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Consumer Warranty Law Basics

A consumer warranty is a seller or manufacturer's guarantee assuring a product's level of quality and reliability. You can hold the seller accountable if the product fails to meet these standards, such as breaking or failing to work as advertised. Often, you can seek a product replacement or repair free of charge.

Warranties cover most new product purchases. There are different types of warranties. A salesperson might explain a warranty at the time of sale. You may have the option to buy an extended warranty for a fee. Some warranties are merely implied.

Warranty types each involve unique laws or terms. The following information describes how product warranties work and how to recognize when you might have one.

How Does a Warranty Benefit Customers?

Warranties give you certain rights to expect the business to repair or replace your product if you discover a problem. Valid warranties and related consumer protection laws compel sellers and manufacturers to meet basic expectations.

For example, you may buy a dishwasher only to discover it floods your kitchen due to a defective seal on the door. You can make a warranty claim to get a free seal replacement from the business that fits your model and stops the leaking.

The benefits of a product warranty depend on what it covers. Warranty coverage depends on the warranty's specific language or the law.

Your Options Depend on the Warranty Type

There are many types of warranties. In many cases, a product has coverage through multiple warranty types. Each type can involve different laws and exclusions. Knowing your type of warranty and how it works can clarify your options.

Warranties vary based on several factors, including:

  • Whether the seller offered the guarantee in writing (written warranty) or verbally (oral warranty)
  • Whether the warranty covers all product parts (full warranty) versus only some pieces or damage (limited warranty)
  • When the warranty will end or expire
  • What kind of problems it covers, such as covering a defective product that can't function (implied warranty) versus covering a product that doesn't match its description (express warranty)
  • Whether the warranty is an automatic inclusion or an add-on you bought (extended warranty)
  • Who is the warrantor, such as the seller or manufacturer

Other factors influencing your warranty rights include your state laws and how you bought the product. Some state laws give you more protection than federal laws. For example, certain states don't allow sellers to avoid fixing critical defects by advertising a product will be sold “as is."

Not All Warranties Are Written

You may have warranty rights even if you didn't get an official sales contract. This is possible for two reasons. First, warranties can exist in ways other than a lengthy legal document. Second, federal law creates a few basic warranty protections regardless of the seller's guarantees.

Express Warranties Take Many Forms

Sellers and manufacturers can make guarantees in many ways, such as saying them in the store or displaying them in advertisements. An express warranty is a verbal or written statement guaranteeing an expectation of quality or functionality for a certain period.

For example, an express warranty may state the following:

Our bicycles are guaranteed to operate as advertised for five years. We will repair or replace your bicycle if any significant defects occur within five years of purchase.

Some express warranties may not even look like warranties at all but rather specific product claims. For example, a manufacturer's claim that its light bulbs will last a certain number of hours is a warranty. Consumers may seek a replacement or refund if the light bulbs fail to perform as indicated.

Implied Warranties Apply To Most Products

Almost all consumer product purchases come with an implied warranty of merchantability. Through state laws, this guarantee means a product will work as claimed. For example, a cell phone that can't receive calls breaches the implied warranty of merchantability since it was not fit for sale.

An implied warranty of fitness covers products guaranteed for a specific purpose beyond what the manufacturer intended. The product gains this warranty coverage if you tell a salesperson how you want to use it and they assure you it will work for that particular purpose.

Implied warranties can cover products even when sellers and manufacturers create express warranties.

Do Warranties Cover Secondhand Goods?

Yes, used goods may have express warranty or implied warranty coverage.

Some sellers offer their express warranties for secondhand items. These guarantees can help them make customers more confident in buying their goods.

For example, a tech store may specialize in refurbishing old phones and include a six-month warranty. Or, a thrift shop selling purses may label each item as “like new," “good," or “acceptable" quality, and it guarantees that "like new" means the item will be free of any cosmetic defects.

An implied warranty applies if the merchant sells similar products on a regular basis. Such merchants may include a bookstore that offers used books or a vintage clothing store selling used shirts. A used item's merchantability is based on its condition at the time of resale.

Private sellers, such as those who sell goods at flea markets or through garage sales, are not bound by implied warranties. Neither are purchases sold as is in some states.

Written Warranties Must Follow Federal Rules

If an express warranty is in writing, it must follow the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. This Act governs most consumer product warranties in the U.S. It is the federal lemon law for new car purchases.

The law sets standards for written warranties, such as being available for consumers to read before purchasing. They also must be written in plain language, meaning they can't obscure the facts with legalese or confusing text. Written warranties must state whether they are full or limited.

Written warranties must include detailed information, such as:

  • Name and address of the company providing the warranty
  • Covered product or parts
  • What the warranty entails: Replacement, repair, complete refund, and whether the customer must pay for shipping or other costs
  • The length of time the warranty covers the product from the date of purchase
  • What the warranty does not cover, such as damage caused by improper or illegal use
  • Information about any dispute resolution procedures that may be necessary in some cases
  • Concise information about the consumer's legal rights

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act makes it easier for consumers to sue merchants for breach of warranty. Merchants can and often do require an attempt to resolve the issue through arbitration or mediation before filing a lawsuit.

You Can Lose Warranty Protection

Express warranties often include a specific warranty period, which is how long you're covered. They may also list how the warrantor can void the warranty and end its protection.

Implied warranties stop offering protection after four years, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The implied warranty of merchantability doesn't mean the product should stay as good as new over those years.

Once a warranty ends, you can no longer hold the business accountable for the quality and longevity of your product. That's why waiting to request a repair or replacement can be risky. If you have a 60-day warranty and report a problem 61 days after purchase, the company may have no strict obligation to fix it.

What Happens To Warranties When Businesses Close?

Warranties can dissolve if the warrantor goes out of business. In many cases, if a company no longer exists, neither do its legal obligations.

Another business may absorb the company's warranties in a commercial transaction, such as a business buyout. The former owner might take personal responsibility in certain business structures or rare cases like scams. Otherwise, the product's warranty has no warrantor to honor it.

Do Lifetime Warranties Last for Life?

No. Such warranties cover the product's lifetime on the market, not your lifetime. The lifetime warranty often ends upon product discontinuation. Sometimes, a lifetime warranty will continue for a short period after discontinuation.

Some lifetime warranties cover the product for as long as you own it. Reselling or giving away the item may disclaim (void) the warranty.

You can find the actual scope of a lifetime warranty in the fine print. It may say “limited lifetime warranty" and list specific terms for ending coverage.

Get Direct Help With Your Warranty Rights

Reading about warranties can help you understand the basics of consumer law. Your specific rights depend on your circumstances and warranty terms. Speaking with a local consumer protection attorney can give you a deeper perspective and helpful legal advice on service contracts and warranties.

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