This holiday season, shoppers are expected to spend a whopping $1.6 billion on extended warranties for appliances and such electronics as laptops and flat-screen TVs.
For the most part, it will not be money well spent.
Retailers are pushing hard to get you to buy extended warranties because these service plans are cash cows, often bringing in more profit than the sale of the item itself. Yet while extended warranties have proved a financial boon for retailers, they're largely a boondoggle for consumers. Here's why:
¢ Reliability data we've collected over the years show that products seldom break within the extended-warranty window, which is typically three years.
¢ Even when electronics and appliances do break, the repair often costs about the same as the cost of the warranty.
Let this pitch go by
The hard sell for extended warranties is coming at a time when manufacturers' warranties are getting skimpier. Makers of pricey items like laptops, for instance, have scaled their labor coverage back from one year to 90 days in some cases, making repairs potentially expensive even though the parts are free.
Extended warranties also are being pitched as items of convenience. Some plans offer in-home service or instant replacements for products as inexpensive as printers, freeing people from having to ship their broken products to service centers.
We urge you to investigate the manufacturer's warranty coverage before you buy any product, and patronize those makers that offer decent guarantees. More important, buy from manufacturers whose products are unlikely to break in the first place. Consumer Reports magazine and our Web site (www.ConsumerReports.org) contain brand-reliability information for major products we test.
Never say never
Among those products are two that prove possible exceptions to our "don't buy extended warranties" advice: rear-projection microdisplay TVs and Apple computers.
A service plan might be a good idea for a rear-projection microdisplay TV because these sets have been three times more likely to break than other types of TVs. And repair costs can be high.
Apple computers, meanwhile, come with only 90 days of phone tech support. (Most desktop PCs provide a year.) Each call for help after that will cost you $49.
Although they have among the higher repair rates of the products we track, laptops still aren't a good candidate for extended-warranty coverage. Many laptop problems, we've found, occurred outside the coverage period of a typical computer extended warranty.
What's more, extended warranties usually don't cover problems if you drop the laptop or spill something on it.
If you want one anyway
For consumers who get peace of mind from buying an extended warranty they'll probably never need - or for those whose brand is repair prone - we offer this advice:
¢ Check your credit card. Before you say yes to a service plan, see whether your credit card provides similar coverage. Such plans, most often found on gold and platinum cards, typically lengthen the original manufacturer's warranty by as much as one year.
¢ Shop around. Extended warranties vary in length and terms. Don't pay more than 20 percent of the purchase price for one. And always try to negotiate a better price.
¢ Beware of hidden "gotchas." For heavy items such as large TVs or appliances, ask whether the extended warranty includes in-home repair or pickup. Ask, too, who'll reinstall the product. And if the item needs repair, find out if there's a lemon clause such that - after a few repairs - the product is replaced.