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What To Know About The California Lemon Law (2023)

The lemon law in California is embedded in the part of the civil code that pertains to “sale warranties” (much like in the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act).

It dictates that any fully-warranted vehicle with a major defect must be repaired to satisfactory condition within a “reasonable number of attempts” by a manufacturer or dealer.

If this is not possible, the vehicle must be either replaced with an identical vehicle or the buyer must be allowed to return the vehicle for a full refund.

As California’s law is state-wide, it cover all territories and major cities, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Fresno, and San Francisco.

California Lemon Law Rules for New Cars

woman stands next to broken down car

California’s lemon law is expressly geared toward new (or newer) vehicles with valid manufacturer warranties still attached.

This means it applies to all new vehicles sold at car lots.

Lemon Law Requirements for New Vehicles

The lemon law applies in California if:

  • Your vehicle is still under the original manufacturer’s warranty.
  • The issue you are having with the vehicle is covered by that warranty.
  • The issue you are having with the vehicle negatively impacts the operation, safety, or value of the vehicle.
  • The vehicle came with the issue. (i.e. You didn’t drive it off the lot and immediately sideswipe a curb, jacking up the running board or suspension.)

If your car meets the definition of a “lemon” in California, the car dealership/manufacturer is required to do one of the following things:

  • Repair the car within a reasonable number of attempts
  • Repair the car within a reasonable number of days
  • Replace the car with a “substantially identical” vehicle
  • Accept a return of the vehicle for a full refund

Repair the car within a reasonable number of attempts

What constitutes a reasonable number of attempts to repair a vehicle in California is typically four (4).

The exception to this is if the issue with the vehicle is one that could lead to serious injury or death, in which case the number of repair attempts drops to two (2).

If the dealer/manufacturer cannot repair the vehicle after four attempts (two in the instance of a serious operational/safety issue), it must allow you to return the car for an identical vehicle or refund.

Repair the car within a reasonable number of days

What constitutes a reasonable number of days in California is 30.

If a vehicle is in the shop for more than 30 days for the same issue, the dealer/manufacturer must allow you to return the car for an identical vehicle or refund.

These days do not have to be consecutive. Instead, they are cumulative. If your car is in the shop for 10 days in January, 8 days in February, and 12 days in March, it’s still considered a lemon.

Replace the car with a “substantially identical” vehicle

If the dealer/manufacturer cannot repair the vehicle, they must allow you to return it.

When you return the car, you may choose to take a replacement vehicle.

The replacement vehicle must be “substantially identical” to the original vehicle. This means the vehicle must be the same make, model, have the same features, etc.

The dealer must also pay any additional taxes and fees associated with the exchange.

Accept a return of the vehicle for a full refund

If you do not want a replacement of the original car (or do no want to continue working with the dealership) after experiencing issues with your first purchase, you may opt for a full refund of the vehicle’s purchase price instead.

Dealers MUST give you the choice between a replacement vehicle and a refund (also called a buyback). They cannot make you take another car.

When the dealer buys back your vehicle, they must refund the FULL buying price of the car (including all taxes and fees). They cannot dock you for the time you possessed the vehicle.

California Lemon Law Rules for Used Cars

Any car still under the original manufacturer’s warranty is subject to California’s lemon law. This includes used cars.

If a car is sold while still under its original warranty, that warranty passes to the new owner and the vehicle is subject to the same lemon law requirements as listed above.

That means newer used vehicles with low mileage are typically covered by the state’s lemon law.

What about used cars with no warranty?

If a used car has no warranty in effect, the lemon law doesn’t apply to it.

The idea behind a lemon law is that it protects consumers from real “lemons,” those vehicles that are nonoperational, unsafe, or damaged right off the manufacturing line.

Used vehicles with no warranty are sold “as is” and it is your responsibility as a consumer to do your due diligence before buying.

This doesn’t mean you don’t have some recourse if you get a bad car. You can always attempt to return the car or report the dealership to authorities. You just won’t find your justice under the lemon law.

California Lemon Law Time Limit

California does not have a formal time limit for filing a lemon law.

However, after a certain amount of time and certain number of miles the presumption that a car was a “lemon” dwindles.

In California, that time limit and number of miles is 18 months and 18,000 miles.

But the sooner you notice a major issue with a vehicle and bring it to the dealer/manufacturer’s attention, the stronger your “lemon” claim will be.

If a major issue becomes apparent after 18 months and 18,000 miles, it doesn’t mean that issue is not still subject to the lemon law. But it will increase you burden of proof and make arbitration more difficult.

How do I file a lemon law claim in California?

Before filing a lemon law claim in California, you should contact both the dealership and manufacturer directly and try to get the matter resolved.

Claims start from the moment a dealership and manufacturer FAIL to repair your vehicle to a satisfactory condition.

If your car does prove itself to be a lemon, the next step is arbitration.

California has state-certified arbitration programs that deal with lemon law claims. These arbitration programs are broken up by vehicle manufacturers.

The three main lemon law arbitrators in the state can be found at State-Certified Arbitration Information on the California government website.

The benefit of arbitration is that it’s free and provides further recourse.

If you don’t agree with the arbitrator’s decision, you may reject that decision and continue to seek restitution through the courts.

General Lemon Law FAQ

To further your understanding of lemon laws, here are some frequently asked questions about how they pertain to vehicles.

What is a lemon law?

A lemon law is a law that protects consumers from defective products or “lemons,” generally by enforcement of a warranty.

What is a lemon car?

“Lemon car” meaning varies slightly from state to state, but, in general, if a new car has a defect the dealer or manufacturer cannot fix, that car is a lemon.

Defects in lemon cars typically affect the operation or safety of a vehicle, but not always. Structural issues that affect that value of a car are also covered.

Is there a federal lemon law?

There is no federal lemon law specifically geared toward vehicles.

However, there is a federal warranty act called the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act which protects consumers from false or misleading warranties and makes warranties easier to enforce.

Since cars sold by dealerships typically come with full warranties, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act applies to them.

This act serves as the basis for state-specific lemon laws.

What’s in the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (as it applies to vehicles)?

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act includes several key points that pertain to vehicle warranties. These points are:

  • No product is required to have a warranty (and many used cars don’t).
  • The terms of a warranty must be fully disclosed in simple, understandable language.
  • Any ambiguity in the language of a warranty is held against the warrantor (in this case, the manufacturer or dealer).
  • Warrantors cannot require only branded parts be used with their products for a warranty to remain valid (Ford can’t require only Ford parts be used on your vehicle).
  • Service contracts must follow these same rules.

Basically, if you feel like you’ve been duped by a warranty, you may have a case under the Magnuson-Moss Act.

And if your vehicle comes with a “full warranty”:

  • A dealer/manufacturer must repair any defect for free within a reasonable amount of time/reasonable number of attempts

Or, if the dealer/manufacturer cannot repair the vehicle, they must:

  • Replace the vehicle with an exact-match vehicle or allow you to return the vehicle for a full refund (including all taxes and fees)

Does the federal lemon law cover used cars?

If the used cars come with warranties, it does.

The Magnuson-Moss Act is not directed toward products themselves, but the warranties which cover them.

So, if you bought a used car that came with both a defect AND a warranty that covers that defect, the dealer must either repair your vehicle (in a satisfactory manner).

If they fail to do so, you can seek restitution under the Magnuson-Moss Act.

You may be able to come to an agreement with the dealer through arbitration, but, more likely, you will have to take the matter to court.

Does the lemon law apply to leased vehicles?

Yes. In California, the lemon law applies to leased vehicles that are new and under a manufacturer’s warranty.

Chucking A Lemon In California

When you buy a new car, whether you really need one or are just looking for an upgrade, there’s nothing worse than getting it home only to discover it’s a non-functional dud.

But manufacturers shouldn’t be shipping dud cars to dealerships and dealerships shouldn’t be putting dud cars out on their lots.

That’s the point of lemon laws, to ensure new vehicles driven off of car lots are safe, functional, and free from major defects.

So, if you think you’ve gotten a lemon car in California, you shouldn’t accept it and you shouldn’t delay.

You do have recourse, and the sooner you bring the issue to the dealer’s and manufacturer’s attention, the stronger your “lemon” claim will be.