Extended warranty? Just say no

Economists, consumer advocates and product quality experts warn that the plans rarely benefit consumers and are nearly always a waste of money.

By Washington Post
Published November 5, 2006

You buy a $119 cordless phone system at Wal-Mart. As you're checking out, the cashier asks if you'd like to put two years on the manufacturer's warranty. Cost: $29.

What do you do?

While consumer groups and common sense would urge you to resoundingly reject the offer, an industry has been built on the likelihood that you will act on impulse and say yes.

Each year, millions of people gladly pay 10 to 50 percent of a product's original price to extend a warranty. These snap purchases help fuel a booming, $15-billion-a-year business and feed a lucrative profit stream for retailers that sell the warranties and companies that underwrite them. Many consumers do so because they say the plans provide them with peace of mind.

The decision to buy an extended warranty, however, defies the recommendations of economists, consumer advocates and product quality experts, who warn the plans rarely benefit consumers and are nearly always a waste of money.

"The things make no rational sense," Harvard economist David Cutler said. "The implied probability that (a product) will break has to be substantially greater than the risk that you can't afford to fix it or replace it. If you're buying a $400 item, for the overwhelming number of consumers that level of spending is not a risk you need to insure under any circumstances."

Extended warranties, introduced in high-pressure fashion by big electronics stores in the late 1980s, have become a core product sold by all kinds of retailers, covering everything from bicycles to wedding jewelry.

The warranties, often marketed as service plans, are technically insurance products on which the premiums are paid in a lump sum at time of purchase. Extended warranties generally lengthen the coverage provided by the manufacturer's warranty on a product. The plans are backed by an insurance company that promises to repair or replace the covered item should it break or malfunction. While terms vary widely, the plans typically last from one to three years.

In terms of service, most warranty providers use third-party contractors to repair broken items, and consumers do not get to choose who performs a covered repair. Many policies do not cover accidents or normal wear and tear - the most common causes of breakdowns in common household goods.

But most important, consumer advocates say, the vast majority of extended warranties are never used, simply because most products do not need a repair or, worse, the extended-warranty provider refuses to cover the repair or makes it such a hassle that it makes more sense to pay for it on your own.

"All you have to do is see how aggressively these things are sold at the point of sale," said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington nonprofit association of 300 consumer groups. "It's not a good buy under most circumstances."

- What is the cost of a typical repair? Numerous independent studies of repair rates and costs demonstrate that the probability that a repair will set a consumer back more than the cost of an extended warranty is close to nil.

- Even if you want an extended warranty, don't say yes right away. Increasingly, most retailers will give you at least a few days to decide if you want to buy an extended warranty, giving you time to find out things like repair costs and reliability ratings. Also, many manufacturers will sell extended warranties directly, usually for less than the retailer.

Warranty tips

Things to think about when you're offered an extended service warranty:

- Check your credit card. Many Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards offer automatic one-year extensions to manufacturer warranties.

- What coverage does the manufacturer offer automatically? While many manufacturers have been cutting back on warranty lengths - five years used to be the norm, now one-year warranties are standard - a major problem from product defect will in almost all cases emerge within the first year.

- How much does it cost? Anything more than 20 percent of the purchase price is automatically suspect.

- Don't double insure. Does the extended warranty go into effect right away? If so, chances are you're overinsuring because of the manufacturer's warranty. If you buy a three-year extended warranty on a refrigerator with a one-year manufacturer's warranty, chances are you're paying for three years but getting only two.

- Who will provide the service? When your refrigerator breaks, the warranty provider decides who repairs it, not you. Will you get repair technicians certified by the manufacturer?

- Read the exceptions. Will you replace this thing if I drop it or spill coffee on it?