Have you ever had a problem with your car, searched online and found dozens of other people with the same problem?
It’s not unusual for the same complaints to be made time and again about certain makes or models. From bad transmissions to peeling paint, some vehicles seem destined to have certain problems.
Having a legion of owners with the same defect actually can be a good thing. If enough consumers make noise, a manufacturer may unleash a secret warranty that allows you to get the vehicle repaired for free.
What are secret warranties?
Secret warranties may go by different names, including:
- Customer service campaign
- Program service action
- Warranty adjustment
Whatever the name, they all work in essentially the same way. When a manufacturer realizes there’s a known issue with one of its vehicles, it quietly tells dealerships to fix the problem for free if a customer complains.
You may have to do some digging to find if a program exists. And even when you do find the bread crumbs leading to a secret warranty, you may find it’s not applied evenly to all customers.
Dealerships might not know about these secret warranties, or, if they do, they might not volunteer the information. So, unless you know about it, you can end up paying full price for repairs.
How to find a secret warranty
When a manufacturer knows there is a concern with a particular vehicle, it typically sends out a technical service bulletin to its dealerships. In some cases, these bulletins state that a warranty adjustment is being made to cover the cost of repairs.
Other times, the bulletin simply tells a dealer about the problem without indicating that the repairs will be covered by the manufacturer.
According to the Center for Auto Safety, five states require that owners be notified directly anytime a manufacturer adjusts the terms of the warranty:
Of course, if you’re not the original owner of the vehicle, the manufacturer may have no way of contacting you. In that case, you need to search for the technical service bulletins, just like everyone else.
You can find technical service bulletins on the government website Safercar.gov. Click on the link to search for recalls, but don’t look for recalls. Look for the “Service Bulletins” tab that comes up after you search for recalls on your vehicle.
Safecar.gov also allows you to search for service bulletins directly.
Once you find the service bulletins, scroll through them to see if any match the problem you’re having with your vehicle. If you find a match, check to see if the bulletin has an associated document.
If so, click on that, and you may be able to pull up a letter from the manufacturer to dealerships explaining that the repair work should be done free. Then, it’s as simple as printing that letter and taking it with you to an authorized dealer to cash in on the secret warranty.
If there are no associated documents on the website, you may need to pay a fee to have them researched and sent to you. Or you may be able to call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236 for more information.
It’s a warranty, not a recall
Secret warranties are similar to recalls in that they both pay for car repairs.
However, recalls address safety issues, and everyone with a vehicle subject to a recall can and should get their vehicle repaired ASAP. Recall work is done regardless of the vehicle’s age and mileage.
On the other hand, secret warranties apply to nonsafety concerns and are generally only available to those experiencing the problems. In other words, if your vehicle has a secret warranty available for peeling paint but your car looks fine, you can’t demand a new paint job.
These warranties may also have time and mileage limits attached to them. For example, a warranty adjustment may only apply to vehicles less than 10 years old, or with fewer than 150,000 miles.
If it’s not free, try for a discount
As a final note, not every technical service bulletin will include a secret warranty. But even one that doesn’t could lead to a discount. The mere fact a bulletin exists means the manufacturer knows there’s a problem. Go to the dealership and ask for a discount on the repairs.
If that doesn’t work, move higher up the food chain by contacting the manufacturer directly. Do the same if a dealership fails to honor a clearly expressed warranty adjustment posted in a technical service bulletin.
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