Buying and owning an automobile for most all of us, is a life-long experience. The purchase cost, especially for a new car, may be second only to a home purchase or college tuition in size. Buying a used car is fraught with it’s own set of hidden pitfalls. And whether new or used, auto ownership will involve maintenance & repair questions, warranty issues, and eventually questions about trade-in value.
This is our fourth in a series on purchasing owning and automobile. Click on the articles below to view the first three. Content for all articles is taken from the FTC Consumer Information web site, Buying and Owning a Car. Future articles will cover Renting a Car, Repair & Maintenance, and Purchase vs. Lease.
A service contract is a promise to perform (or pay for) certain repairs or services. Although a service contract is sometimes called an extended warranty, it is not a warranty as defined by federal law. A service contract may be arranged any time and always costs extra; a warranty comes with a new car and is included in the original price. Used cars also may come with some type of warranty coverage included in the sales price. The separate and additional cost distinguishes a service contract from a warranty.
To decide if you need a service contract, consider:
- whether the service contract duplicates warranty coverage or offers protection that begins after the warranty runs out. Does the service contract extend beyond the time you expect to own the car? If so, is the service contract transferable or is a shorter contract available?
- whether the vehicle is likely to need repairs and how much they’re going to cost. You can determine the value of a service contract by figuring whether the cost of repairs is likely to exceed the price of the contract.
- whether the service contract covers all parts and systems. Check out all claims carefully. For example, “bumper to bumper” coverage may not mean what you think.
- whether a deductible is required and, if so, the amount and terms.
- whether the contract covers incidental expenses, like towing and rental car charges while your car is being serviced.
- whether repairs and routine maintenance have to be done at the dealer.
- whether there’s a cancellation and refund policy for the service contract, and if it has cancellation fees.
- whether the dealer or company offering the service contract is reputable. Read the contract carefully to determine who is legally responsible for fulfilling the terms of the contract. Some dealers sell third-party service contracts.
The dealer must check the appropriate box on the Buyers Guide if a service contract is offered, except in states where service contracts are regulated by insurance laws. If the Guide doesn’t include a service contract reference and you’re interested in buying one, ask the salesperson for more information.
If you buy a service contract from the dealer within 90 days of buying a used vehicle, federal law prohibits the dealer from eliminating implied warranties on the systems covered in the contract. For example, if you buy a car “as is,” the car normally is not covered by implied warranties. But if you buy a service contract covering the engine, you automatically get implied warranties on the engine. These may give you protection beyond the scope of the service contract. Make sure you get written confirmation that your service contract is in effect.
If You Have Problems
If you have a problem that you think is covered by a warranty or service contract, follow the instructions to get service. If a dispute arises, try to work it out with the dealer. Talk with the salesperson or, if necessary, the owner of the dealership. Many problems can be resolved at this level. However, if you believe you’re entitled to service, but the dealer disagrees, you have some options:
- If your warranty is backed by a car manufacturer, contact the local representative of the manufacturer. The local or zone representative is authorized to adjust and decide issues of warranty service and repairs to satisfy customers. Some manufacturers also are willing to repair certain problems in specific models for free, even if the manufacturer’s warranty does not cover the problem. Ask the manufacturer’s zone representative or the service department of a franchised dealership that sells your car model whether there is such a policy.
- Contact your state Attorney General or the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. You also might consider using a dispute resolution organization if you and the dealer are willing. Under the terms of many warranties, this may be a required first step before you can sue the dealer or manufacturer. Check your warranty to see if this is the case. If you bought your car from a franchised dealer, you may be able to seek mediation through the Automotive Consumer Action Program (AUTOCAP), a dispute resolution program coordinated nationally by the National Automobile Dealers Association and sponsored through state and local dealer associations in many cities. Check with the dealer association in your area to see if they operate a mediation program.
If none of these steps is successful, small claims court is an option. Here, you can resolve disputes involving small amounts of money, often without an attorney. The clerk of your local small claims court can tell you how to file a suit and the dollar limit in your state.
The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act also may be helpful. Under this federal law, you can sue based on breach of express warranties, implied warranties, or service contracts. If successful, consumers can recover reasonable attorneys’ fees and other court costs. A lawyer can advise you if this law applies.
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