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Lifetime warranties might not last as long as advertised

How long do you think a lifetime warranty should last — as long as you live, or at least as long as the product should reasonably last?

Turns out that the wording of some lifetime warranties may limit that time to a just few years. Some states even set minimum lengths for "lifetime" warranties. It's three years in California.

Maryland law doesn't define how long a product's lifetime should be, but a short-term warranty described as a "lifetime" warranty would be misleading and a violation of state consumer protections, regardless of disclaimers a manufacturer or business provides, said Karen Straughn, from the Maryland attorney general's office. The Federal Trade Commission also requires manufacturers to state how long warranties are in effect.

State law does have specific provisions for home and auto warranties, added Straughn, director of the mediation unit in the attorney general's consumer protection division. And the mediation unit frequently works to resolve complaints from consumers who have had problems with those warranties — often when a consumer believes something should be covered under a warranty but the business disagrees.

So when hitting the stores to holiday shop for the latest electronic gadget or to pick up supplies for end-of-the year home repairs, it's good to know the vital details of warranties.

Many products come with express warranties, or written statements of what is covered by the manufacturer. But they also have implied warranties, a guarantee that a product is fit for use in the way intended. For example, it's reasonable to expect that all office chairs would support the weight of the average adult.

Straughn said that consumers should "actually read what the warranty says."

"It's important to know," Straughn said. "Then you know what the company intends to provide."

Consumers also must be especially careful when considering extended warranties, Straughn said. Even if you pay for additional coverage, an extended warranty may not cover all the expenses you might encounter while trying to get something fixed under the policy.

The original warranty for a television might offer to replace the parts, or give you a new unit if the parts are no longer available. Under the extended warranty, you might get the parts for free — but you might be charged for the labor, she said. There might also be delivery or shipping charges, or even fees to dispose of the old unit.

"You want to know what the differences are," Straughn said.

The Greater Baltimore Better Business Bureau has received about 200 warranty/guarantee complaints this year, and about two-thirds have been resolved, said spokeswoman Jody Thomas.

The BBB also recommends that consumers ask whether warranties will cover "consequential damages," such as the damage to your floors caused by a leaking water heater. And it's important to keep good records, including your receipts for major purchases as well as copies of the warranties themselves.

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