When you make a big-ticket purchase, you’re making a major commitment. One of the factors that should be at the top of your checklist when purchasing a big-ticket item should be understanding the terms of your warranty. You don’t need a law degree to comprehend a warranty’s terms and conditions, but it does take focus. The easiest way to tackle this intimidating document is to read the whole thing and answer six questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how.


technician repairing refrigerator in kitchenA warranty is a basic legal document and thus follows a pattern. The beginning of your document should include who isinvolved in the contract—typically the buyer and the manufacturer. It is important to figure out both who is responsible for filing the claim and who is responsible for fulfilling it.

Who can file a claim? If a warranty is transferrable, anyone in possession of the warranted item can file a claim. However, make sure you follow any directives about ownership, as not doing so can sometimes void the warranty. For example, learn how you can accidentally void your flooring warranty. Some warranties may require you to register as the owner or officially transfer ownership, so understanding warranty instructions is especially important when buying a gift. Ideally, a gift should have a transferrable warranty so that the recipient can file a claim independently.

Who enforces the warranty? Try to figure out who will be fulfilling the terms of the warranty if you file a claim. This is normally outlined in the preamble or the section about service. Often the product’s manufacturer is responsible for repair services but may outsource these services to contractors. Do your best to determine who will do what.


What kind of warranty do you have? Is it full or limited? Answering these questions should be relatively easy, as federal law requires that a warranty for any product worth more than $10 have either a full or limited designation in its title. But it’s important to understand the difference between a full and a limited warranty. 
A warranty must meet five requirements in order to be legally classified as a full warranty.

  1. The warranty must be transferrable.

  2. It must guarantee service will be provided at no cost to the owner.

  3. It must ensure that consumers don’t have to perform any unreasonable duties in order to receive service.

  4. It must provide either a replacement or a full refund if the product can’t be repaired after a reasonable number of attempts.

  5. It cannot limit how long an implied warranty applies.  


One of the most important questions you should know the answer to is how long the warranty is valid.  Warranties usually start on the date of purchase and expire on the anniversary of the purchase date after the allotted period of time. You should also figure out (or just ask) if having the product serviced or servicing it yourself extends or changes the terms of your warranty. Often, unauthorized service will negate your warranty, but it can also be voided by misuse of the product or improper transfer. This can get complex with limited warranties or system-specific warranties such as those that come with cars, so you should be on the lookout for actions that invalidate your warranty. See factors that can affect a roofing warranty, for example.


Due to state-specific commerce laws, some aspects of warranties only apply in certain places. In addition, some states have laws that favor an implied warranty—i.e., the understanding that the product will work as advertised and will not cause consequential damage. In states such as Georgia and California, retailers are allowed to sell products as-is without any guarantee of honoring a warranty. In other states, including Alabama and Maine, companies are required to honor implied warranties and can be held liable for damages and repairs, typically for up to four years.


A warranty should address why you might need to make a claim—what types of issues does it cover, and what is not covered? Usually, manufacturers will cover manufacturing and craftsmanship issues under the warranty. Most warranties don’t cover loss, theft, or accidental damage, but some do.


call center operator in front of computerFinally, and probably most importantly, how do you get service? On larger purchases like carpet and major appliances, buyers often notify manufacturers of a defect, and the manufacturer dispatches a serviceman to their location. For smaller appliances, you may be required to send the item to a repair service. Figure out how best to notify the company when you want to file a service order, and keep track of your original warranty and proof of purchase. Also, make sure you understand how to register your purchase with the manufacturer. This is especially important when filing a claim on big-ticket items.

It’s daunting, but trying to read your warranty from cover to cover is incredibly helpful. You don’t have to understand every word, but breaking a warranty down to the essential questions—how to get service, how much it will cost, and how long the warranty lasts—will help you understand your options.

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