Consumers who purchase a used vehicle should be on alert for signs of a defective used car. Remember that the factory warranty will be in effect only for a certain number of miles or months. If you buy a used car that is two years old and has 25,000 miles, you typically have only one year or 11,000 miles of warranty, assuming a 3-year, 36,000-mile warranty.
The deadline for filing the claim itself is usually not an issue. California has a four-year statute of limitations that does not begin to run until the basis for the claim is discovered. Timely submission of the vehicle for repair is more likely to be a problem, since it must occur within the warranty period, which may be close to expiration by the time a used car owner takes possession.
With that in mind, owners of covered vehicles should be on the lookout for common defects, such as:
- Engine overheating: An overheating engine can eventually seize and cause serious engine damage. You could be stranded by the road in the middle of nowhere, so be sure that the cooling system on the vehicle is in good working order.
- Fuel pump: The fuel pump is important in any vehicle. A broken pump can cause your car to not start. If your car loses power as you accelerate, this could be a bad fuel pump. This could be especially dangerous if you are trying to merge onto a highway at high speed.
- Transmission problems: A bad automatic transmission will not shift properly. This problem can cause poor fuel mileage and a total breakdown of the vehicle eventually. Older vehicles’ transmissions should be checked by a trained professional before you buy.
- Steering, suspension, or alignment issues: You should have the steering, suspension and alignment checked before you buy a used car. Problems in any of these areas can lead to loss of control of the vehicle and a serious accident.
- Fluid leaks (engine oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, coolant): Fluid leaks are common in used cars and can cause serious reliability and/or safety problems.
- Brake problems: A used vehicle could have defective brakes, which can be very dangerous and cause a fatal accident. Have the brakes carefully checked before you buy. The front brakes on a front-wheel-drive vehicle are especially important, because they are responsible for the majority of the braking action of the car.
- Malfunctioning latches, locks, or windows: Problems with any of these items can lead to problems with air and water leaks, and even the door or window opening unexpectedly while driving. The NHTSA investigated door latch failures in 2014. It was found that the pawl spring is the most common failure point. This is a coil-shaped component that brings the door handle into the closed position. A defective pawl spring can cause the door to fly open during travel.
- Seatbelts not working properly: The seatbelt is probably the most significant auto safety innovation in 50 years. Seatbelts are the major restraint device in a car. There can be serious injuries if the seatbelts in a used car malfunction. A defective seatbelt could mean anything from a defective latch to a tension detector not working. Three million people are hurt by seatbelt failures each year, according to the NHTSA.
- Defective airbags: The most serious type of airbag problem is where it fails to deploy when it should. An airbag can prevent a life-threatening or fatal injury. Airbags may also deploy when they should not, which can cause other serious injuries. An airbag that deploys without cause can cause burns and bruises. Other airbags have been known to malfunction and essentially explode when they deploy, spraying car occupants with dangerous metal shrapnel.
- Tires: If you buy a used car, check the tread of the tires and tire pressure carefully. Worn out tires are a common cause of deadly car accidents.
California’s lemon law covers any defect that “substantially impairs the use, value, or safety” of the vehicle. If you are unsure whether a specific defect meets this standard, ask us.