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If your steak is undercooked (or just plain mangy) you can always send it back -- or at least get a refund. But if the new car or truck you just bought turns out to be a lemon, sending it back -- or just getting satisfaction -- can be more complicated.

And unpleasant.

In the first place, it takes a lot, hassle-wise, for a car to be officially acknowledged as a "lemon." You may have to wrangle extensively with the dealer who sold it to you -- and the manufacturer who built it -- before you can get out from under. The process can take a year or longer -- and repeated service calls, breakdowns and pains in the rear in the meanwhile.

Once they've got your money, it's hard to get it back.

The first thing to know is how your state defines a "lemon." Laws vary, but most have a few general provisions in common.

One, the problem(s) must be objective -- and covered by the manufacturer's original new car warranty. For example, if your six-month-old car suffers a transmission failure (or has a sunroof that leaks) that would be an objective, warranty-covered repair. If the transmission fails a second time -- or the leaky sunroof still leaks -- you've got the makings of "lemonade."

Two, despite repeated attempts -- typically no more than three or four -- the dealer has been unable to fix the problem. Or the car has been "out of service" for a given period of time -- typically, more than 30 days -- during the first year of ownership.

In a nutshell: You've taken it back for the same thing several times, but the transmission (or whatever) just keeps on acting up. They can't seem to fix it. The car's in the shop more than it's in your driveway, etc.

But there are several catches to be aware of.

The first of these is that many state lemon laws have a so-called "presumptive period" -- for example, 18 months or 18,000 miles, whichever comes first, as in California -- during which there must be tangible evidence of an abnormal, recurrent problem(s) in order for the full force of a lemon law's protections to be available after the manufacturer's new car warranty has run out.

This is why it is critical to bring any problems that crop up to the attention of the dealer as soon as they are discovered, and to document them. Keep records of every service visit -- and to make sure the work order/receipt clearly lists the reason why the car was brought in, as well as the date and the odometer reading at the time of service.

The longer you wait -- and the shorter the paper trail -- the more the odds are stacked against you.

The second catch is that the dealer/manufacturer may acuse you of having "abused" the vehicle. Most state lemon laws do not apply if the problem is deemed to be the result of "abuse" -- and that includes such things as failure to maintain and service the vehicle according to the factory recommendations. This is why it is important to a) adhere to the factory-recommended service protocols and b) keep detailed records of all work done, the date the work was done -- and the mileage at which it was done.

It's still OK to change your own oil and filter -- or to do other service work -- but for lemon law purposes, you must be able to produce proof that you did, in fact, change the oil and filter as per the factory time/mileage interval -- and with the correct weight and American Petroleum Institute (API) service specification (e.g., API specification SE, CD; 5W-15) oil and an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) or equivalent "approved" brand of oil filter -- not a generic or unapproved "off-brand" part. That means keeping receipts for everything you buy (with dates stamped on them) and a log book of the dates/mileage readings when you performed the work. If you can't produce such records -- or use generic brand parts not specifically approved by the manufacturer -- you could be left holding the bag should a problem arise. The above is true as regards any home maintenance performed on the vehicle -- so be forewarned.

The moment you suspect you have a lemon on your hands -- unusual, recurrent problems, peeling/fading paint, leaks, "unfixable" electrical problems, premature failure of major components; constantly having to bring the car back to the shop, etc. -- it's a good idea to consult with an attorney who specializes in this type of consumer law. Most will not charge you for an initial consultation to determine whether you, in fact, have a valid cause of action.

Don't "learn to live with" a balky, unreliable car -- or accept blarney from the dealer that it's "normal" (as an example) for a car to need a new transmission at 12,000 miles. Remember: If there is in fact a defect with a component such as a transmission, it may recur -- even if a "new" unit is installed. The basic design could be flawed -- and the "new" transmission probably won't last any longer than the first one. And once the warranty period (or lemon law coverage "window") has expired, you could be out of luck -- even if you're on your third transmission in less than 40,000 miles.

If you do have a solid case, you and your lawyer should be able to get the dealer/manufacturer to either "buy back" the lemon (less an "adjustment" for the mileage on it), or replace it with another vehicle of equivalent value -- if that's acceptable to you. Sometimes, the dealer will offer "unlimited free service" for the life of the car -- or something along those lines -- instead of a buy-back or replacement offer. It's up to you whether the "free" service will compensate you for the hassle of owning a car you feel you can't trust or depend on.

For a state by state listing of lemon laws and their provisions, see www.123car.com/lemon/lemonbystate.html or www.lemonlawamerica.com.

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