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Monday, August 25, 2008

Branding Car Titles Of Lemons Is Now The Law in Minnesota

Call it the scarlet letter for certified clunkers.

This month, Minnesota got in step with a number of other states by requiring all vehicles that have been bought back by manufacturers under "lemon laws" to carry the distinction on their titles.

Lemon laws generally require carmakers to buy back a vehicle that's under warranty if it has critical or chronic defects.

Titles issued in Minnesota can already be "branded" if the vehicles have been drowned, salvaged from a total loss or rebuilt after a terrible accident. The titles feature such alarming designations as "FLOOD DAMAGED," "PRIOR SALVAGE," "REBUILT" and "RECONST."

But until this year, the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services agency had no authority to brand a car's title if it was part of a manufacturer buy-back in Minnesota or if it arrived from another state with that stigma, said Larry Ollila, vehicle services program director.

"It's something we put forward as an initiative because vehicles were coming in from other states with that brand," Ollila said. "We didn't have the ability to carry forward the brand. It's a consumer awareness issue.

Ollila said he didn't know how many vehicle titles in Minnesota would have to carry the stamp, although the first "LEMON LAW VEHICLE" brand went on a title on Aug. 1, the day the law went into effect.

The new law comes too late for Angela Lembo of Bloomington, who bought a 2003 Volkswagen Jetta last year. The Jetta had been part of a lemon law buyback program in California, but by the time Lembo bought the car in Minnesota, the title didn't show it.

Lembo found out about the Jetta's checkered history only when she tried to resell it and the buyer made the discovery during a title search. She welcomes the new law.

"It's no different than buying a car with a salvage title," she said. "You know what you're getting into."

Article by James Eli Shiffer


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Monday, August 18, 2008

Sour deal? Buyers didn't get Lemon Law disclosures

Seventy-nine customers who bought secondhand Hummers and Cadillac Escalades from a dealership in Fife didn't get all the legal disclosures about the vehicles' history, according to the state Attorney General's Office.

The AG's office reached a settlement Friday with McCann Motors in which the auto dealership agreed to notify the customers of what happened and offer to work out a suitable resolution. The dealership did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to pay $12,000 in state attorneys' fees and costs.

Buyers didn't get a notice that the cars were reacquired by their manufacturer under California's Lemon Law before being resold in Washington, the office said.

If you buy a car in Washington, the state's Lemon Law and other consumer laws protect you by requiring certain disclosures about the vehicle.

"The price of prestige probably was too high for some of these buyers who paid up to $50,000 for luxury cars but may have negotiated differently had they received the required Lemon Law disclosures," consumer protection division chief Doug Walsh said.

The buyers signed paperwork that included a notice that the cars had been repurchased under a California Lemon buyback law, but they didn't get special disclosures that the state contends would have made it more obvious that these cars could have potential problems, he added.

State law requires that a bright yellow flier be placed in the window of the car that reads "Lemon Law Resale Notice of Nonconformity or Serious Safety Defect" and that customers get documents telling them that the title will include a statement that the vehicle was previously returned to the manufacturer and this may affect the vehicle's future resale value.

The state alleged that failure to provide those disclosures violated state laws.

Article by Phuong Cat Le, Consumer Smarts Blog

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Warranty Works on Front End Shake

Bradley Joyce was preparing for grave disappointment.

Shortly after purchasing an $8,724 Thruxton motorcycle from Clinton Cycles in Camp Springs, the geographic information systems manager said he felt "a significant and dangerous feeling wobble" in the bike at speeds over 45 miles per hour.

Several attempts to fix the wobble got him nowhere. He was without his bike for more than a month. Joyce feared that his journey into warranty hell would only lead to no good and an eventual lemon law claim.

Warranties make my head hurt. In most cases that end up here, companies flub the job and tick off the customer. Loopholes in the law, or the lack of any law, further fail consumers. But Clinton Cycles and manufacturer Triumph USA proved Joyce wrong, and Maryland law would have protected him had the situation gone terribly awry.

Excuse my joy. It's not every day I get good consumer news like that, especially after several bleak moments for Joyce.

The Baltimore resident's problem started on July 21 when he took his bike into Pete's Cycles in Fullerton, an authorized Triumph dealer, for a 500-mile initial inspection. Joyce asked the service department to take a closer look for a shake in the front end.

"They balanced the front wheel," said Joyce, who paid $260 for the service visit. "It didn't help."

Joyce called Pete's back to tell them the fix didn't work. They put him on a waiting list. A call back to the original dealer that sold him the bike, Clinton, got Joyce an appointment right away.

On June 28, Joyce dropped the bike off and Clinton diagnosed the problems as "a head bearing in need of adjustment." They tightened it. Joyce started to take the bike home - and turned back around. "The problem was still there," he said.

On July 3, he called Clinton to check on the bike's progress. No one had looked at it yet. That evening, the dealership called to say it swapped the wheel out, but the problem persisted. So Clinton did a complete head bearing replacement under warranty.

The wobble won the day.

On the fifth attempt, even as Joyce's patience was worn microscopically thin, Clinton disassembled the fork tubes, which deal with the front-end suspension and how the bike handles. And still, wobble - 5, Clinton - 0.

At wit's end, Joyce wrote a letter to Triumph's head of customer relations, Peter Carleo. He ended the e-mail by saying that if the problem was not resolved, "I intend to turn the matter over to the state lemon laws."

Lemon laws are great if your vehicle is protected. Not all lemon laws are equal, though. Depending on which state you live in, motorcycles and recreational vehicles may not qualify.

"Most people think they are automatically covered," said Ronald Burdge, an Ohio attorney who specializes in lemon laws. "The amount of lemon law coverage you have might depend on the number of wheels you have. Four wheels? You're probably covered. Three? Probably not. Two wheels, it's 50-50. A lot of states don't cover motorcycles. It makes no logical sense."

The beauty of state lemon laws is that most clearly define what qualifies your vehicle, such as how long and how many times the vehicle needs repair work for the same problem, or specific problems. If you live in a state where your motorcycle or RV doesn't qualify, there is a federal consumer law that could provide some protection, but the presumptions aren't clearly defined.

Luckily for Joyce, Maryland's law does protect motorcycles (but not RVs). Under our law, four unsuccessful repairs or 30 calendar days out of service or one unsuccessful repair of a braking or steering system within 15 months or 15,000 miles allows a lemon law claim.

But here's the even better part of this story.

On the sixth and final attempt, Clinton was set to replace the entire front end of the bike. The dealership called in its master mechanic, who decided to swap out the front wheel one more time.

The wobble vanished, and so did Joyce's consternation - especially when Clinton charged him nothing for any of the 36 hours of work or parts, which would have cost thousands under normal circumstances.

"Ultimately, the people down at Clinton Cycles worked very hard to get my problem fixed," Joyce said. "The bike rides perfectly now."

There are a number of really good lessons here.

•Check that your state lemon law covers what you're buying. If it doesn't, see if a neighboring state has a stronger law that protects nonresidents and consider buying your motorcycle, RV or disability van (which is afforded even fewer protections) from there.

•Deal with the dealer you originally bought your vehicle from, so that your problems are a priority to them.

•Stay on top of the problem. Joyce never let his concern go for more than a week without checking in with Clinton, and he was always politely persistent.

•Go over heads if the problem persists. Joyce wrote a letter to Triumph's Carleo, who made sure that the dealership was communicating with the manufacturer's techs to diagnose the problem. Carleo, who is based in Georgia, was also prepared to fly to Maryland to help if need be.

"Some of the timing problem was based on the techs not finding what the problem was," Carleo said. "Mechanical conditions can be hard to diagnose. These things can take time. We want to rule everything out. Had the mechanical conditions not been resolved, we would have replaced the bike if need be. We take customer satisfaction seriously at Triumph."

Which bring us to the final lesson, which is that a couple of failed attempts to fix a mechanical problem might not necessarily mean that you're getting jacked around. But be sure to keep all correspondence, notes and maintenance records with the dealer and manufacturer and document the time, date and notes for every call. If you fear after a first or second fix that you own a lemon, send a certified letter to the manufacturer.

Do exercise patience, but don't be taken for a fool.

Article by Dan Thanh Dang, Baltimore

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