the dispute-resolution process is certified, run by the state, the manufacturer or the BBB, know that if you enter binding arbitration, once you accept the decision, you may be giving up your right to appeal your case under the lemon law. Before you choose binding arbitration, you should also know that consumers lose the majority of these cases, according to state officials. Hiring an attorney if you choose binding arbitration is a good precaution.


Unload Your Lemon