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.