Lifetime Warranties and Other Consumer Tips

Buyer beware: learn warranty details before you make a big-ticket purchase.

Sept. 7, 2009 — -- It's back-to-school season and, for many, that means some shopping. College-bound students may be investing in big-ticket items like computers to take to campus with them. And younger kids have a slew of needs and wants, too. So it's a good time for me to remind you about product warranties and how they really work.

First off, you should know that a "lifetime warranty" is only as good as the company backing it. You probably assumed "lifetime" means your lifetime, right? Not always.

There's no set legal definition of "lifetime warranty." Some weaselly companies choose to interpret it as the lifetime of the product. I know, it's ridiculous. That's like saying, "This product is warranted to last as long as it lasts."

Companies that do it this way set an amount of time that they think their product should reasonably last. If your item breaks during that time, they'll repair or replace it. If it breaks later, you're out of luck.

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I have this soft-sided leather briefcase that I absolutely love. I've had it for 10 years -- or at least one like it. You see, the briefcase came with a lifetime warranty. I've had it replaced twice. Once, the strap broke under the massive weight of my files. The second time the stitching unraveled … under the massive weight of my files. Both times the manufacturer came through for me. It's a good company. Not all are so generous.

Now some more upbeat warranty news: Even if the product you buy doesn't come with a written warranty, you are still covered by some unwritten warranties guaranteed by the federal government. The first is called an "implied warranty of merchantability," which basically means that a product must do what it's supposed to do. In other words, a blender must blend and a toaster must toast. If the item you buy turns out to be defective, even if the seller has a "no returns" policy, you should be able to return it anyway.

It's Really a Service Contract

There's also an unwritten warranty called a "warranty of fitness for a particular purpose," like when a salesperson says a sleeping bag is suitable for zero-degree weather. These unwritten warranties apply unless the product is marked "as is" when you buy it.

If somebody tries to sell you an "extended warranty," keep in mind it's not really a warranty. It's a service contract, often offered by an outside company.

Fewer than 20 percent of consumers who buy service contracts ever use them. So here are some things to consider before investing in one. Does it duplicate the protections offered by the manufacturer's warranty? When will it start?

The word "extended" implies that it extends the period of the manufacturer's warranty, but often these contracts kick in right away, while the real warranty is still in effect, which is a waste. Is there a pricey deductible each time the item needs service? Can you get service anywhere or only at the store where you bought the product? Is the item you're buying likely to break down? If you do your homework and choose a good product, you shouldn't need an extended warranty.

Do Your Homework

If you're buying something really expensive, you might want to contact company officials and ask them how they define the word "lifetime."

Save the receipt and file it with your warranty in case you later need to prove when you bought the item or that you're the original purchaser.

Don't bother sending in the warranty postcard, unless you want to. The manufacturer's just fishing for names for its mailing list and you're covered whether you send it in or not.

Perform any maintenance or inspections required by the warranty so you don't void it.

Before purchasing an extended warranty, find out the name of the company offering it and do a background check with the Council of Better Business Bureaus at