Creative Consumer: Time to Fix or Trash Your Appliances?

I got some new appliances for my kitchen this week. Woo hoo! When we bought our house a couple of years ago, one of the less-than-appealing aspects was the collection of 1980s-era kitchen appliances. They were ugly and didn't work well either. But the darn things just would not fail altogether. So I kept wondering, should I take them to the repair shop or the junkyard?

I finally got my act together to research a reputable appliance repair firm, and when I told the company my address, I got lucky. Turns out the previous owner had also used this company and I was able to find out that they had worked on the oven multiple times. That was all the excuse I needed. And then I needed a dishwasher and microwave to match, right?

Whether to fix it or trash it is a tough call. The first step is to check your warranty. Many household appliances have long-term manufacturer's warranties. Next, get an estimate. If the repair cost is 50 percent or more of the price of replacement, you should scrap it.

If the repair cost is 50 percent or less, ask yourself some questions. What kind of shape is the appliance in? If it's already been fixed several times like my oven, it may not be worth another overhaul. Do newer models offer vastly improved features? For example, new refrigerators use less energy than old ones. You may be able to recoup part of the cost of replacement that way.

Consider whether the appliance is unique. If it fits into an odd space or it's an unusual color, it may be too expensive and difficult to replace. Finally, figure out how old the appliance is. Over the years, experts have figured out the average life of most household appliances.

Air conditioners: 8 to 15 years

Dishwashers: 5 to 12 years

Disposals: 5 to 12 years

Dryers: 8 to 12 years

Freezers: 15 to 20 years

Furnaces: 8 to 12 years

Heat pumps: 8 to 12 years

Refrigerators: 15 to 20 years

Stoves: 15 to 20 years

Washers: 8 to 12 years

Water heaters: 8 to 12 years

Don't just open up the phone book and get an estimate from the company with the biggest ad. Ask friends and family for referrals and check out the companies with the better business bureau and your county or state consumer protection office. Keep in mind, in some states, appliance repair companies have to be licensed. If you don't have a solid referral, plan on getting more than one repair estimate on expensive appliances.

When you call for an appointment, be ready with the make and model number of the appliance. That way you can make sure the company services that brand and that the technician is prepared to bring the proper tools. Ask whether the company charges for estimates. Most companies waive that fee if you go ahead with the repair work. Find out the charge for the first half hour of work and see if there's a minimum repair charge.

When the technician comes to your home, ask for a written estimate. That estimate should list all parts needed, plus labor charges. Some states require the technician to get your permission if the price is going to rise more than 10 percent above the written estimate. Find out if the company offers a warranty and get it in writing. Typically, repair companies guarantee their labor for 30 days, parts for 90 days.

Once you choose a repair company, alert the technician up front that you are going to want your old parts back. This is a good test to make sure the technician really does replace those parts. Keep in mind, the technician cannot give you your old parts if they contain hazardous materials or if the manufacturer requires their return in exchange for warranty service.

Don't pay big bucks up front. Established companies should not ask you for any money at the beginning of the job. Certainly don't pay more than ten or twenty percent. When the job is complete, pay by check or credit card. It's hard to fight the charges if you pay cash. If the company has misdiagnosed your machine, it should send a technician back at no charge. However, if the new repair requires different parts, you may get some money back or owe some more.

If you take small appliances or electronics to a repair store, get a claim check before you leave your belongings behind. And pick your items up in a timely manner to avoid storage fees.

Beware of situations where appliance repair companies approach you. An air conditioning company called William B. and offered to tune up his AC unit for $34.95. Once the technicians got in the door, they claimed William's air conditioner needed much more than a tune-up. They persuaded him to pay $259 for all sorts of services he probably didn't need at all. Unfortunately, upselling like this is common.

Be the hunter, not the hunted. Don't do business with companies that come to you out of the blue. Beware of companies that call and claim to be subsidiaries or affiliates of the company you usually use. And don't panic if one of these companies tells you your appliance is a hazard. That's an age-old ploy. Stop using the appliance and get a second opinion.

To Be a Savvy Consumer

Figure out if the appliance is under warranty. If so, contact an authorized repair facility and the fix should be free.

Check out appliance repair companies with the BBB and your state and county consumer protection agencies. Also check to see if they are properly licensed, if applicable.

Get an itemized written estimate and a written warranty.

Apply the 50 percent test to decide whether to repair or replace the appliance.

Don't do business with appliance repair companies that contact you until you check them out.

Where to Complain

If you have difficulty with an appliance repair company, contact your county and state consumer protection offices plus the Better Business Bureau. If the company must be licensed, complain to the state agency that licensed that industry.