Used-car buyers in Pa. will have protections under a new lemon law — but dealers may not know what's expected of them yet

Bob Fernandez
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Used cars are displayed on a sales lot on June 9, 2011, in San Rafael, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)

With its clusters of used-car dealerships along Lincoln Highway and Route 13 in Lower Bucks, Doylestown and Quakertown, Bucks County has passed Pennsylvania's first county-level used-car lemon law. The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, offers minimum guarantees to consumers who purchase used vehicles over seven model years old and that have less than 100,000 miles.

Dealers who sell vehicles with broken engine blocks or bent frames without disclosing it to the buyer, or sell vehicles that can't pass state inspections, will be in violation of the new regulations, officials said. Violators can be fined $1,000 through the local district justice.

Mike Bannon, director of the Bucks County Office of Consumer Protection, one of few county-level consumer offices in Pennsylvania, advocated for the legislation adopted by county commissioners last month.

"I've taken hundreds of complaints on used cars over time," Bannon said. "It's a common complaint for our office. It's been a problem point because a few times the business has not done the right thing by the consumer."

The law does not apply to dealers in Pennsylvania outside of Bucks County. New Jersey has its own used-car lemon law.

Two used-car dealers in Lower Bucks County said they heard nothing about the law that passed in mid-June. Anthony Trapani, manager at John's Route 13 Autos, said on Wednesday, "I only know about a new-car lemon law."

Trade group eyes competition issues

Melanie Stine, the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Automotive Association, said the organization's "stance is that the new ordinance reinforces much of what dealers are required to disclose under the attorney general regulations."

The association has 950 members who are new car dealers that also sell used cars. Stine said the trade group is looking at whether the law puts Bucks County used-car dealers at a pricing disadvantage compared to dealers in surrounding counties who don't have to comply with similar requirements.

One provision: A used car with fewer than 100,000 miles has to pass state inspection for exhaust and safety within 10 days of the sale. If it fails, the dealer has to fix the vehicle so it passes, or refund the buyer the purchase price.

Joe Khan, the Bucks County solicitor, said the penalty was crafted as a criminal summary offense with no jail time. The used-car dealer can be fined $1,000 through a local district justice office.

Bannon believes his office can work with used-car dealers to resolve issues before resorting to the fine.

Many consumers know of new-car lemon laws. Pennsylvania's Automobile Lemon Law covers problems that occur during the first 12 months, or 12,000 miles of ownership, for a new car or leased new car. The law allows the manufacturer three repair attempts for the same problem, according to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

But just seven states have lemon laws for used vehicles, according to consumer data and research firm J.D. Power. New Jersey — right across the Delaware River from Bucks County — is one.

Bannon says that's a reason why the Bucks ordinance will benefit local dealerships: it will help by leveling the playing field when they're competing with New Jersey dealers who can tout the protections of their state's used-car lemon law.

Bucks law requires a used-car warranty

Under the law, a used-car dealer also has to offer a warranty of 90 days, or 3,000 miles, for a vehicle with 24,000 miles or less. Between 24,000 miles and 60,000 miles, the dealer has to offer a warranty for 60 days or 2,000 miles.

For cars that have more than 60,000 miles but less than 100,000 miles, the law requires a warranty for a month or 1,000 miles.

The used-car lemon law doesn't apply to vehicles sold for under $3,000, or that are more than seven years old. It also won't apply to a vehicle with more than 100,000 miles or one that has been "declared a total loss by an insurance company."

A dealer violates the new law by hiding a bent or cracked vehicle frame, a cracked engine block, a bad transmission or flood damage.

Bannon, the county official, said he would be educating used-car dealers about the new law. Strine also said the automotive association will inform dealers.

"I haven't heard about it," Patrick McCafferty, owner of Discount Auto in Penndel, said recently. "I've been doing this for 32 years and I never heard about a used-car lemon law."