How To Tell If Your Car Is A Lemon

When I was a sophomore in college and I needed a car my parents gave me $200 towards a vehicle and a “good luck” pat on the back. I was rough on their cars, so it’s no surprise to me that they weren’t willing to invest much else into my own vehicle.

My budget was extremely limited, and my expectations were pretty low. As long as I could find something that would get me around the city and out of town on the weekends that was good enough for me.

As I was walking to class one day I saw a flyer on one of the community boards. It was a 1993 Mercury Topaz for $800. I called the seller, who happened to live on campus, and planned to check it out after class. The price was good, the exterior was decent for a Minnesota car, and it had about 150,000 miles. Seemed like a fairly good bargain.

Not knowing much about cars (or even really caring all that much), I didn’t ask very many questions and the seller, who was just a few years older than me, didn’t seem to know much about his car either.

If I could change things about my college years, that car purchase would be at the top of my list. I think that my car was broken down in front of our house more than I actually drove it. At one point, it sat in the backyard for two months until someone finally called my landlord.


This was not my car, but a familiar scene nonetheless. Photo by wintertwined under CC BY 2.0                             

I spent hundreds of dollars in parking tickets and I had a mechanic friend look at it multiple times (all I had to do was pay him in beer). I had a lemon of a car and was totally clueless. Almost everyone I knew had a crappy car, so I just assumed that this is what car ownership in college looked like.

How To Avoid A Lemon

So, what did I learn from my experience? Lots of things. I’m still no car expert, but I’ve learned the hard and expensive way how to avoid buying a lemon. Here’s a few tips so you don’t make the same mistakes:

  • Always check the VIN
  • A price that seems too good, probably is – do more research
  • Avoid buying a car if your questions aren’t answered
  • Look at the interior and exterior of the car
  • Ask a mechanic to look at the car before you buy
  • Test drive, test drive, test drive
  • Ask as much as you want (don’t play the passive Minnesotan card)

What Can You Do If You Have A Lemon?

After a year of struggling with my car, I finally sold it for scrap (for only a fraction of the money I had spent on it). As much as I needed the money, I could not in good conscience sell it to anybody else.

If your car has frequent recalls, issues that cannot be fixed, and is inoperable for at least a month, you have a lemon of a car and there are laws that protect you. Each state has different Lemon Laws, but here’s the lowdown for Minnesota:

According to Minn. Stat. Ann § 325F.665, a lemon law covers any new or used vehicle that is sold or leased in Minnesota. It covers defects that fail to “conform to the warranty and substantially impair the use or market value of the vehicle.”

If you have a lemon, you have two years after the date of the original delivery of the vehicle or the term of the manufacturer’s warranty (whichever comes first) to see if you’re covered by the law.

4 thoughts on “How To Tell If Your Car Is A Lemon

  1. Monte Castleman

    My stepfather owns a used car dealership that focuses on “budget” cars so we have a bit of experience on this.

    * Avoid anything made by Fiat / Chrysler / Dodge / Jeep. That means anything. It’s hard to beat the experience of a Wrangler or Charger, but unless you buy one new and then trade it in before 100,000 miles (or lease one) you’ll be spending a lot of time on the back of a tow truck and at the mechanic. I have personal experience with this having owned a 04 Grand Cherokee that needed the upper engine rebuilt at only 120,000 miles, then needed thousands of dollars in repairs before I junked it when the engine (again) and transmission needed rebuilding at 180,000 miles.

    * It’s hard to go wrong with Honda or Toyota. People also know that so you’ll be paying absolutely top dollar. Newer Kia models are almost as reliable and a lot cheaper because they still have the reputation for making junk as they had years ago. Hondas do have interference type engines, but the timing chains tend to last as long as they need to.

    * Avoid anything with the Cadillac Northstar engine.

    * German cars have good engines but their electrical systems are an unreliable, over-complicated mess.

    1. mplsjaromir

      Ignore the above comment. My 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee currently has 257,000+ miles. Only non-scheduled work needed has been a motor mount and a new radiator. Still has the original brakes. Great vehicles. I agree stay away from German vehicles, great cars but not something you want to maintain without a warranty.

      1. Monte Castleman

        I’m sure Chrysler slips up and lets a reliable Jeep get out every now and then. Overall I’ll choose to believe the Consumer reports ratings which for 2017 put Jeep at 20th out of 27 makers as far as reliability. Other Chrysler makes are in the toilet too with Chrysler in 17th place, Dodge in 24th place, and Ram at 25th place.

  2. Monte Castleman

    To add to that, don’t even think about buying a used luxury car even if you can afford the initial purchase price. Exceptions are Lexus and Acura, which being Toyotas and Hondas for rich people have the same top-notch Japanese quality as the regular models.

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