Is My Car a Lemon?

I had a hand-me-down car once, a boat-sized Oldsmobile, that I inherited from my Great Aunt Judy (actually my great-great aunt). That car always had problems, even when it had low mileage, and I never fully trusted it. The folklore in our family is that the Oldsmobile dealer saw my Aunt Judy as an easy mark and went to her house to pressure her into the sale. I was grateful to have the car, but I didn’t love it. In fact, in the only photo of the car I could find, it is covered in snow. (The first and only time I saw it snow in Phoenix.)

All states have lemon laws: the Better Business Bureau publishes a summary of each. The lemon laws apply only to cars under warranty. In New York, “the lemon law covers vehicles during the first 18,000 miles of operation or during the period of 2 years following the date of original delivery of the motor vehicle, whichever is the earlier date.”

If cars are subject to a recall before they are sold by a dealer, the dealer can’t sell them without repairing the defect. This seems like a simple proposition, but the databases for car dealerships, manufacturers, and the NHTSA don’t seem to be compatible, and a centralized database of recalls at the NHTSA requires dealers to look up recalls by entering one VIN at a time. All this is to say: the system is such that selling cars with open recalls is not uncommon.

As part of its new safety focus, General Motors is rolling out new software that will make it more difficult for dealers to sell a car with an open recall (Henry, 2015, April 15). In the first phase of the implementation, software will block searches for sales incentives if the car has a recall. Since dealers across the country conduct about 50,000 searches for incentives each day, GM expects the new software will have an immediate effect.

Mark Rosekind, NHTSA Administrator, commended GM for delivering an innovative approach to improved vehicle safety and noted that the company spearheaded the effort, having no federal regulation or law driving the program (Henry, 2015, April 15; Shepardson, 2015, April 15).

Representatives from the trade group the National Automobile Dealers Association had recently asked Rosekind to enable batch downloads, but he told them budget constraints at the NHTSA made such a change unlikely (Shepardson, 2015, April 15).

While it may be difficult to identify and repair new cars with open recalls, it is legally required. The same is not true for used cars. No federal law prohibits dealers from selling you a used car with an open recall. Dealers don’t even need to disclose the recall status of used cars. Some states are considering laws, and at least one city, New York City, is trying to prevent the sale of vehicles with open recalls. The New York Times explains:

New York’s requirement is a stricter interpretation of a state law that requires all vehicles to be safe and roadworthy in order to be sold. Now, city officials want to make it clear to dealers that being safe includes repairing cars under recall (Abrams & Jensen, 2014, July 30).

To me the surprise isn’t that NYC is strictly interpreting the law; the surprise it that some consider cars with open recalls safe and roadworthy. At the very least any open recalls should be disclosed to potential buyers.


Abrams, R., & Jensen, C. (2014, July 30). New York City imposes a used-car repair rule. B3. Retrieved from

Henry, J. (2015, April 15). GM launches software that flags recalled vehicles on dealer lots. Automotive News. Retrieved from

Shepardson, D. (2015, April 15). NHTSA praises GM for dealer recall fix incentives. The Detroit News. Retrieved from


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My husband likes to tease me by telling me I must be an alien. When I worked as a faculty member in a Business school, colleagues from other disciplines liked to say, “She’s not one of them.” I choose to take these comments as compliments and attribute them to the contradictory characteristics that define me. Highly analytical and results-oriented, I also approach interactions and challenges with empathy, curiosity, and wonder. I see myriad possibilities and delight at considering how to implement them. Since they are based on a solid theoretical foundation, most of them are reasonable and effective. In brainstorming conversations, others often respond to me by saying, “I didn’t think of that.” At the same time, I enjoy learning from everyone I meet, and I want everyone leaving a conversation with me to feel like they have been heard with compassion. My hobbies include knitting, making jewelry, reading, and hanging out with my husband and dogs. I am a long-time vegan committed to social justice and animal rights.

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