Last updated December 2020
You bought something that broke, or that never worked right. Here are strategies for how to get a refund, free repair, or replacement.
When you buy a computer, stove, ceiling fan, or futuristic robot vacuum, you expect that it’ll do its job for a reasonable amount of time. So it’s frustrating when a badly made part, design flaw, or other problem turns what first seemed like the perfect purchase into a headache or waste of money.
Perhaps your new TV goes kaput a few weeks after you purchased it. (You didn’t even finish bingeing that Netflix docuseries about the woman who runs the lizard farm!) Even if the hunk of junk is still under warranty, you’ll have to contact the manufacturer and arrange for repairs—if the problem is covered at all.
Or maybe your refrigerator stops cooling a month after the warranty expires and needed repairs will cost hundreds of dollars. It seems like such an expensive purchase should chill for longer than that.
Many consumers who buy defective merchandise hear the same thing from retailers and manufacturers: “Too bad, you’ll have to pay for a fix or buy something else.” But because consumer protection laws entitle you to receive defect-free products, you have many paths to satisfaction—whether you’re dealing with a troublesome manufacturer’s warranty or even no warranty at all.
Try to Return It
Check the retailer’s return policy; it might provide for a refund or replacement. Click here for advice on how to get happy returns.
Manufacturers that offer warranties urge buyers to contact them to arrange for a repair or replacement, rather than returning items to stores.
It might be worth contacting the manufacturer initially, just to make sure you’re using the product correctly. But if the problem truly is a defect, it’s best to return the item for a refund or exchange—if the retailer allows it and you’re still in the return period. After all, it has your money; if you want a refund, that’s who will provide one.
Even if the return period has expired, it’s reasonable to expect a retailer to stand behind products it sells. Under implied warranty laws, you have the right to defect-free merchandise regardless of any restrictions imposed by a store’s return policy. In the U.S., by law any purchase includes an implied warranty—that items you buy are defect-free and will remain so for a reasonable amount of time. Below, we discuss implied warranties, and how they can protect you from on-the-blink buys.
Your Warranty Rights
If the store has a no-returns policy, or if its return time period has expired, your next step is to explore your warranty rights.
A warranty is an assurance from a retailer, manufacturer, or both that a product is reasonably free of significant defects. There are two primary types: express warranty and implied warranty of merchantability.
Most consumers are familiar with express warranties, which are offered by manufacturers and, sometimes, stores; we discuss them in the next section, below.
But most consumers are unaware of their rights under the implied warranty of merchantability, which is legally mandated automatic protection from defective merchandise from sellers in the U.S. If you buy something that’s defective, and it didn’t come with a warranty or its warranty has expired, you might obtain satisfaction by arguing that it was covered by an implied warranty.
Many new products—especially big-ticket items—include manufacturers’ warranties, which are promises to address defects. Sometimes, when you buy used merchandise, you get similar warranties from retailers. These “express warranties” generally don’t cover normal wear and tear and are often nullified if products are used improperly or aren’t maintained as prescribed.
Companies aren’t required to provide express warranties. But once they commit to one in writing, the warranty must comply with the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which among other things governs how warranties must be presented.
The law distinguishes between two types of express warranties: full and limited.
Under a now-rare full warranty, a company must fully stand behind the product for the entire warranty period, even if you sell it or give it to someone else. The provider can’t impose a charge to make things right, including forcing the customer to pay to ship the item back to the manufacturer; and a customer cannot be required to do anything as a condition for receiving service, such as returning a warranty registration card, unless the requirement is reasonable. Unlike a limited warranty, a full warranty must cover both parts and the labor to install them. Finally, after a reasonable number of repair attempts, the customer must be permitted to choose between a full refund or replacement.
Far more common limited warranties contain one or several clauses that reduce buyers’ rights to seek redress—or are nullified if certain conditions aren’t met.
All warranties typically have time limits. But even if a warranty has expired, you’re still likely covered for any unresolved problem you reported while the warranty still was in effect, said Carolyn Carter, deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center.
She also counseled to remember that some products are covered by more than one express warranty. For example, a new car may come with separate coverage for the drivetrain, battery, and tires. And an RV might have separate warranties on the appliances, electronics, generator, or chassis.
Then there are “lifetime limited warranties.” You might think that means your lifetime. That sometimes is the case, but more often it refers to the product’s lifetime, which of course is open to interpretation. Often a “lifetime” period expires when the model is discontinued or replacement parts are no longer available. Also, as with any limited warranty, a lifetime warranty doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a completely free repair or replacement product. For instance, the warranty may cover only parts, not labor costs.
TIP: With a limited warranty, the manufacturer or seller can require you to do certain things to keep the coverage in effect, such as returning a warranty registration card or performing maintenance tasks. So read the warranty carefully.
Implied Warranty of Merchantability
Just by selling a product, under laws of every state and the District of Columbia, a retailer, and sometimes the manufacturer, warrants that there’s nothing significantly wrong with it. In other words, in the U.S., if you buy something and it has a significant defect or it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do for a reasonable length of time, the seller must offer a remedy, even if any return period or manufacturer’s warranty has expired, or it didn’t supply an express warranty at all.
Implied warranties apply to new and sometimes used items, but only those purchased from sellers who normally deal in such merchandise, not to private sales from, say, a random dude on eBay.
As we’ve already discussed, if you notice a defect in something you recently purchased, your best option usually is to return it immediately to the retailer. Getting the seller to issue a refund or exchange is almost always more convenient than filing a claim under any manufacturer’s express warranty. If the retailer balks—and you paid with a credit card—consider disputing the charge.
An implied warranty can apply not only to defects you discover soon after making a purchase, but also to those that become apparent later. If an item fails in an unreasonably short period of time, it may be a sign of an inherent defect. Obviously, the case is easier to make if other consumers are experiencing the same problem. What constitutes a “reasonable time period” to discover defects varies according to the type of product; four years is usually the maximum.
In most states, a retailer or manufacturer can wriggle its way out of implied warranty legal requirements by prominently disclosing a product is being sold “as is,” i.e., with all faults or without any warranties. That’s something you’ll rarely encounter when buying at brick-and-mortar locations of large retailers, but it’s a common caveat in the fine print of the terms of purchase when buying online. Manufacturers usually include it as a disclaimer in their warranty terms.
Even so, state laws protect you when you buy from sellers located in Alabama, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia, which prohibit as-is sales on most merchandise. Unfortunately, Illinois has no laws preventing revocation of implied warranties on most merchandise.
And nowhere can a company disclaim the implied warranty during the period in which its written warranty or service contract is in effect, which means you may have broader protection than either provide. Even if a written warranty or service contract applies only to a single part, such as a refrigerator compressor, the implied warranty likely covers the entire product, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Unfortunately, if you’re dealing with an unresponsive seller, you might have to sue to enforce your implied warranty rights. But, hopefully, by knowing your rights, you can more effectively press your case for a free repair, replacement, or refund.
Numerous consumers tell us they’ve convinced manufacturers and retailers—initially unwilling to provide satisfaction—to address apparent defects by arguing that the implied warranty should cover repair or replacement of an item.
For example, after some prodding, Samsung recently agreed to make a free in-home repair when I reported spooky circles suddenly appeared on my TV screen about a year after its 12-month warranty had expired. I argued that two years was an unreasonably short period for such a serious problem, mentioned the implied warranty, and cited message board postings from other Samsung TV owners experiencing the same issue, which suggested a design or manufacturing defect.
In another case, a Walmart manager—balking when I asked the store to replace a cordless phone system that died after the retailer’s return period—relented when I explained my implied warranty right to a properly working phone, return policy notwithstanding.
Of course, when a retailer or manufacturer gives in, it’s hard to know what did the trick: mentioning an implied warranty, complaining effectively, or something else. But the bigger your bag of tricks, the better.
Other Paths to Satisfaction
Payment protection plans and extended warranties.
If the product is covered under a payment protection plan or extended warranty, try filing a claim with the company that administers the policy.
We’re not at all fans of paying for these mini insurance policies, which are pushed by many retailers. While highly profitable for stores and the insurance companies that back them, they’re usually bad deals for consumers.
For most products that come with written manufacturers’ warranties, you can usually get a free extension elsewhere. Many credit card companies automatically provide extended warranties when you purchase stuff using their cards.
“People forget about that extra-year benefit their credit card may offer,” said Edgar Dworsky, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who now runs the fantastic advocacy website Consumer World.
Costco similarly provides free extended warranties of one or two years for most products it sells.
When buying, if a retailer doesn’t offer a free warranty extension, and if you care about getting one (we don’t think it matters much), make sure the credit card you use offers the benefit. Some issuers have changed or eliminated these types of perks. For example, in early 2018 Discover dropped its warranty benefit.
TIP: Keep receipts. If you later need to make a warranty claim with a retailer, manufacturer, or credit card company, you’ll be required to produce one, as well as any original warranty documentation.
Check for safety recalls.
You might be entitled to a replacement, free repair, or refund due to a safety recall, even if the manufacturer’s warranty expired several years ago. For example, I know one homeowner who got a free fix for her Maytag refrigerator, which had stopped cooling after several years of service. A call to the manufacturer revealed a recall due to a faulty relay, the source of the problem, meaning she was owed a free repair.
You can search for recalls on most products using the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website; for vehicles, tires, car seats, and other auto-related equipment search NHTSA's website.
At both sites, you can also report dangerous items. If a defective product—no matter how old—has caused serious injury or damage, contact an attorney. The National Association of Consumer Advocates, an association of attorneys who specialize in representing consumers, lists its members on its website.
Put the squeeze on lemons.
All states have lemon laws, which specify what constitutes a defective product for certain types of merchandise and buyers’ legal remedies.
These laws most commonly cover new-car purchases, providing certain relief for buyers who have had repeated problems. Usually buyers can declare their new cars are defective if a serious problem hasn’t been successfully repaired within three or four attempts, or if the vehicle is out of service for a total of 30 days within a certain period or number of miles—for example, two years or 18,000 miles.
Lemon laws in at least six states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York—also apply to used-car sales.
If you think you bought a lemon but the company doesn’t agree or can’t (or refuses to) remedy the problem, file a complaint with its state’s lemon law arbitration panel. (In some jurisdictions, these panels are run by state governments; in others, by private organizations.) Or threaten to sue. “There are a lot of lemon law attorneys out there that will give people advice,” said Rosemary Shahan, president of the California-based Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. Once an attorney is involved, she said, complaints are usually settled quickly.
If a store or manufacturer isn’t eager to make things right, make sure the company’s owner or manager knows you are dissatisfied. Even if the employees you dealt with know you’re unhappy, that information might not reach someone who has the authority—and cares enough about customer service—to put things right.
Click here for our advice on how to complain effectively. A key is to clearly state the facts as you view them, why you feel entitled to relief, and how the company can make amends. Complain in a firm but nonthreatening manner. No one responds well to hostility. And remind the company that you’re a loyal customer who might continue to buy and recommend its products.
For help finding contact info for companies, check with the nonprofit consumer group Elliott Advocacy, which maintains a list.
Provide your receipt, repair diagnosis, previous correspondence, and any other supporting evidence to back up your complaint. Search the web to see if others are having the same issue, which may indicate a design or manufacturing defect.
Still no favorable resolution? Complain again. Unfortunately, with some companies you might have to fight (politely!) through several layers of staff to reach a resolution.
Request a credit card chargeback.
We often advise our readers to pay using a credit card. When you pay with one, it automatically conveys incredibly strong protections against most lousy-service scenarios and companies that sell faulty goods. If you can't resolve a dispute with a business, try disputing the transaction with your credit card company, requesting “chargeback.” The credit card company will then investigate and reverse the charge, if it rules in your favor.
Keep in mind that if your credit card company issues a chargeback it doesn’t mean the seller has no rights against you. The seller can still try to get payment by billing you directly and then sending your case to collections if you don’t pay up, or by suing you.
Still stuck? File a formal complaint or sue.
Submit a complaint to the FTC or a local government complaint-handling agency. In our article on how to complain effectively, we list local resources. Use usa.gov/state-consumer to find contact info for agencies locally and nationwide.
Unfortunately, if all else fails, you may have to sue the retailer or manufacturer, or at least threaten to. Fortunately, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act provides for attorney’s fees and legal costs, said Dee Pridgen, professor of law emeritus at the University of Wyoming and an expert on consumer protection. (But, of course, to get them you’d have to win a judgment.)
The National Association of Consumer Advocates, an association of attorneys who specialize in representing consumers, lists members on its website.
Still, Pridgen said, express warranties often have fine print designed to limit your rights, such as requiring you to submit to binding arbitration. Consulting a consumer attorney may help you decide how to proceed, even if you’re considering suing in small claims court—which is probably the best route if the product costs less than $5,000 and you bought from a locally based retailer. For a small fee, an attorney may be willing to write a letter on your behalf, which may be enough to shake some satisfaction out of the seller.