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Auto Service Contracts
Buying a car? You also may be encouraged to buy an auto service contract to help protect against unexpected, costly repairs. While it may sound like a good idea, don't buy in until you understand both the terms of the contract and who is responsible for providing the coverage.
The Auto Service Contract
A service contract is a promise to perform (or pay for) certain repairs or services.
Sometimes called an "extended warranty," a service contract is not a warranty as
defined by federal law. A service contract may be arranged at any time and always costs
extra; a warranty comes with a new car and is included in the original price.
Before deciding whether to buy an auto service contract, ask these questions:
Does the service contract duplicate any warranty coverage?
You may decide to buy a "demonstrator" model a car that has never been sold to a retail customer but has been driven for purposes other than test drives. If so, ask when warranty coverage begins and ends. Does it date from when you purchase the car or when the dealer first put the car into service?
Who backs the service contract?
Many service contracts sold by dealers are handled by independent companies called administrators. Administrators act as claims adjusters, authorizing the payment of claims to any dealers under the contract. If you have a dispute over whether a claim should be paid, deal with the administrator.
If the administrator goes out of business, the dealership still may be obligated to perform under the contract. The reverse also may be true. If the dealer goes out of business, the administrator may be required to fulfill the terms of the contract. Whether you have recourse depends on your contract's terms and/or your state's laws.
Learn about the reputation of the dealer and the administrator. Ask for references and check them out. You also can contact your local or state consumer protection office, state Department of Motor Vehicles, local Better Business Bureau, or local automobile dealers association to find out if they have public information on the firms. Look for the phone numbers and addresses in your telephone directory.
Find out how long the dealer or administrator has been in business, and try to determine whether they have the financial resources to meet their contractual obligations. Individual car dealers or dealer associations may set aside funds or buy insurance to cover future claims. Some independent companies are insured against a sudden rush of claims.
Find out if the auto service contract is underwritten by an insurance company. In some states, this is required. If the contract is backed by an insurance company, contact your State Insurance Commission to ask about the solvency of the company and whether any complaints have been filed.
How much does the auto service contract cost?
In addition to the initial charge, you may need to pay a deductible each time your car is serviced or repaired. Under some service contracts, you pay one charge per visit for repairs no matter how many. Other contracts require a deductible for each unrelated repair.
You also may need to pay transfer or cancellation fees if you sell your car or end the contract. Often, contracts limit the amount paid for towing or related rental car expenses.
What is covered and not covered?
Watch out for absolute exclusions that deny coverage for any reason. For example:
If the engine must be taken apart to diagnose a problem and it is discovered that non-covered parts need to be repaired or replaced, you may have to pay for the labor involved in the tear-down and re-assembling of the engine.
You may not have full protection even for parts that are covered in the contract. Some companies use a "depreciation factor" in calculating coverage: the company may pay only partial repair or replacement costs if they consider your car's mileage.
How are claims handled?
Find out if your car will be covered if it breaks down while you're using it on a trip or if you take it when you move out of town. Some auto service contract companies and dealers offer service only in specific geographical areas.
Find out if you need prior authorization from the contract provider for any repair work or towing services. Be sure to ask:
You may have to pay for covered repairs and then wait for the service company to reimburse you. If the auto service contract doesn't specify how long reimbursement usually takes, ask. Find out who settles claims in case you have a dispute with the service contract provider and need to use a dispute resolution program.
Are new or reconditioned ("like") parts authorized for use in
What are your responsibilities?
Find out if the contract prohibits you from taking the car to an independent station for routine maintenance or performing the work yourself. The contract may specify that the selling dealer is the only authorized facility for servicing the car.
What is the length of the service contract?
If you're told you must purchase an auto service contract to qualify for financing, contact the lender yourself to find out if this is true. Some consumers have had trouble canceling their service contract after discovering the lender didn't require one.
If you decide to buy a service contract through a car dealership and the contract is backed by an administrator and/or a third party make sure the dealer forwards your payment and gives you written confirmation. Some consumers have discovered too late that the dealer failed to forward their payment, leaving them with no coverage months after they signed a contract. Contact your local or state consumer protection office if you have reason to believe that your contract wasn't put into effect as agreed.
In some states, service contract providers are subject to insurance regulations. Find out if this is true in your state. Insurance regulations generally require companies to:
To report contract problems with a service provider, contact your local and state consumer protection agencies, including the state insurance commissioner and state attorney general.
If you need help resolving a dispute, contact the Better Business Bureau, the state attorney general, or the consumer protection office in your area. Also, contact law schools in your area and ask if they have dispute resolution programs.
You also can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Write: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580. Although the FTC generally does not intervene in individual disputes, the information you provide may indicate a pattern of possible law violations requiring action by the Commission.