What is a home warranty?

A home warranty is often a feature in the sale of a home.  In that scenario, the seller typically pays a few hundred dollars for a one-year warranty covering the home's major fixtures such as the furnace, water heater and kitchen appliances.  This gives the buyer some protection during that first year of ownership  knowing that if something major breaks down it will be covered.  Many homeowners choose to continue paying an annual premium rather than risk bearing the full replacement cost of a major item.

Although technically not insurance, warranties are very similar in that the homeowner is paying an up-front fee to protect against a potentially huge replacement cost.  If nothing breaks during the coverage period, the customer may in hindsight feel the fee was a waste of money, but that's what managing risk is all about.  Are you financially prepared to replace major components as they are needed, or would you rather pay a set amount per year whether something breaks or not?

One important difference between insurance and a warranty is that the homeowner must go through the warranty company to arrange for service, and this can be another point where a customer might be dissatisfied.  Home warranty companies establish relationships with service providers in the areas for which they provide coverage.  So whether customers are satisfied with the warranty company depends in large part on whether they are satisfied with the repairmen whom the warranty company has hired.

Even though home warranties aren't considered insurance, the companies that sell them are typically regulated by each state's department of insurance. According to the Service Contract Industry Council, 32 states require home warranty companies to register or obtain a license with that state's department of insurance. This state agency is responsible for licensing the entity, examines the company for compliance of applicable laws regarding home warranty services and monitors the financial condition of the company for the protection of their clients.

What does a home warranty include?

Most home warranty companies offer a variety of plans, each providing different levels of coverage, so be sure to read the details of any contract before buying. Even if you choose to renew the contract from year-to-year, double-check the details of your plan because coverage can change annually. Here is a general idea of what a homeowner can expect to find in each tier of service:

Basic coverage: Plumbing systems, Range/oven, Dishwasher, Garbage disposal, Exhaust fans, Sump pump, Water heater, Ceiling fans, Heating and electrical system components, Built-in microwave, Whirlpool tub

Enhanced coverage: A/C, Washer/dryer, Refrigerator, Garage door opener

Optional coverage: Pool, Spa, Well pump, Septic system, Standalone freezer, Central vacuum

Pay attention to the scope of coverage in your home warranty. Know what the policy will and will not cover. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member John P.)

When do you need a home warranty?

New construction

Many states require that all home builders and contractors warranty their work on a newly constructed home.

This provides the homeowner with the assurance that should any major defects or repairs become necessary within its new home for various time periods up to ten years following construction that is not the fault of damage or negligence by the homeowner then the repairs or replacements necessary will be covered.

The workmanship of the home construction, materials used and performance of major systems such as the plumbing, electrical and HVAC are all covered under these types of home warranty services. This includes the overall integrity of the structure. Each state monitors the specific requirements in these situations.

Pre-existing home purchase

When buying a pre-existing home, buyers can choose to purchase home warranty coverage. This will provide them with coverage against for repair or replacement costs that they may incur with existing mechanical systems or appliances in their new home within a specific time frame following the purchase date. Major mechanical systems that are covered include plumbing, electrical, heating and air.

Home sellers include a warranty

Homeowners that are trying to sell their homes may want to consider the benefits of offering a home warranty on their home. The seller can choose to pay for the home warranty coverage on his or her own or ask that the buyer pay for a specified portion of the cost.

By including a home warranty option on their home, homeowners can get the maximum selling price for their home, be relieved of further obligations should repairs or replacements become necessary after the final purchase is completed, and interest buyers in a tough market.

Home warranties can be purchased through independent home warranty companies of the seller or buyer’s choice or through the real estate agent that will handle the paperwork with the home warranty company for the parties.

How much do home warranties cost?

The average cost of a basic coverage plan ranges from $350 to $500 a year, with the cost of an enhanced plan adding $100 to $300. Prices reflect not only coverage, but also a company's loss history, which is determined by how often an item breaks down and the cost to repair it.

Some home warranty companies offer additional coverage for certain items, such as a well pump or pool, for an extra fee. Regardless of the type of plan, homeowners typically pay an additional service fee ranging from $50 to $75 for each repair job.

The majority of home mortgage companies have a set price for their basic home warranty plans that they offer. The type of housing such as townhouse, condominium, single-family residential, duplex or apartment often determines the set cost of the home warranty coverage.

While detached garages are generally covered under the basic home warranty plans that are offered, most separate buildings on the premises are not. Extended home warranty plans are available at additional costs for these building structures.

Costs for home warranty plans are paid upfront before the coverage goes into effect. Some companies offer their clients the ability to make payments on their home warranty plans if it helps to secure the sale or they have a long standing with the client.

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