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“They’ve replaced two air conditioners and the hot water heater,” Mr. Smith says. “They never would have allowed me to replace these things for them myself.”

Providing help to senior citizens, especially when their children may live some distance away, is another reason home-service contracts have proved more popular in recent years, Mr. Chartrand says.

Even when the children live nearby, they can’t always help. Technology is a lot more complicated today. Gone are the days when someone could tinker successfully with the water heater or air conditioner.

“There’s a lot more gadgetry,” Mr. McDaniel says. “The repair expenses alone are cost-prohibitive.”

Meanwhile, today’s homeowners move a lot more often than they used to, and they may not know the best handyman or plumber in the neighborhood. With a home-service contract, homeowners can simply call an 800 number, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and get the ball rolling to get the problem fixed.

Home-service contracts often are especially attractive to two-income families, as parents rarely have time to make dinner, much less take apart the dishwasher.

There are a few pitfalls, however, when it comes to home warranties. In the past, unscrupulous and unlicensed companies have taken advantage of homeowners, refusing to fulfill the terms of the contract or fix the problem at hand. Homeowners complained of long wait times and sometimes shoddy workmanship.

A little more than a year ago, Virginia’s insurance regulators imposeda $25,000 fine on one company, National Home Protection Inc. of New York, and cautioned consumers against doing business with it after numerous complaints that the unlicensed company routinely denied customers’ valid claims and arbitrarily canceled contracts.

Service-contract industry executives take pains to point out that such experiences are hardly the rule for most consumers. Instead, they note that waiting times have improved and most companies try hard to be responsive to consumers.

“Everybody is challenged to work with the best contractors,” Mr. Chartrand says, “and it is a pretty competitive market.”

Home-service contracts all have some limitations. They typically do not cover pre-existing conditions or cases in which items fail because of a situation other than normal wear and tear. (That’s where homeowner’s insurance should kick in.) They won’t cover appliances already broken. Items not listed in the contract and items that were improperly installed or modified in some way also may not be covered.

“It’s got some flaws, but for the most part, it comes through,” Mr. Smith says. “Companies have gotten a lot better at listening to customers.”

In the end, many find that the comfort that comes with knowing they have a home warranty to protect them when something fails is worth the cost of the contract.

That definitely was the case for Lisa Santucci, who bought her first home - and first home warranty - in Florida when she was still single.

“I had a little toolbox ,and that was about it,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘What if something should happen?’ “

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