The New York Times has an article about why consumers buy extended warranties for electronic products and other appliances, especially since we rarely have enough information at the moment of sale to make an informed decision. Here are three things to watch out for the next time you’re buying some fun electronic device.
Know the failure rate of the product you’re buying.
The best way to establish the actual value of an extended warranty is to know the failure rate of the product; then you can make a better guess about whether it’s financially acceptable to you. For instance, the warranty website SquareTrade estimates failure rates for Wii consoles at 2.7% over 3 years, and they sell their Wii warranty for $30.
To a perfectly rational person, that insurance is worth exactly 2.7 percent of $200, or $5.40. But it can be worth more to someone who fears financial loss of the product or the inconvenience of repairs.
Finding failure rates can be difficult, though. Here’s a list of generic failure rates from data released in 2006, or you can sometimes find info by Googling the name of the item + “failure rate.” You might also want to find out beforehand how responsive the manufacturer is with defective products—Nintendo, for example, has a pretty good reputation when it comes to fixing devices that break through no fault of the owner.
If you’re buying something that gives you pleasure, put off any decision about a warranty for a week or two.
The NYT article cites some research by psychologists that indicates consumers who are buying products that make them happier tend to buy more extended warranties. You might think this is because they tend to break down more, but you’d be wrong—with the exception of the Xbox 360, which I believe has a failure rate of somewhere around 11,000%, it’s household appliances like washers and dryers that break down more frequently. And yet, fewer customers buy those extended warranties, and pay less for them when they do.
If you get a good deal on something, don’t even consider an extended warranty at the time of purchase.
Because you’ll be so high on the fact that you got a good deal, you’ll fall right into the trap described above of being more risk-averse than normal, and hence more likely to throw away your savings at the register on an overpriced extended warranty.