Homeownership has many advantages. It's key to building wealth. That's why for most people, their home is their most valuable asset and represents the majority of their net worth. But owning a home comes with some maintenance costs.
Not only does a home cost a great deal to acquire, but it also costs quite a bit to maintain. Some estimates place the ongoing yearly costs of owning a home at around 5% of its value. For the average home in the US, that works out to over $13,000 per year. There is plenty of uncertainty built into that number. For example, having a major appliance break could add thousands of dollars to that total. And there's no way to know when an unexpected expense will overwhelm your budget.
That's where home warranties come into play.
Home warranties are a popular way for homeowners to try to contain the costs of homeownership and eliminate unexpected expenses. Here's an overview of what they are, how they work, and when they're worth investing in. Let's dive in.
Unlike insurance, it's a service contract designed to cover the cost of the repair or replacement of major household items. In most cases, they cover things like large kitchen appliances and the home's major systems. But home warranties aren't insurance. They only cover costs associated with the normal wear and tear of covered items. So, if, for example, your refrigerator got damaged due to flood – it wouldn't pay to replace it.
That is, in fact, the primary difference between home warranties and a homeowner's insurance policy. The former covers the costs associated with routine maintenance and care for a home's major systems, while a homeowner's insurance policy pays for unexpected damage to property in the home. It protects against losses connected to things like fires, floods, and theft. Together, the two provide comprehensive protection for both the routine and extraordinary costs associated with owning a home.
Although different providers offer warranty plans that cover various items in a home, there are some covered items most of them share. These include:
• Heating / Ductwork
• Hot water systems
• Central or split-unit air conditioning systems
• Ovens, ranges, and cooktops
• Garbage disposal units
• Garage door openers
Depending on the provider, it's often possible to add warranty coverage for other household items like:
• Well pumps
• Septic tanks
• Pool and spa equipment
In most cases, home warranties don't cover the structural components of a home. That means they don't cover things like walls, windows, foundations, and doors. They also won't cover solar panels because they're considered a structural item.
And home warranties also won't cover commercial appliances. That means they don't cover many high-end kitchen items from major brands like Sub-Zero and Thermador. And they also don't cover duplicate items by default. That means homes with a second kitchen would need to purchase additional coverage for all of the items in it – even if they're the same items in their primary kitchen.
But even covered items are subject to certain restrictions, such as a home warranty won't cover pre-existing damage to a covered item. Every item must go through a visual and operational examination before it's eligible for coverage. At that time, a representative of the warranty provider will check for obvious damage to each item and conduct a basic test to see that it's functioning normally.
Even then, most home warranties feature a 30-day waiting period before they go into effect. That way, the company can rule out most undetectable pre-existing problems with covered items. It is designed to prevent a homeowner from purchasing a policy to cover an appliance they know is about to fail.
There are also limits to what home warranties will pay to repair or to replace covered items. Some impose limits on a per-item basis. For example, a policy might specify a maximum of $1,000 for microwave or $3,000 for an HVAC system. Others set a maximum limit that applies to all covered items, which usually represents the maximum replacement cost of the most expensive covered item.
In most cases, home warranties are worth purchasing for anyone buying a secondhand home. This is because it's often impossible to know the true condition of a home's major systems or if they've been put through excessive wear and tear. And because purchasing a home is a significant investment, the last thing a new homeowner would want is a string of unexpected expenses right after they move in.
For the same reason, people selling their homes might purchase coverage to convince would-be buyers that everything in the house is in reasonable working order. Doing so serves as a guarantee to the home's new owners that they're not going to end up paying for the damage done by its previous owners. In that way, homeowners' warranties make an attractive addition to a home that's listed for sale.
The costs of a home warranty are reasonable enough that either party would be well-served by purchasing a policy. The average cost comes in at between $25 and $50 per month, which works out to between $300 and $600 per year. After that, the only other cost is a reasonable service call fee between $75 and $125 when something breaks. So, the first time that a major covered appliance needs replacing, the policy will more than pay for itself.
Buyers of newly-built homes typically don't need home warranty coverage. This is because most homebuilders offer similar coverage for at least a year after a home's completion, and it comes standard with the purchase of the home. Plus, new major appliances come with their own warranties that cover major problems for a year or more after purchase. It wouldn't make sense to purchase coverage until several years into the home's existence in those cases.
Any way you look at it, home warranties are a smart way to manage some of the ongoing costs of homeownership. But they're not for everyone, and anyone buying a policy should do their homework and read all of the fine print before buying coverage. Like insurance, a home warranty can seem costly when you don't end up using it – but it can be a lifesaver when bad luck strikes and multiple appliances break in quick succession.
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