Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Tue Dec 07 2010, 12:33am

As you shop for gifts this holiday season, there are some things you should know about warranties

As you shop for gifts this holiday season, there are some things you should know about warranties. First the bad news. You probably assumed "lifetime warranty" means your lifetime, right? Not always. A "lifetime warranty" is only as good as the company backing it. There's no set legal definition of "lifetime warranty." It varies from city to city, county to county. Some weasely companies choose to interpret it as the lifetime of the product. I know, it's ridiculous. That's like saying, "this product is warranted to last as long as it lasts." Companies that do it this way set an amount of time that they think their product should reasonably last. If your item breaks during that time, they'll repair or replace it. If it breaks later, you're out of luck.

Now the good news. Even if the product you buy doesn't come with a written warranty, you are still covered by some unwritten warranties guaranteed by the federal government. The first is called an "implied warranty of merchantability" which basically means that a product must do what it's supposed to do. In other words, a blender must blend and a car must drive. If the item you buy turns out to be defective, even if the seller has a "no returns" policy, you will probably be able to return it anyway. There's also an unwritten warranty called a "warranty of fitness for a particular purpose." That covers situations like when a sleeping bag is advertised as being suitable for zero degree weather. These unwritten warranties apply unless the product is marked "as is" when you buy it.

If somebody tries to sell you an "extended warranty," keep in mind it's not really a warranty. It's a service contract, often offered by an outside company. Less than twenty percent of consumers who buy service contracts ever use them, according to Consumers Union. So here are some things to consider before investing in one. Does it duplicate the protections offered by the manufacturer's warranty? When will it start? The word "extended" implies that it extends the period of the manufacturer's warranty, but often these contracts kick in right away, which is a waste. Is there a pricey deductible each time the item needs service? Can you get service anywhere or only at the store where you bought the product? Is the item you're buying likely to break down? If you do your homework and choose a good product, hopefully it won't break down.

So, how to proceed? Well, if you're buying something really expensive, you might want to contact company officials and ask them how they define the word "lifetime." You can also find out whether your local jurisdiction defines it in a set way. In order for a warranty to be useful to you later, be sure to save the receipt and file it with your warranty in case you later need to prove when you bought the item or that you're the original purchaser. Don't bother sending in the warranty postcard –unless you want to. The manufacturer's just fishing for names for its mailing list and you're covered whether you send it in or not.

Be sure to perform any maintenance or inspections required by the warranty so you don't void it. And before purchasing an extended warranty, find out the name of the company offering it and do a quickie online search to see if the company has a good reputation. Really angry over a really expensive product that fell apart on you? You have have a right to file a lawsuit under the Magnuson-Moss act, which is the law that governs warranties.