Car buyers spent nearly $31,000 on average for new wheels during the first half of 2012. That's a lot of change for a purchase that also needs routine service. As the odometer inches toward 36,000 miles -- the threshold for most factory warranties according to the F&I Tools website -- a cloud of possible major repairs looms over your wallet. Extended warranties can help your budget cover parts and system failures that occur after the original manufacturer's warranty expires. These maintenance agreements calm vehicle-ownership concerns for some; for others, questions about the extent of their coverage cast doubts on their value.
Extended warranties can be obtained from the manufacturer as part of the vehicle purchase or any time before the original warranty expires, either from the dealer or through the manufacturer's website. According to the Automotive Service Association, extended warranties are actually service contracts because they carry an added cost. As such, they are commonly and more accurately referred to as extended service contracts or extended service plans. Consumer Reports defines non-manufacturer extended service contracts as "prepaid repair contracts" that do not meet the federal law definition of warranty and that few states recognize as insurance agreements.
Expense Control - Pros
Research done in 2011 by industry watchdog J.D. Power and Associates confirmed that reliability ranks first in vehicle purchase concerns. Higher repair costs reflect the increased use of technology in automobiles, vans and trucks. An out-of-warranty breakdown can be a serious financial setback for any owner. Manufacturers and the Vehicle Protection Agency trade association agree that the parts and labor expenses for such a major failure likely would exceed the price paid for an extended service contract.
Expense Control - Cons
However, not all consumers benefit from extended service plans. The number of miles they drive may be so low -- fewer than 1,000 miles per month -- and the length of time between trade-ins so short that the contract cost cannot be justified. Edmunds.com, the recognized auto industry information expert, also advises comparing your experience with out-of-warranty repairs to the contract cost, especially when purchasing the same brand of vehicle. Should your historical outlay of cash for car repairs be lower than the price of an extended service contract, Consumer Reports suggests depositing the money you would have paid for the plan in an interest-bearing account as an emergency cushion.
Provider - Pros
Provider reputation plays an important role in your decision to purchase an extended service plan. Manufacturers recognize the customer relations potential these agreements carry and how they could influence repeat sales. Manufacturer plans have relatively sound financial backing from underwriters with high ratings, according to the credit-rating agency A.M. Best. An original equipment manufacturer extended service plan gives the buyer access to a national dealer network for added convenience. Any dealer can pull up contract information from the company's database, eliminating the need to provide hard copies. Non-OEM providers belonging to the Vehicle Service Agency must adhere to a code of conduct as a membership requirement.
Provider - Cons
Third-party providers might stipulate which dealer must be used and claimants must present their agreement. Often the contract owner has only one choice: the dealer who sold it. Warranty Week's 2010 study indicated that more than 75 percent of VSCs have A.M. Best underwriter ratings of A- or better. However, the St. Louis Better Business Bureau notes that some third-party providers are insured through risk retention groups that cannot resort to state guaranty support when unable to cover claims. In its 2011 study, the BBB cites CNA National Warranty Corp.'s recommendation to know the plan underwriter's rating and status before making a decision.
Coverage - Pros
Extended service plans exist to cater to a range of owner interests. Some, called "wraps," cover non-powertrain components for owners with vehicles that come with 10-year 100,000-mile powertrain warranties. Others focus on the powertrain to complement more limited factory warranties. Benefits such as towing, roadside assistance, rental and trip interruption coverage may be included for additional cost. Tiered options from some providers allow buyers to tailor their contract by coverage, price and deductible. Deductibles may be per covered item or per incident. A waiting period may be imposed.
Coverage - Cons
The Vehicle Protection Agency recommends understanding the contract terms to make sure the contract will cover the repairs you want covered. Wear-and-tear coverage, for instance, excludes limited-life and frequently replaced components such as brake pads, while breakdown coverage will help you only when an included part actually breaks rather than dies. In addition, pre-existing-condition clauses may make a particular plan ill-suited for your needs. To determine whether a claim qualifies, plan administrators may require diagnostic testing, the fees for which may come out of your pocket if not included in your agreement. According to the Automotive Service Association, a common requirement stipulates routine maintenance be performed at mileage points that differ from those recommended in the vehicle owner's manual. Oil changes under an extended service plan, for example, may have to be done more frequently.
One universal advantage of reputable extended service plans: You have no involvement in the paperwork. Dealers prepare and submit the necessary documents; the provider pays them directly. You should be able to cancel any time and qualify for a refund. Consumer Reports notes that cancellation may be easier if the cost was not included in your new-car loan. Your plan will most likely be transferable for a fee to a new owner when you sell your vehicle.
- True Car: Transaction Prices Rise to Highest Levels While Incentives Continue on Downward Trend in March 2012
- F&I Tools: New Car Factory Warranty List
- Automotive Service Association: Consumer Extended Protection Guide
- Consumer Reports: Extended warranties: A High-Priced Gamble
- J.D. Power and Associates: 2011 Vehicle Dependability Study Results
- General Motors Protection Plan: About Service Plans
- St. Louis Better Business Bureau: Vehicle Service Contract Study 2011
- Edmunds.com: Five Questions to Ask Before You Say Yes to an Extended Warranty
- Automotive Service Association: Extended Service Plans Guide; Shop Owners Guidelines for Easier ESP Processing
- Warranty Week: Vehicle Service Contract Administrators
- Vehicle Protection Agency: Standards of Conduct for Vehicle Service Contract Providers
- Vehicle Protection Agency: Vehicle Service Contract Buying Tips and Advice
- Federal Trade Commission: Buying a New Car
Trudy Brunot began writing in 1992. Her work has appeared in "Quarterly," "Pennsylvania Health & You," "Constructor" and the "Tribune-Review" newspaper. Her domestic and international experience includes human resources, advertising, marketing, product and retail management positions. She holds a master's degree in international business administration from the University of South Carolina.