FTC, Where Art Thou?: Appliance Manufacturers Routinely Invalidate Warranties if Customers Use Third-Party Repair Services

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Appliance repair is on my mind at the moment.

Why?

The dishwasher at our winter rental beach hideaway, where my husband and I have sequestered ourselves to avoid the pandemic, died last Friday.

Leaving us to do the dishes.

I know, I know, a first world problem. And a task I’ve done before, and no doubt will do many times again.

We didn’t have a dishwasher in the flat we lived in for three years while my husband and I were both doing post-graduate studies in Oxford. Ditto for the over-priced Harvard University flat we lived in during three years of law school. Nor did I in the cabin in the woods where I lived during five winters spent as a ski bum in Whistler, BC.

And long before any of these, my parents only acquired a dishwasher sometime during my middle school years, but it really didn’t make a dent in the dirty dishes our family of seven generated and which I, as the eldest, was charged with cleaning up. Our machine was temperamental, and  couldn’t handle pots or other heavily soiled items; even dinner plates needed to be more or less spic and span before they went into the dishwasher.

So, the last week of sudsing up has unleashed a flood of many memories. Like many others, I’ve been doing lots of cooking and baking while sequestered, and I’ve come to rely on the dishwasher. Which is suddenly not there.

So, with this as context, I was particularly receptive to yesterday’s press release from U.S .PIRG’s Nathan Proctor, the campaign director for their right to repair efforts. enclosing an updated survey US PIRG’s Education Fund has conducted of the repair policies of major appliance manufacturers,  Warranties in the VOID II.

Over to that report:

When you buy a new appliance, you have an expectation that it will work, at least for a few years. But sometimes, it breaks down quickly. So you call up the manufacturer to see about getting it fixed under your warranty. Sometimes they fix it, but other times they refuse. Sometimes their remedy takes so long you are forced to find another way to fix the product — or you might just give up and buy a new one.

In 2018, U.S. PIRG conducted a  study, Warranties in the Void, in which it found that most U.S appliance manufacturers claimed their warranties would be voided if consumers availed themselves of independent third-party repair services or self-repair. This despite Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines affirming, according to U.S. PIRG’s latest report:

[g]enerally, the [Magnuson- Moss Warranty Act (MMWA)] prohibits warrantors from conditioning warranties on the consumer’s use of a replacement product or repair service identified by brand or name,”

(Jerri-Lynn here: The full report discusses some exceptions to this provision.)

Nonetheless, the 2018 report found that 45 of 50 manufacturers surveyed asserted a right to void warrantees in these conditions – despite the statutory prohibition- GOING SO FAR AS placING stickers on some products making this claim. The FTC that year warned six companies that placing stickers saying the “warranty would be void if removed” on their products is prohibited by existing warranty laws,  according to yesterday’s U.S. PIRG press release.

Now, as a result of the pandemic, the use of repair services has surged. Again, as per the most recent U.S. PIRG report:

“[g]enerally, the [Magnuson- Moss Warranty Act (MMWA)] prohibits warrantors from conditioning warranties on the consumer’s use of a replacement product or repair service identified by brand or name,” with some exceptions explored later in this report1.

So what’s the current state of play?

Alas, U.S. PIRG’s follow-up study found that virtually all appliance manufacturers continue to insist that use of third-party repair services invalidates their warranties:

Unfortunately, in our survey, conducted in the fall of 2020, we found that all of the 43 companies we surveyed indicated that warranty would be voided due to independent repair. These companies either had clauses in warranties which claimed repair would void coverage, or their warranties were unclear and their customer service representatives, when asked, stated that independent repair would void the warranty.

So, allow me to summarize and repeat: This state of affairs continues, despite that making a valid warranty dependent on forbidding independent repair is generally understood to be a violation of Magnuson-Moss.

I won’t get into praising the details of the U.S. PIRG report in this short post. Interested readers may do that themselves, by looking at the full report, to which I have linked above. Nor will I do more than mention how such putative warranty restrictions contribute to the waste crisis, by forcing consumers to jettison products that might otherwise be repaired.

I merely ask the simple question: where is the FTC on this issue?

Biden has tried to beef up that agency, by, for example, nominating antitrust expert and Big Tech critic Lina Khan to fill an empty commissioner’s chair.

As with so many other U.S. legal issues, the problem here isn’t the law itself.

The issue is enforcing it.

As we wait for states to enact right to repair laws – or not, with an Oregon measure yesterday once again dying in committee – the FTC could independently buttress right to repair efforts by tellingto manufacturers that making these spurious claims about voided warranties is simply not on.

So I ask again: FTC, where art thou?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

17 comments

  1. responseTwo

    Unfettered capitalism run by the people with the most money – this is expected.

  2. Carolinian

    Of course the best solution is for items like refrigerators (a friend has just gone through a couple) not to break in the first place. The heavy use of electronics in cars may be controversial, but it is defensible given the complicated demands of pollution and mileage laws. However there’s surely no reason for a simple device like a refrigerator to depend on an electronic board for operation. And refrigerators are expensive. For the makers to then quibble over warranties is indeed too much.

  3. William Hunter Duncan

    I recently bought an Amana dryer from Warners Stallion, a local retail outlet. After 45 days it simply stopped working. WS tells me the warranty is limited, and I might have to pay something to fix it. Three days later I am still waiting on a call so I can SCHEDULE an appointment.

    I am inclined to return the dryer and smash it at their front door. Of course that will do nothing to cure the 10 year planned obsolence that has turned into 3 year or less trash out the door pathology to serve executive assumptions about their divine status.

    Of course I assume this is too based on debt based currency and beliefs bordering on the religious about eternal growth?

    1. Onihikage

      I should be surprised your retail outlet won’t let you return an appliance that should last 10 years but broke in less than 2 months, but I’m not. At any rate, you can very likely fix it yourself. Dryers are surprisingly simple on the inside.

      The magical phrase for many home appliances is “service manual”. Type your dryer’s brand and model number with the words service manual into a web search engine like Google, and you’ll probably find its service manual, though don’t worry if you see the same model number with a different brand, a given appliance model can be sold under multiple brands yet be identical.

      Service Manuals are typically an instructional how-to guide, originally intended for their own repair technicians to use to diagnose and fix issues, but anyone with the ability to follow instructions and go a little bit outside of their comfort zone can use it to the same effect.

      Failing that, there might be a YouTube video where someone already took it apart (or a similar appliance) and recorded the process in full HD. I’ve taken apart and repaired a dryer in the past, and there’s a surprising amount of empty space on the inside. The belt around the drum can be a bit annoying to finagle with, but you might not need to go that far depending on how yours is assembled and what the problem is (in my case a bearing loudly shredded itself over the course of months, so I suspected what I was getting into).

      These machines are assembled by human beings; with a diagram showing you how to get it apart, most machines can be disassembled almost completely in less than an hour, even by a novice with basic tools that most people should have around. A repair could be as simple as unscrewing a side panel and replacing a fuse, taking 5 minutes. Just read the whole process before you start, take photos every step of the way, keep track of which screws were removed and in what order (a strip of tape is something everyone has available for this) and between the photos and the manual, you can at minimum find out what’s broken, and once you do that, you can find the part number to order it yourself from a third-party supplier and leave a one-star review on that dryer on every storefront that sells it.

      You can even reply to me here with questions, if you’re so inclined. I have no qualms about turning this comments thread into an appliance repair thread. Death to planned obsolescence!

      1. Basil Pesto

        I should be surprised your retail outlet won’t let you return an appliance that should last 10 years but broke in less than 2 months, but I’m not.

        Are there any consumer protection laws to this effect in any US states? In Australia the retailer would have to accept it – even, the customer can argue, beyond the manufacturer’s given warranty period if there’s an expectation that the device should last longer than the stipulated period.

        (edit: one would try to resolve such a dispute ultimately in the equivalent of a small claims court, discussed below by Maritimer. I have also had the experience of the threat of such being enough to spur – in my case – the manufacturer into action.

  4. Dorian Tatem

    A popular tech youtuber, Louis Rossman has taken it upon himself to tackle the right to repair issue. His take is that it applies not only to consumer electronics, but the whole spectrum of purchased goods, from cars to appliances to laptops and phones, etc. I’ll let him put it best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWIF3ZRpf0I

  5. Louis Fyne

    no big surprise as the entire UShome appliance industry is captured by a few names: Whirlpool (almost all of the traditional US domestic brands you may know), Samsung, LG, Haier who know owns the GE Appliance brand, Frigidaire (Electrolux).

    ironically? the high-end luxury appliance market ($10,000+ refrigerators, etc) has more competition: Subzero, Viking, Thermador/Bosch, and many other smaller German, Asian, US brands.

    i guess that it’s a feature and not a bug.

  6. skk

    I do support the Right To Repair movement in this context – and with all the “how to repair” videos on youtube, it IS possible ( if you were brought up poor and had to repair or do without so have the attitude towards it). Just recently, I replaced the ‘non-replaceable’ batteries in my smart-phone and tablet -total of $25 for 2 batteries versus over $600 for new items I suppose – 4 years old and now good for 2 or so years more. I’m not averse to replace/buy new for better features – only if they are better enough features(for me ) though.

    Your memories of hand-washing dishes brought back memories for sure. We have a dishwasher but my spouse/wife hand-washes the dishes, rather than use the dishwasher for the last 7 or 8 years – says its therapeutic. Hmmm, I have my doubts but who am I to argue or to second-guess the psychology of this all ?

  7. Onihikage

    Planned obsolescence makes me sick. Corporations have learned over the last 100+ years that making products that don’t break down (or can be fixed when they do) is bad for business, and started rigging things in reverse, engineering products to fail quickly enough that people constantly have to buy new ones, but not so quickly as to damage the brand, all while fighting against the consumer’s right to have their stuff repaired. It’s abhorrent, it’s evil, and it’s holding back human progress.

    Seconding Dorian’s comment, Louis Rossmann is doing good work in this field, and he’s trying very hard to get a ballot initiative passed to strengthen Right to Repair – and ballot initiatives are expensive! His GoFundMe for that initiative continues to grow.

  8. Maritimer

    Maybe try Small Claims Court. Most companies don’t like a beef to go there because it costs them time and money to defend. In most SCCs, costs are never assessed to either side. So you get a free kick. I’ve been to SCC two times in different jurisdictions and won both times. If more people went to SCC, these corps and businesses would behave better.

    On another occasion where a Honda dealer refused to honor a warranty, I wrote them by registered letter that I was going to sue in SCC. They settled the problem to my satisfaction.

  9. Sue inSoCal

    I’m finding most warranties aren’t worth much. And it seems to be getting worse. I’ve got three examples of how crazy this gets: I had one of the first front load low E washers that was a mess. I called Samsung (it was 3 years old) and I was advised that it was an “old” washer by their standards. I bought a plug-in electric broom because I put two Swiffer vacuums in a landfill within a couple of years.

    Finally, I had to replace a pricey swimming pool pump because the digital face on it failed. That warranty? Two years. (One if you install it yourself.) It was 5 years old. I later found (on YouTube) that the digital face is very easy to repair! Planned obsolescence is the name of the game, indeed. (And that’s not including tech “we won’t service or provide updates” unless you buy a new laptop/phone/etc.)

  10. jackiebass

    I had a bad experience with a GE washer. At 9 months It quit working. I did what I used to do. I called the local store I bought it from to see who did their repair work.It surprised me to find out I had to call GE on an 800 number to get it repaired. I found out companies contract with repair services for warranty repairs. They set me up with a repair appointment in 3 days.The repair person came and analyzed the problem.He said he had to order parts and set me up with another appointment in 7 days. The parts came in 2 days, so I called the repair service to see if I could get a quicker appointment. They said they were busy and couldn’t reschedule. That made me very angry so I called GE customer service to see if they could help. They gave me the run around and said they couldn’t help. As a consolation they offered me $25.I told them what they could do with the $25 and hung up. The repair guy came and fixed the washer. He showed me the bill, which was more than I paid for the washer. 10 days to get a repair done seems like way too long.In 6 months the washer quit working again. Since it was off warranty, I decided to not repair it and buy a new washer. I chose the GE because CR gave it a top rating.That was the second time I was mislead by a CR rating. The other time it was a new car purchase. In doing my research I found out that Speed Queen has a 7 year factory warranty. I asked the store that sold Spreed Queen about their reliability experience with Speed Queen. Their response was they has very few problems with the brand. I bought the Speed Queen and after 4 years I am still very satisfied with the washer. Appliances are engineered to have a short. life span. As an example , refrigerators used to have a 5 year warranty. Now it is 1 year. You actually have to buy commercial grade appliances to have them last longer. Too many consumer products are manufactured to not last very long so they can sell you a new product.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I wonder what the lifespan of the brands of washers that are used in coin-laundromats is. I wonder if they are a whole other spectrum of brands. I wonder if the “mere retail civilian” would be permitted to buy one of them.

    2. Alexis

      Commercial quality is where it’s at. You can buy rebuilt laundrymat machines in most big cities. With ever higher prices and zero interest on savings, the inititial high price is worth it.
      Example, no endorsement:
      https://www.bdslaundry.com/equipment-categories/

      How we handled a recent problem with a fairly new fridge–
      “If you don’t fix this I’m going to park my van in front of your store, over the three day weekend, while your big sale is on. It will be converted into a billboard outlining the problem with the refrigerator I recently bought from you and my claim that your products and warranty service are junk.”

      Sales manager; “I don’t believe you!”

      “14,500+ cars per day drive by your store.I checked.”

      “We’ll send someone out tomorrow, is that good enough?”
      “Yup”

  11. Jeff

    Buy the least expensive appliance that’s the right size and style you want and then buy the longest warranty you can. Buy the warranty through the mfg or the retailer as 3rd party warranties are trash.

    Buy appliances through a regional appliance store. I’ve found you’ll not only get someone on the phone to talk with who is local if there is trouble, but they can leverage their relationship with vendor reps to help you.

    Lastly, avoid Samsung appliances. It’s known they are poorly designed and the company doesn’t take responsibility for their engineering mistakes.

    I’ve owned 3 refrigerators and 2 dishwashers in the last 5 years. I’ve learned a lot.

  12. Sue inSoCal

    Thanks Jeff. Stuck with this Samsung washer and dryer for now. (And thanks Jackie Bass for the Speed Queen info. That’s a great warranty.)

Comments are closed.