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Does California Lemon Law Apply to Private Sales?

  Norman Taylor & Associates
  September 23, 2022

Purchasing a used car through a private sale has its advantages. 

You can usually save quite a bit of money compared to the sticker price at a car dealership, you won’t have to pay any additional fees, deal with pushy sales staff, or spend hours at a dealership signing paperwork. 

That said, there is one major downside: California lemon law does not apply to private sales. 

However, there are still ways to safeguard your rights — the best way to protect yourself from purchasing a lemon is to stay educated. Here are some things you should know.

DOES CALIFORNIA’S LEMON LAW COVER PRIVATE CAR SALES? 

No, California’s lemon law does not cover private car sales. 

Used-car lemon cases aren’t uncommon. This is why it’s especially important to do your due diligence before purchasing a used car from a private seller.  

Private sellers aren’t held to the same standards (or lemon law violations) as car dealerships, but we’ll cover more on that later. 

PRIVATE VEHICLE SALES ARE USUALLY AS IS 

When you purchase a vehicle from a private seller, you’re usually buying the car as-is.  

Private sales don’t come with any written warranties or guarantees of the vehicle’s condition. Any issues that present themselves after the sale need to be fixed on your dime. 

Even if the seller says it’s in perfect shape, has nothing wrong with it, and has completed all necessary maintenance on time, it’s still up to you to have the car inspected before you purchase it.  

Once the deal is done and the keys are in your hands, anything that’s wrong with the car falls into your hands. 

HERE’S HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM BUYING A LEMON WITH A PRIVATE SALE 

This doesn’t mean you’re left completely unprotected, though. Here are a few ways you can still protect yourself when purchasing a vehicle from a private seller.

CHECK THE CAR’S SERVICE RECORDS AND HISTORY 

Before going to look at a used car, it’s a good idea to check out the car’s service records and owner history.  

You should be looking for: 

  • Frequent oil changes. Cars really shouldn’t go more than 8,000-10,000 miles without an oil change, and even that could be pushing it. 
  • A clean title. Make sure the seller actually has ownership of the vehicle and therefore has the legal ability to sell it to you. 
  • Rental use. If this was used as a rental car, it could have been subject to drivers who didn’t really care about the condition of the car since they didn’t technically own it. 
  • Salvage or rebuilt title. These titles mean the car was in an accident and suffered extensive damage. The cost to repair the car was more than the value of the car, but some mechanics will buy these cars for cheap and fix them up. Buyers tend to be wary of these types of cars, as they might not know if corners were cut to rebuild the car and turn a profit.  
  • A low number of owners. Cars with one owner are considered a hot commodity. If a car goes through a lot of owners in its lifetime, it could be a red flag that the vehicle had issues the owners didn’t want to deal with. 

You can easily check a car’s service history through a service like CARFAX. All you need is the car’s VIN number (which is usually included in the online listing). You will have to pay for the report, but it’s worth it so you don’t waste your time looking at a car with terrible service history or a rebuilt title you had no idea about. 

You’ll be able to see: 

  • Accidents the car was involved in 
  • Owner history (and how long each owner had possession of the car) 
  • Vehicle locations
  • Service history 
  • Whether the car has a rebuilt or salvaged title 
  • Flood damage 
  • Last reported mileage
  • Previous branding as a lemon 
  • Estimated miles driven per year 
  • Warranty information

HAVE A MECHANIC INSPECT THE VEHICLE BEFORE YOU PURCHASE IT 

This is one of the most important things to do when you purchase any used car, especially with a private seller. You can either have a mechanic come with you when you go to look at the car or ask the seller if you can bring the car to a mechanic’s shop for an inspection. 

If the seller refuses to accommodate you, take that as a red flag. If you can’t have the car properly inspected, it’s best to move on to another vehicle. 

CHECK FOR A VALID MANUFACTURER’S WARRANTY 

Depending on the age and/or mileage of the car, there are likely still some manufacturer’s warranties that apply to the car. 

Check to see if there are any and make sure those warranties would transfer to you as the new owner. If so, this is great news, as you should still have protection!

You can check to see if your car has any manufacturer warranties in one of two ways:

  • Contacting your local dealership and providing the VIN number
  • Using an online service, such as CARFAX, which shows you applicable warranties 

However, you’ll also want to make sure those warranties are valid. Some manufacturers will void warranties if the car has:  

  • Work performed by unauthorized parties 
  • Aftermarket part installation  

Unauthorized mechanical work and aftermarket part installation might not always show up on a report for the car, depending on how under the table the work was. This is why it’s important to have a mechanic thoroughly inspect the car. 

KEEP ALL DOCUMENTATION & GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING 

If the seller is insisting certain repairs were made, ask to get that information in writing. 

Also, ask if the seller has service records for any work that was performed on the car. This proves the work was done legitimately and whether it was done by an authorized dealer.  

Cover your bases by keeping all of your transaction documents (such as the bill of sale), repair records, repair receipts, and communications with the seller. 

PURCHASING A USED CAR FROM A DEALERSHIP VS PRIVATE SALE

If you’d rather have peace of mind when purchasing a used car, it’s best to buy from a car dealership. Dealerships in California are held to specific standards, ensuring the buyer is protected. 

When it comes to private sales, California law deems it an as-is transaction. The seller won’t face any legal repercussions if they sell you a car one day and the transmission fails the next day. 

Private sellers aren’t required to offer any kind of warranty or guarantee. If the seller is claiming certain repairs were performed or parts were replaced, get everything in writing and ask for service records just in case it turns out the seller wasn’t truthful. 

WHAT QUALIFIES A CAR AS A LEMON IN CALIFORNIA? 

So, what exactly qualifies as a lemon in California? To understand whether or not you have a lemon on your hands, it’s helpful to learn about the specifications of California lemon law. 

There are two Sections of the CA Civil Code that can give you all you need to know to file a Lemon Law suit. Each section protects the consumer so that they are assured they will either get exactly what they bargained for or get all of their money back from the manufacturer who issued the warranty (the promise to be free of defects) with their car.    

Keep in mind that these are the laws governing car dealerships, not private sellers. 

The Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act

The Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act is the overall Act which applies to consumer goods and new motor vehicles sold in the state of California. 

It provides consumers with strong breach of implied (intended purpose) warranty relief, and breach of written/express warranties (promises found in your literature at the time of sale). Manufactures are obligated to repurchase or replace a vehicle if the repairs fail to restore the vehicle according to its warranty after a reasonable opportunity to do so.

The Tanner Consumer Protection Act

The Tanner Consumer Protection Act is a subsection of the Consumer Warranty Act that came along to strengthen the original Act, making California the nation’s leader in consumer protection. 

It lays exactly how a manufacturer is to make a repurchase from a consumer. It lays out how a manufacturer is to perform a replacement for a consumer. Finally, it provides a formula on how to properly calculate trouble-free miles on your vehicle for which a manufacturer is entitled to a credit. There are other benefits The Tanner Consumer Protection Act provides, but these are its primary components that clarify and strengthen California’s Lemon Law. 

AS A CONSUMER, YOU ALWAYS HAVE RIGHTS 

If you purchased a vehicle from a private seller and it is still covered under manufacturer’s warranties, you still have rights. 

If your vehicle has required frequent repairs or has been unusable during the warranty period, it’s worth reaching out to a California lemon law attorney — they can clarify your consumer rights connected to the written and oral (expressed) promises of the seller.

Contact our experienced lemon law legal team at Norman Taylor & Associates and learn more about how we can give you the legal assistance you deserve! 

Our team of experienced California lemon lawyers is here to answer all your questions and concerns. Contact us now for a FREE consultation! 

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