This is a guest post from Betsy Teutsch, who blogs about sustainable living and socially-responsible investing at Money Changes Things.

As any homeowner can attest, appliance longevity is diminishing. For technophiles, the breakdown of electronics can be welcomed as an excuse to upgrade to a cheaper, faster gizmo. But constant breakdowns of household appliances frustrate harried homeowners, since it’s frequently impossible or extremely inconvenient to repair them, or so expensive as to be dis-economic.

Having lived in the same home, which we equipped with all-new appliances 22 years ago, I can attest to the culprits. We’re on our third refrigerator, second stovetop, third dishwasher, third toaster, and maybe sixth (or seventh or eighth — I’ve lost count) instant hot-water dispenser.

Our dryer, microwave and wall-oven are the sole survivors. The dryer is somewhat of an exception, since we air-dry the bulk of our clothes, towels, and sheets and just run them through the dryer for ten minutes or so to soften them, so it gets off easier than in most households.

My advice to householders making appliance decisions is:

  • Avoid fancier, excess features which make appliances more complicated (and expensive).
  • Keep your manuals and the sales info someplace where you can find them, and also record this info electronically if you’ve switched to storing things in cyberspace.
  • Do not purchase extended warranties (but make sure the appliance has a reasonable one up front).
  • Avoid the temptation to buy cheap small appliances. I have a friend who, after her third bargain blender broke, realized it would have been less time-consuming to buy a better quality product from the get-go.
  • Be persistent about attempting repairs.

About ten years ago, the plastic knobs on our island stovetop began to break, one by one. To my astonishment — and outrage — there was no way to replace these simple parts. Down from four burners to only two functioning, we ran out of possible solutions and replaced the whole damn thing, costing $1000 or so, including installation. The company spokesperson was entirely unsympathetic when I indignantly complained the stove was just 12 years old. “That’s actually pretty good — the industry standard is 5-7 years!”

Fast forward: the internet has provided a great way to research your appliance’s problem and read up on solutions, or at least vent along with other annoyed consumers.

When the knob on our under-sink “toe heater” went missing, I recalled the fiasco with the stove knobs. Armed with my ancient manual, I tracked down the company, which was still in business in South Carolina. Here’s where persistence is required. In response to their “Tough bounce, lady — no longer available” email, I called and grilled Customer Service Guy. (My husband has dubbed these folks “customer disservice representatives”.)

There are two tricks to this:

  1. Finding an actual person to talk to (try the Gethuman Database)
  2. Asking the right questions to elicit actual help

When I asked if they manufacture the knobs or buy them from a supplier, Bingo! He passed along the number of their knob supplier. That company was wonderful; their business model includes servicing harried householders crazy to replace appliance knobs. For a $10 charge, the correct knob was quickly dispatched and works perfectly. No more turning the dial shaft with a screw driver and risking it breaking off completely!

Point to ponder: If it’s a choice between paying for a fairly expensive repair and replacing an appliance, it’s a gamble. I generally go with the repair, since I like the idea of paying for a person’s labor and conserving the unit, as opposed to buying yet another crappy item manufactured and shipped from China.

As for instant hot-water dispensers — my nominee for the most fragile appliance ever invented — do not bother. Just buy an $8 quick-heat coil pot. If you, like us, are suckers for the tap-delivered near-boiling water, buy the highest quality product you can find, with a multi-year warranty included. It will pay for itself remarkably quickly.

Our last one started leaking after a year, but — aha! Its three-year warranty covers free house calls. I contacted the local rep at 8:30 AM, and by 10:00 in the morning was the surprised owner of a new unit, installed. From an environmental standpoint, I hate this. But as frugal home manager, I was pleased. The new unit has two years left on the old warranty. Want to take bets?

For more on this subject, check out:

What about you? What’s your experience with major appliances? Do you have recommendations for appliance repairs that are practical and easy to do yourself? For which appliances is it most important to pay up-front for quality?

Previously at Get Rich Slowly, Betsy has shared The pros and cons of working from home, Wedding registries: A love-hate relationship, and Why we shop: Getting a grip on consumerism.

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