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Out of Warranty but Not Out of Luck

How to get a free repair on an older, broken appliance — plus warranty tips for new purchases

posted by Caroline Mayer, September 4, 2013 More by this author

Old stove in kitchen

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer


Old stove in kitchen
Thinkstock
A few months ago one of my favorite kitchen amenities broke down: the instant hot-water heater for the sink faucet that my husband and I use several times a day to brew a perfect pot of French-press coffee, make a morning bowl of oatmeal or sip a late-night cup of tea. (I also turn to it to cook pasta faster and loosen jar lids.)
 
I never realized how much I valued this seven-year-old device until it stopped working. Unfortunately, the heater’s five-year warranty had expired. We definitely needed a replacement, and I figured we’d have to shell out about $250 for a new one, plus a plumber’s fee for installation.
 
(MORE: Why Appliances Need Repairs So Often)
 
But my husband decided we should first try to repair the product ourselves. Seeking advice, he called the manufacturer, InSinkErator, and received step-by-step instructions from a customer-service agent. She promised to call the next day to see if we were successful.
 
We weren’t.
 
The Unexpected Freebie
 
Then came the surprise: Even though the InSinkErator rep knew our warranty had expired, she said she’d send us a new instant hot-water heater at no cost, not even postage.
 
The new device arrived a few days later; its return address, appropriately enough, was “Department of Goodwill.” Indeed.
 
This type of experience, it turns out, isn’t unique.
 
My editor told me that when the thermostat in his out-of-warranty Sub-Zero freezer stopped working and the manufacturer said it would take six days before an authorized service dealer come come to repair it, he called and emailed the company to complain about the delay. A customer rep then told him that Sub-Zero would waive the charges for the needed parts due to his troubles, saving my editor $425.
 
How Often Manufacturers Assist
 
These pleasant customer-service stories made me wonder how common InSinkErator’s and Sub-Zero’s “goodwill” was. Do many other companies willingly provide free replacement products for busted goods past their warranties? If so, should consumers be politely pushy to seek a company’s help when their appliances break?
 
(MORE: Should You Buy an Extended Warranty?)
 
To find out, I called Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy content editor for home and appliances at Consumer Reports. Tales like ours, she said, are actually not rare.
 
The magazine’s National Research Center recently surveyed subscribers about 21,000 incidents with broken appliances that were less than three years old but not under warranty. About one in six respondents “were able to get their appliance problems resolved for free by the manufacturer,” Lehrman said. “It’s very encouraging.”
 
Some companies were more responsive than others. Sears and its Kenmore brand topped consumers’ list of satisfaction with their appliance makers; KitchenAid, Whirlpool and LG were at the bottom.
 
When Your Out-of-Warranty Item Breaks
 
There’s no telling whether a manufacturer will go above and beyond the call of duty for you. So here’s how to try getting assistance if your out-of-warranty appliance breaks:
 
First, do some online research. You may find that other consumers have had the same problem, and they might note how willing the company was to come to their rescue.
 
Aside from using an Internet search engine to look for fellow aggrieved customers, check out SaferProducts.gov, the Consumer Product Safety Commission database that lists consumer complaints. If you have an auto woe, try SaferCar.gov, a similar database from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.
 
Postings on those sites may not always indicate how manufacturers addressed issues. But they could let you know that there’s a widespread defect, information you can then use as ammunition to get help from the company.
 
(MORE: Home Repair: When Not to Do It Yourself)
 
Contact the manufacturer. Yes, even if your warranty has expired. As my experience (and my editor’s) illustrates, companies may be willing to offer assistance.
 
Be polite and friendly. Remember the old saw “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
 
You can call, email or do both.
 
When calling, if you feel you’ve reached an unfriendly or unknowledgeable customer-service agent, try Lehrman’s trick for dealing with unhelpful reps. “I often hang up and call again, hoping for a better experience the next time with another agent.”
 
Use Facebook and Twitter to vent your concerns publicly. “Don’t get mad, get social,” says Lehrman.
 
At large companies, she says, customer service is often outsourced to third-party firms that may see no benefit in helping consumers. “But a company’s social media tools are generally monitored by in-house staff,” Lehrman notes. “By posting a complaint on its Facebook page or on Twitter, you stand a much better chance that someone from the company will see it and contact you.”
 
Consumer Reports has found going this route can be very effective. “Companies don’t like complaints sitting on their Facebook pages; it’s not good for other customers to read,” says Lehrman. Just be sure to “vent nicely,” she adds.
 
Warranty Tips for Shoppers
 
While we’re on the subject of warranties, let me offer a few words about them if you’ll be shopping for an appliance or an electronics item.
 
It’s smart to be familiar with a product’s warranty before buying. That way, you’ll know how long the company says it will stand behind its product and exactly what it’ll cover if the item goes on the fritz before the contract ends. If you’re deciding between two similar purchases, you may want to choose the one with the longer, more comprehensive warranty.
 
Often warranties are available online, either at a store’s or manufacturer’s website. But under federal law, retailers are required to make warranty terms available at the time of purchase for any products costing more than $15. So don’t settle for a sales clerk's reluctance to show you the warranty policy on the grounds it’s in the sealed box. If the clerk can’t or won’t open the package, ask for a supervisor or store manager.
 
The Fine Print of Warranties
 
You may be surprised how skimpy and misleading warranties can be these days.
 
Over the past decade, companies have been shortening their coverage. Manufacturers who used to back their products for five years now often only offer a year’s warranty and, for many electronics, as little as 90 days. 
 
Additionally, even if new parts will be free, you might be charged for warranty work, such as the repair technician’s labor or transportation costs.
 
And that “lifetime” coverage on some warranties? It’s probably not what you think.
 
Often “lifetime” applies only to something going wrong for the product’s original owner. So if you just bought a house and the sink came with a “lifetime” warranty, you’re out of luck.
 
In other cases, a lifetime warranty is limited to the length of time the product is on the market. So the warranty protection may disappear when a new model comes out (think computer electronics).
 
No-Cost Way to Extend Your Warranty
 
Check with your credit card company before buying major goods, since many issuers of plastic extend a manufacturer’s written warranty for up to a year on most products you buy with their cards.  
 
Discover and American Express offer this benefit to all cardholders. MasterCard and Visa’s warranty-extension policies apply only to those with “premium” cards. For more information about credit cards and warranties, visit CardHub.com.
 
Don’t overlook the reputation of the store where you’ll buy your appliance since the retailer could help resolve a problem, particularly if it crops up soon after the purchase. Consumer Reports' survey found that customers had the greatest satisfaction with independent stores, closely followed by Lowe’s and Sears.
 
Cautionary Advice on Extended Warranties
 
Finally, steer clear of purchasing extended warranty coverage — except for laptop computers, which tend to break down a bit more often than other products.
 
Lehrman says an extended warranty is rarely worth the money. 
 
“Most appliances don’t break, and even if yours does, the cost of the extended warranty is often the same as what it you’d pay to get the item repaired,” she says.