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Consumer Warranty Basics

A consumer warranty is best described as a guarantee made by the seller of a given product assuring a certain level of quality and reliability. If the product fails to meet these standards (i.e. it breaks or doesn't work as advertised), then the consumer may hold the seller accountable and receive a replacement or have the product fixed free of charge.

Virtually every new product purchase is covered by a warranty, whether it is explained at the time of purchase; offered for a fee as an extended warranty; or implied.

The following information covers the basics of warranties and how consumers can best protect their interests. See "Lemon Law" for information about warranties pertaining to automobile purchases and FindLaw's "Product Warranties and Returns" page for related articles.

Federal Consumer Warranty Regulations

Passed in 1975, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act governs all virtually all consumer product warranties in the U.S. for products costing more than just a few dollars. The law requires retailers that offer written warranties to meet certain standards, such as making it available for consumers to read before purchasing.

While it does not require merchants to offer written warranties, they are required to follow the act as soon as they do offer one. All written warranties must be written plain language (in other words, no "legalese" or otherwise confusing text) and include the following:

  • Name address of company extending the warranty
  • Covered product or parts
  • What the warranty entails: Replacement, repair, or complete refund (and whether the customer must pay for shipping or other costs)
  • The length of time the warranty covers the product from the date of purchase
  • What the warranty does not cover (such as damage caused by improper or illegal use)
  • Information about any dispute resolution procedures that may be necessary in some cases
  • Concise information about the consumer's legal rights

The act does not apply to the following:

  • Oral warranties
  • Warranties on services (unless the warranty covers both the parts needed for a repair and the service)
  • Products sold for resale or commercially (i.e. not for end consumers)

While the act makes it easier for consumers to sue merchants for breach of warranty (a violation of federal law), merchants may—and often do—require customers to attempt resolving the issue by means of arbitration or mediation before filing a lawsuit.

Express Warranties

An express warranty is a statement, either verbal or written, guaranteeing a certain expectation of quality or functionality for a certain period of time. For example, an express warranty may state the following:

Our bicycles are guaranteed to operate as advertised for five years. We will repair or replace your bicycle if any such defects are present within five years of your purchase.

Some express warranties may not even look like warranties at all, but rather specific product claims. For example, a manufacturer's claim that its light bulbs will last a certain number of hours is actually a warranty, legally speaking. If the light bulbs fail to perform as indicated, consumers may seek a replacement or refund.

If the express warranty is written, it is covered by the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. Written warranties must be designated as either "full," meaning there is no time limit and the entire product is covered, or "limited," which is anything less than a full warranty.

Implied Warranties

Virtually all consumer product purchases come with an implied warranty of merchantability, meaning it is guranteed to work as claimed. For example, a cellular phone that is unable to receive calls is in breach of an implied warranty of merchantability since it was not fit for sale. This also applies to used goods, with an implied disclaimer that its merchantability is based on its condition at the time of resale.

Products guaranteed for a specific purpose, beyond what is explicitly intended by the manufacturer, are covered by an implied warranty of fitness. For example, if a shoe salesperson sells you a pair of loafers for running—assuming you've made it clear that you want shoes for running—then your purchase is covered under an implied warranty of fitness.

Retailers sometimes mark items with the words "sold as is" in an effort to void any post-purchase obligations, but this is not allowed in all states.

See FindLaw's "What is an Implied Warranty?" for more detailed information.

Lifetime Warranties

The actual scope of a so-called "lifetime" warranty often is stated in the fine print. Most often, such a warranty covers the product for its lifetime on the market. This means the lifetime warranty ends either at the time the item is discontinued or sometimes a few years beyond that point.

Some lifetime warranties cover the product for as long as you own it, which means the warranty is disclaimed (or voided) the moment it is resold or given away. Look for the word "limited" in front of the words "lifetime warranty," which will be accompanied by language (usually in fine print) explaining its terms.

The Daved SOLO brand umbrella is an example of a product with an "unconditional" lifetime warranty, which means it is covered for the "natural life" of the product. But even though the company will fix and defects in the materials or workmanship, natural wear and tear is not covered.

Voiding a Warranty

Federal and state laws govern disclosure rules for conditions that might invalidate a warranty. Implied warranties may be invalidated by the words "as is" or "with all defects" in some states, while prohibited in others.

Merchants typically invalidate warranties if the claim is made after the warranty expires; if the policy does not cover a particular defect or part; if the product failure is caused by misuse; if the claim is made by someone other than the original owner; and other reasons.

See "What Will Void a Warranty?" for more detailed information.

Second-Hand (Used) Goods

Used goods are covered by implied warranties if the merchant regularly sells similar products, such as a record store that offers used CDs or a vintage clothing store selling used shirts. Private sellers, such as those who sell goods at flea markets or through garage sales, are not bound by implied warranties.

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