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A warranty (also called a guarantee) is an assurance about the quality of goods or services you buy. It is intended to give you recourse if something you purchase fails to live up to what you were promised.

Some warranties are implied and some are expressed. Virtually everything you buy comes with two implied warranties:

  • One for merchantability
  • One for fitness

The implied warranty of merchantability is an assurance that a new item will work if you use it for a reasonably expected purpose. For used items, the warranty of merchantability is a promise that the product will work as expected, given its age and condition. The implied warranty of fitness applies when you buy an item with a specific (even unusual) purpose in mind. If you related your specific needs to the seller, the implied warranty of fitness assures you that the item will fill your need.

Most expressed warranties state something such as "the product is warranted against defects in materials or workmanship" for a specified time. You are not automatically entitled to an expressed warranty. Most expressed warranties either come directly from the manufacturer or are included in the sales contract you sign with the seller. But an expressed warranty may be a feature in an advertisement or on a sign in the store ("all dresses 100% silk"), or it may even be an oral description of a product's features.

Product guarantees (warranties) are something you should consider when choosing between competitive items. To do that you need to know just a little bit about warranty law.

There are both federal and state laws. The federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act doesn't require manufacturers to issue warranties on their products, but if they do, the warranty must be easy to read and understand. No "legalese," just ordinary language. Every term and condition of the warranty must be spelled out in writing.  Magnuson-Moss also creates two types of warranties: FULL and LIMITED.

Full Warranty:

The label "FULL" on a warranty means:

  • A defective product will be fixed (or replaced) free of charge, and within a reasonable time, including removal and reinstallation if necessary.
  • You will not have to do anything unreasonable to get warranty service (such as shipping a piano to a factory).
  • The warranty is good for anyone who owns the product during the warranty period.
  • If the product can't be fixed (or hasn't been after a reasonable number of tries), you get your choice of a new one or your money back.

Always check what parts the warranty covers. A full warranty doesn't have to cover the whole product. It may cover only a part, like the picture tube of a TV.

Limited Warranty:

If a warranty gives you anything less than the full warranty requirements, it's limited. A limited warranty may:

  • Cover only parts, not labor
  • Allow only a pro rata refund or credit
  • Require you to return a heavy product to the store for service (the piano)
  • Cover only the initial owner
  • Charge for handling

A product can carry a FULL warranty on part of the product and a LIMITED warranty on the rest.

Finally, Magnuson-Moss generally requires manufacturers to make a copy of their warranties available for you to look at before you buy–so you can comparison shop and get the best warranty coverage.

Implied Warranty:

"Implied warranties" are rights created by state law, not by the company. The most common implied warranty is that the product you buy is fit for ordinary uses, i.e., an electric mixer has to mix, an ice crusher has to crush. If it doesn't you have a legal right to get your money back.

Implied warranties come automatically with every sale of a product, even though they may not be written out. However, watch out for "as is" or "no warranty" sales; they cancel out your implied warranty.

Protect Yourself:

Remember to read warranties before you buy. Make sure any verbal promises by the sales representative are included in the written warranty. Keep your sales slip with your warranty. You may need it to prove the date you bought the product, or that you are the original purchaser.

Getting a good warranty when you make a purchase can protect you against big repair bills later on. If you can't resolve a warranty problem by yourself, call your Union Plus Legal Service program attorney.

How long does a warranty last?

In most states, an implied warranty lasts forever. In a few states, however, the implied warranty lasts only as long as any expressed warranty that comes with a product. In these states, if there is no expressed warranty, the implied warranty lasts forever.

Do I have any recourse if the item breaks after the warranty expires?

In most states, if the item gave you some trouble while it was under the warranty (and you had it repaired by someone authorized by the manufacturer to make repairs), the manufacturer must extend your original warranty for the amount of time the item sat in the shop. Call the manufacturer and ask to speak to the department that handles warranties.

If your product was trouble-free during the warranty period, the manufacturer may offer a free repair for a problem that arose after the warranty expired if the problem is a widespread one. Many manufacturers have secret fix-it lists -- items with defects that don't affect safety and therefore don't require a recall, but that the manufacturer will repair for free. It can't hurt to call and ask.

I just bought a stereo system, and the salesclerk tried to sell me an extended warranty contract. Should I have bought the contract?

Probably not. Merchants encourage consumers to buy extended warranties (also called service contracts) when buying autos, appliances or electronic items because these warranties are a source of big profits for stores, which pocket up to 50% of the amount you pay.

Rarely will you have the chance to exercise your rights under an extended warranty. Name-brand electronic equipment and appliances usually don't break down during the first few years (and if they do they're covered by the original warranty), and often have a life span well-beyond the length of the extended warranty.

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