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They Sure Don't Make Things Like They Used To

A Short Primer on Appliances

You know who you are. You're an "appliance whacker." You've whacked the TV for better reception; you've whacked the toaster because either it burned your toast or didn't toast at all. And finally, you've caught yourself saying, "They don't make 'em like they used to." You're not alone, as a few minutes in our Appliances section will demonstrate.

Remember your Grandmother's refrigerator? That comforting round shape in either pink or turquoise, or later avocado green or harvest gold, it ran until the cows came home - you may have even inherited it. In the old days, appliances actually lasted 15-20 years. So what changed?

Globalization of manufacturing, that's what. Over the past 15 or 20 years, appliance sales have been flat. But manufacturing costs have risen. Major manufacturers have realized that people don't care about manufacturing costs; they want a refrigerator or washer and dryer for a good price.

So, forced to cap their retail prices to consumers, they began making a $400 refrigerator out of lower-quality materials. In your Grandmother's day, a $400 refrigerator was the top of the line and LASTED 20 years. Today, despite what the manufacturers say, you can hope for maybe 5-10.

The lower-end machines today are constructed of lower-quality materials than similarly-priced machines 15 years ago. This is directly related to manufacturers buying parts from all over the world - and being unable to control the quality. They'd rather you buy a new appliance every 5-10 years than make one that lasts 20. While this has allowed manufacturers to cap retail prices for low-end machines over the years, it has also contributed to a degradation of quality.

You can still buy high-quality appliances but you'll pay a correspondingly higher price tag for them. As an example, top-end dishwashers go for around $900, washers around $1,100, and dryers for around $600, etc. But if you're considering having your existing machine repaired or replacing it with a low-end machine that is comparable in price with what you paid for your machine 10 to 15 years ago, you're comparing apples to oranges. Even on the labor of the repair. Repair people make more now than NASA scientists. (Had any plumbing done lately? Then you know what I mean).

You have few choices when shopping for a toaster oven or a stainless steel dishwasher - either pay the higher price and enjoy years of trouble-free use, or buy the lower-end model and throw it out the window every five years.

This is the "aggravation factor" and it figures into most appliance purchases. If you pay less for the appliance, then the delivery, installation and haul-away fees for your old appliance don't sting quite as much. And the manufacturers know this - in fact - they count on it.

I know, because I just went through this with my 5-year-old dryer. After trying to troubleshoot the problem myself - hey, I put a roof on my deck, how hard can this be? - I gave up in sweaty frustration and whipped out the Yellow Pages. I called several repair services, and by the time they added up the "come out to diagnose it" fees, possible problems and parts, and the labor to fix it, I said, "Nuts to that" and off I went to the closest home improvement store.

I picked out a similar dryer in my price range and bought it. All I had to do was sit back, sip a latte and wait for the delivery men to take out the "old" dryer and replace and install my new one - problem solved. Or is it? Could I have looked a little harder and tried to diagnose the problem myself, saving me the diagnostic fee? Maybe, but who has the time, let alone the expertise, to do that? Not me.

So how do you know when it's time to repair or replace that appliance?

1. Troubleshoot the problem first. Read your manual. Maybe it came unplugged, or tripped a safety switch or circuit breaker, or has some other simple problem that's easily repaired. Every appliance comes with an owner's manual, most of which have troubleshooting sections.

2. Can't find the answer in the manual? If the manual doesn't answer your questions, most manufacturers have a website. Check it out for repair tips.

3. Is the machine still under warranty? Knowing this can help you decide whether repair or replacement makes more economic sense as you work through the questions in the next step. If the appliance is still under warranty then the problem is covered.

4. Maybe you can repair it yourself. If you know the difference between a channel lock plier and a pipe cutter, you may tackle the job yourself - paying only for parts and donating your time and aggravation.

5. Can't repair it yourself? It might make economic sense to get a repairperson to look at it and get an estimate on repairs; if it's less than the new, sporty model you were looking, and worked fine before this problem, have a it repaired. You'll save in the long run. Usually, the estimate call fee is absorbed if you have the company repair the machine.

Life Expectancy - the Machine, not Yours

Based on data from several consumer and manufacturer sources, here are the typical longevity averages for the mid-to low-end machines given by manufacturers. The second chart is more realistic


Life Expectancy



15-19 years

10 if you're lucky


15-20 years



12-13 years



10-11 years



11-13 years


Clothes Dryer

13-14 years


Room Air Conditioner

7 years


Reasons to Replace

So, with all this information, how do you know whether to repair or replace? The rule of thumb is, if the repair is 50 percent of the cost of a new machine, go shopping. But keep in mind, you are not only going to pay for the machine - you'll have to figure in delivery, hauling the old one away, and installation. But here are some benefits:

• The new model is most likely rated an Energy-Star machine and highly efficient energy efficient. Does the new model have newer technology that you would like?
• Will a new model provide additional features that add convenience and flexibility? Will you use these features?
• Replacement parts may be hard to find. The older the appliance, the harder it is to find the parts. It is even hard to find parts for some newer models.
• Replacement parts are expensive. Consider what the part is costing in comparison with the age of the machine. For example, if you replace a major part in a 7-year-old appliance, remember that all the other parts are still 7 years old.
• Do you simply want a new appliance? If so, can you afford to purchase the appliance without wrecking the budget or going into too much debt (particularly high credit card or retail contract debt)?

Typical Repair Costs

It's not easy to come up with typical repair costs, as labor charges vary widely around the country. I did some digging in my area (North Carolina) and the figures below are what I came up with. The numbers in your area will probably vary, maybe considerably, so shop around before you make a decision.

  • Appliance repair, $45-65 per hour plus parts
  • Install a new dishwasher, $350-$550
  • Install new range/oven combination, $400-$700
  • Install disposal, $125-$175
  • New refrigerator (average), $800-$1300
  • Microwaves, $250-$450
  • Washer/Dryer, $ 50-75 per hr plus parts.

(I laughed at the microwave repair cost, as you can get a great microwave at Walmart, Target or Kmart on sale under $100.)

If I were a repairperson, with my pay based on an hourly basis, I might not work as quickly and efficiently as I should. This is another thing to consider - also, this brings me to the most important part:

How Do I Know It Was Really Fixed?

You have probably seen the TV news' undercover coverage of scams - notably, appliance repair scams. Let me point out a few things if you missed it.

1. NEVER, EVER leave your repairperson alone. Stand over him/her like a parent and ask a LOT of questions. This bugs the tar out of them, but they get it that you are a watchful consumer and someone not to mess with.

2. Get everything in writing if you decide to repair the machine. This includes parts, taxes, the whole ball of wax.

3. Ask if they guarantee their work. For how long? Labor only or parts, too?

4. Be there when they repair it. Ask to see every part they replaced and why it needed replacing. If you have any gut feelings that you're being taken, stop the work and get the company on the phone.

5. Match the replaced part to the estimate. Did they include this part in the estimate? If not, ask why and if they try to wriggle out of an answer, tell them to get the company on the phone - NOW.

I hope this gives you some help when it comes to repairing or replacing major appliances. These are large purchases for most folks, so shop around with repair companies (get at least 3 quotes) and if you decide to buy, shop and ask what additional fees you have to pay.

Oh, one last thing: if you're buying a new appliance, make sure it will fit. Sizes are not as standard as you might think. Measure the space exactly. If your new refrigerator is 1/8 of an inch too wide, it won't fit no matter how hard you shove it.

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