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Are Computer Warranties Rip-Offs?

Q: I'm getting set to buy a new computer, and I'm wondering whether I should purchase an extended warranty. I've heard they're pretty much rip-offs, but I'm scared to death that my machine'll go kablooey at an inopportune moment. Thoughts?

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you can do without. Electronics salespeople are scare-tactic masters when it comes to pushing warranties, but when you do the math and factor in the runaround should something go amiss, the extra coverage is usually a sucker's bet. Better to take that few hundred bucks and stash it in an interest-bearing "rainy day" fund, in the unlikely event that a processor or motherboard dies on you.

Show the above paragraph to the folks at the local computer shop, of course, and they'll swear that Mr. Roboto's out of his freaking gourd, and that you're playing with fire if you dare go warranty-less. A piece of info they won't share is that warranties are vital to their bottom line; at Best Buy, for example, extended warranties account for about 40 percent of their operating profit. Hence the pushiness of those "retail associates" when it comes to selling you on the coverage, which costs 10 to 30 percent of the purchase price.

According to venerable Consumer Reports (ConsumerReports.org), the average PC warranty will run you an extra $145, while the average PC repair costs $200. Now consider that only 39 percent of computers will require hardware maintenance during their first three years (the standard warranty period), and that a lion's share of those fixes won't be covered. If your problem can be traced back to an inadvertently spilled tumbler of Bushmills, or a chew-happy shar-pei, forget about a freebie repair. Doesn't take a rocket scientist, then, to calculate that buying a warranty is akin to wagering $145 on Mr. Roboto's beloved Clippers to win the 2006 NBA crown.

It's a slightly different story if you're buying a laptop, as they tend be more sickly and more expensive to repair. Still, don't be suckered into purchasing a warranty that'll do you little good when digital tragedy strikes. The warranties sold by many retailers are actually outsourced contracts with third-party repair services, often located in distant states. In the event of a catastrophe, you may be required to ship your laptop to the boonies—at your expense, naturally—and wait months for its return.

When Mr. Roboto was a naive little robotlet, he was duped into buying such a repair contract. "Sure, it's a manufacturer's warranty," cooed the proprietor of "Kwik-E-Computers." (Name has been changed to prevent physical retaliation—that proprietor was a 'roid monster.) He also talked up the deal by referring to it as an "international warranty," implying that service centers were up-and-running from Zanzibar to Timbuktu.

Imagine Mr. Roboto's chagrin, then, when the $125 contract arrived via mail a few weeks later. To obtain service, the laptop would have to be shipped to a New Jersey warehouse, postage paid, along with a $35 check for "handling." It also excluded work on batteries (a frequent source of problems) and expansion boards. Oh, and there was a clause noting that "consequential damages" weren't covered, either. The potential warehouse dialogue is easy to imagine: "Hey, Zeke, this dead processor's gonna cost an arm and a leg to fix." "Just say it was 'consequential damage' and ship 'er back, Laird! Ha ha ha ha! Stupid New Yorker."

That's not to imply that every service contractor is a crook. But at a bare minimum, make sure the contract includes a "no lemon" policy, whereby they'll replace the whole unit if it's a true dud. Free postage and factory-authorized technicians should also be part of the deal. And it wouldn't hurt to make sure the warranty's backed by a reputable insurance carrier.

Probably the smartest route is just to pay with a credit card that automatically doubles the manufacturer's warranty. Call the nice folks who handle your MasterCard or Visa and see if you qualify. Yeah, they're Delaware-loving fat cats who make your life a living hell with all those hidden fees and whatnot. But when smoke's rising from your PC, you'll be glad they're in charge of getting your computer fixed, rather than a pair of ex-VCR technicians in South Dakota.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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