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Sears' Rubber Warranty

"I'm sorry, that's our policy," is often company-speak for "Please go away." But as this week's story demonstrates, sometimes the policy you're quoted doesn't even exist.

Back in January 2007, Ronald Sexton of Vesuvius, Va., purchased a set of four tires from the Sears store down the road in Charlottesville. The tires for his 1997 Honda Civic came with a 60,000-mile warranty. After Sears mechanics completed the installation and alignment, Sexton drove away as yet another satisfied Sears customer.

But by May 2008—after only 32,000 miles—the tread depth on two of the tires was down to 1/32 of an inch, not enough rubber to be considered safe. So Sexton returned to Sears and asked the store to honor the warranty by replacing the worn tires—prorating any charges against the current mileage. Sears refused.

"They told me that since my tires had not been rotated every 5,000 miles, my warranty was void," Sexton wrote to "On Your Side." "I called Sears' customer service department and was told the same thing. I was not informed of a 5,000-mile rotation policy when I bought the tires, nor do the warranty papers or sales receipt mention such a policy."

My first call was to the Sears tire center in Charlottesville. Assistant Manager Chad Campbell claimed that the warranty clearly did require that tires be rotated regularly or the warranty would be void. "It's written on the receipt," he told me.

Yet when I asked him to read me the section of the receipt that specifically required tire rotation, he faltered. The closest thing he could find was a phrase dealing with "improper maintenance"—neither tire rotation nor an associated mileage schedule were mentioned. Sexton was right. Sears owed him a new pair of tires.

I'm not saying that it's a bad idea to rotate tires—you'll get a lot more life out of them if you do. But if Sears is going to be that specific about tire maintenance, the company needs to put it in writing.

Confident that Sexton was in the right, my next call was to the company's executive offices. The following afternoon, I received a return call from Rick Sawyer, a 37-year Sears veteran and vice president of its automotive products division. Sawyer admitted that Sears had a problem with the wording of its tire warranty, and he pledged to modify it so that the rotation requirement would be more clearly spelled out. Rather than replace the tires, he agreed to provide Sexton with a $200 Sears gift card as compensation for the trouble he'd been through.

Ronald Sexton's story is an important reminder that when making any agreement with a company—and that's what a warranty is—the words matter. To avoid ending up in the same jam, make sure you do the following:

  • Get everything in writing. Don't trust the handshake or the smile. If there is an important feature or guarantee that is a factor in your purchase decision (for instance, a mileage warranty or a refund policy), make sure that provision is part of the warranty or sales documentation and is not just a salesperson's assurance. Get any written change in the agreement initialed by the store manager, not the salesperson, on both copies, yours and theirs. It's not a guarantee, but it's better than nothing. And so you know what those initials stand for, have the store manager also write his full name on the document.
  • Look out for the catch-all phrase. Sears' tire warranty also mentioned "tire-spinning or other abuse." When reviewing a warranty prior to purchase, be wary of non-specific phrases like "other abuse" and "improper maintenance," which can be manipulated by the unscrupulous to fend off claims. If it's all too vague for you, go elsewhere.