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Repeated auto repair attempts can be frustrating as well as costly. You may even feel that you are virtually powerless and at the mercy of auto repair shop mechanics. The good news is that a little-known law-one your auto shop mechanic isn't likely to tell you about-can protect your rights to own a safe, relatively trouble-free automobile.

If your new car is constantly in the shop for repairs, it may be a "lemon" and as such subject to action under federal and state laws. Lemon laws vary from state to state but they all have certain provisions in common, enabling consumers to demand and receive refunds or replacement vehicles if successful repairs cannot be made.

Generally, lemon laws cover new cars that experience chronic problems resulting in substantial reduction in the vehicle's use, value, or safety. Coverage also may extend after the manufacturer's warranty has expired if the owner can prove the car failed to operate properly due to a defect that was not repaired successfully during the warranty.

Before exercising your lemon-law rights you should give the dealer a chance to fix your car. You'll need to keep accurate records of all repair orders, including the number of repairs attempted and the number of days your car is out of service. If the problem has not been corrected after two repair attempts or if your car has been out of service for 15 days, you should contact the manufacturer's regional office and request assistance in getting your car repaired. If the problem persists after three repair attempts, or your car has been out of service for 20 days, contact the manufacturer's headquarters and explain that unless successful repairs are made you will exercise your lemon-law right to a refund or a replacement vehicle. You can find contact information for the manufacturer in the owner's manual provided with your vehicle or from the dealership where the car was purchased.

After four unsuccessful repair attempts for the same problem or after the car has been inoperable for 30 days, you should invoke your lemon-law right and demand a refund or replacement. If the manufacturer refuses to reimburse you or to replace your vehicle, you can take the matter to court arbitration. Under both federal and state lemon laws your attorney fees can be redeemed if you take such action.

You can get a referral for a lawyer who specializes in lemon-law cases by sending a SASE to:

The Center for Auto Safety
2001 SST NW,
Washington, DC 20009

Your success in getting a refund or a replacement depends on your ability to prove that your car is indeed a lemon. Keep all records of repairs, complaints and the number of days that your car was inoperable. If you have all of these documents to prove that your car cannot be repaired successfully, you can get a replacement or your money back.