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Lifetime warranty may not last your lifetime

February 12, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
You might think a lifetime warranty would protect you against product failure for as long as you live. But it turns out there's no single legal definition of lifetime warranty. Consumer Specialist Ric Romero says that means you may or may not be able to collect on its promise.

Many lifetime warranties have loopholes that benefit the company that gives it to you, and there are plenty of limitations. For example, one couple got burned by what they thought was a warranty for life.

When Don Roane's Craftsman ratchet broke, the Sears clerk made good on its lifetime warranty.

"He went and got me a replacement without any questions" said Roane.

But that's not always the case. Nicole Van Scoten and her fiance say when they bought their used car, the limited lifetime warranty was the deciding factor. Six months later, the transmission blew, but their $7,000 claim was denied.

"We were really angry that, you know, they would not honor this warranty," said Van Scoten.

The warranty lists many things that are not covered, including "damage or failures resulting from alteration." The original owner had made some changes to the car, but the couple says the sales team assured them those changes wouldn't affect the warranty, which is something the dealership denies.

"You should never depend on spoken assurances. You have to read that fine print carefully, and don't assume that lifetime necessarily means your lifetime. It may simply mean the expected lifetime of the product," said Greg Daugherty of Consumer Reports.

And when a warranty says "limited lifetime warranty," it really means limited. For instance, furniture is sometimes under warranty only for the original purchaser. So the warranty is void if the furniture is resold. As for paint, many carry a limited lifetime warranty, but only for the paint itself and not the much bigger cost of repainting.

A treadmill's frame and motor are covered under a limited lifetime warranty, too. But if you need a repair, the warranty does not include freight charges and that can get expensive. The key is to read any lifetime warranty carefully. Also, get oral assurances in writing, which is something Nicole and her fiance learned the hard way.

The Web site Consumerist.org gets a lot of complaints from consumers about lifetime warranties and follows up on them.

Recently it got a complaint that Sears wouldn't take back a Craftsman tool, but when the Consumerist called Sears, the company reminded its sales staff that replacements will be provided for any reason. So it can pay to be persistent.