Repair, Restore, Rejoice: Making the Most of Home Appliances

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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Tim
Tim
11 years ago

know when it is time not to repair

Eric J. Nisall
Eric J. Nisall
11 years ago

Personally, I think having 22 year old appliances is being cheap. Not in the sense that anyone should go out and buy a brand new stainless steel kitchen, but in the sense that the innovations that have occurred in that time frame have improved the longevity as well as the quality of the appliances. With all of those improvements the long-term cost savings due to efficiency and energy-star compliance should more than recoup the up-front costs. As far as not buying the extended warranty, I would much rather see a reason why as opposed to a general statement. Many stores… Read more »

Rebekah
Rebekah
8 years ago
Reply to  Eric J. Nisall

My parents bought a house in 1978 w/ harvest gold appliances. The Fridigaire Custom Imperial electric double oven w/ cooktop still works today! Though my mom has renovated other rooms in the house, she refuses to get rid of her gold castiron sink & stove that still works.

I myself just bought a house and had to have Habitat for Humanity come in and de-millifiy it! I have gladly donated every stainless steel applicance & granite countertop.

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

I must say, after reading review sites, I’m inclined to hang onto my range for as long as it works, rather than spend $1200 every three years or so. Now if I could only find appliance touch-up paint in avocado.

mimms
mimms
11 years ago

Well, I for one am driven insane by this phenomenon, and I’m glad someone else notices it too! Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with upgrading an appliance if there’s some great new feature you want. I just hate being forced to run out and buy a new stove, etc., after a handful of years because some cheap plastic part snapped and no one sells it as an individual item – it’s a waste of time for those of us who just want to cook a decent meal at home. Planned obsolescence of major appliances is not safe, it’s… Read more »

Diatryma
Diatryma
11 years ago

A proud moment: my laser printer stopped pulling in pages properly. I looked up possible problems and found that usually it’s a tire inside, a little semitriangular rubber dude that gets old and crackety. Having not used the printer a lot– seven years old and still on its first toner– I was not about to spend another hundred dollars because mine was a paperweight. Stupid Brain Trick: “It’s not a printer. It’s a paperweight. If it were a printer, it would work. I can’t make it more broken.” Then I took the thing apart (some newspaper, three screwdrivers, rubber cement,… Read more »

Steven
Steven
11 years ago

Our neighbor mentioned a service he bought into that “insured” his appliances. For a monthly fee, which didn’t sound like much, but then again is one of those pesky recurring payments, the company would cover parts and labor on anything from the Furnace to the Refrigerator. He said he has used it twice so far and has actually paid for itself. Have you ever heard of a service like this and been able to compare the cost vs. practicality of it? I hate the quality of appliances these days … My parents still have their original Washer/Dryer from 30+ years… Read more »

Jason
Jason
11 years ago

We utilize Consumer Reports to find appliances that will hold up well. Generally they aren’t the hyper-expensive prestige brands (yes, Thermador, Wolf and Viking, I mean you), but the “boring” ones like Kenmore, GE, etc. And many of the “boring” ones can be purchased in configurations that look pretty much like the expensive ones. Also, many places will perform free estimates for an appliance, or will allow you to apply the cost of a service call to see what’s wrong as a credit on a new model if the fix is too expensive to undertake. I’ll also mention that Sears… Read more »

Tom
Tom
11 years ago

In addition to keeping your user manuals, keep your receipts. Some items for your household have very long warranties. The good brands of faucets, for instance, have lifetime warranties. Over the past couple of years I’ve had some issues with my faucets. The kitchen faucet started to leak. A simple call explaining the problem got me the cartridge and o-rings in a couple of weeks. To buy the parts would have cost around $40-$50, to buy a replacement faucet would have been a couple hundred. While I was reading the warranty info for the faucet, I noticed that there was… Read more »

Rachel
Rachel
11 years ago

What a timely topic. I bought a used DVD player off of Craigslist over the weekend. It kept skipping and freezing. So last night I took it apart and pushed in every single one of the “fuses” and cleaned the lens. Works perfectly now! I am so proud!

Steph
Steph
11 years ago

Shameless plug for donating older, functional appliances: For those of you who upgrade, remember your local homeless shelter. When we bought our house we owned an electric dryer but our new house was not wired for 220. We tried to donate the dryer to Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the like but no one wanted it. When we called the homeless shelter they got us in touch with people they had recently helped house and were both appreciative and accomodating for getting it. Perseverence isn’t just for the disservice reps, it also can help avoid the landfill.

Jane
Jane
11 years ago

Frankly I’m extremely impressed with the longevity of US appliances. I moved here from Europe where appliances cost the same as here but only last 5-6yrs! Here in the US, my house is 18yrs old and still has the original kitchen appliances. Pretty good going, I think, although I admit, times are changing.

The Personal Finance Playbook
The Personal Finance Playbook
11 years ago

Consumer reports is the absolute best resource if you need to buy new appliances. I read it for everything.

We recently accidently put a “lock” on our GE oven and spent hours trying to get it off (you hold 9 and 0 simultaneously for 3 seconds). I wish we had kept the manual. At that point I was ready to break it free from the wall and throw it out in the yard.

Carmen
Carmen
11 years ago

I was very frustrated when my plastic handle broke off our built-in microwave (which otherwise worked perfectly well). I was ready to just get a new one and replace it. My husband took a piece of scrap wood, painted it white to match and screwed it in place. Good as new – even a little nicer. Our DVD player completely stopped working. Again I was ready to go out and just buy another. My husband and I took it apart, cleaned out all the dust, and put it back together again. Now it works great! Our lesson learned – sometimes… Read more »

Tom
Tom
11 years ago

“Just buy an $8 quick-heat coil pot”

A what? Is that American for kettle?

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

When Betsy submitted this post nearly two months ago, it really struck a chord with me. Kris and I live with a lot of old appliances. In our first house, we inherited an electric range from 1975 (making it 18 years old). The heating element burned out within the first month. I removed it, took it to the appliance store, and asked if they sold new ones. They did. I replaced it, and we made do for a couple of more years. Eventually we installed a new range. At the same house, our garbage disposal from 1975 (so about 25… Read more »

Faculties
Faculties
11 years ago

Some appliances will last nearly forever. I am still using the Sunbeam toaster that my parents got as a wedding present in 1946. When my mother died, I shipped it out to my house 2000 miles away. When it arrived, it wasn’t working, so I took it to the local appliance repair shop. The repair guy and I talked about how sad it is that most people don’t realize how long old appliances last. He has a waffle iron from 1923! Anyway, when I got back home I had a message waiting for me: “Your toaster is working — we… Read more »

Dustin Brown
Dustin Brown
11 years ago

I’m betting two years, one day, and not a minute more. It’s Murphy’s Law.

Tree
Tree
11 years ago

My wife and I have learned a technique to combat both the repeated purchasing of crap, and the needless waste of time and money researching and buying top-end stuff all the time: We buy the first one cheap. Hammers to food processors, etc. we make our *uninformed* purchase be a cheap purchase. For most things, the cheap thing we buy either gets used so rarely that it lasts forever, or we use it enough that when it breaks, we know *exactly* what we want in a replacement. Only at that point, when we have personal experience with what we like… Read more »

BPT - MoneyChangesThings
BPT - MoneyChangesThings
11 years ago

A few answers. There are debates about extended warranties, but mostly I’ve read they rarely pay for themselves. If others have good arguments for buying them, go ahead and share! – A coil-pot is a plug in hot-water pot which looks like a coffee pot. It heats water WAY faster than a stove burner, so I presume it is a much more efficient way to produce hot water. They cost under $10 and seem to last and last. You don’t make the tea or coffee in them, since there’s a heating coil inside. The point about upgrading appliances to take… Read more »

Sam
Sam
11 years ago

For small appliances I use the second tier pricing rule. I find the second cheapest tier and buy a very simple model from that tier. They tend to last the longest.

Sandpine
Sandpine
11 years ago

Great post!

One thing to add, if it uses water, it shouldn’t have electronics. Dishwashers and washing machines – stick with actual push buttons (real switches that click) and rotary selector controls.

mcara
mcara
11 years ago

You can often get the replacement parts at an appliance parts supply place. Look around in your area to find one for future repair needs. We keep our appliances until they: cost too much to repair, the repair is beyond our ability, or the breakdown is the same every year and the cost in two years would pay for a new one. In this way we’re only on our 2nd washer, dryer, fridge and oven in 50 years of living in our house. Not bad. If you can’t stand the color of your perfectly good but old appliance you can… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
11 years ago

For those who are wondering about the coil pot, it’s also called an electric kettle and can heat water very quickly. I’d also advise anyone purchasing a new appliance to know how it is repaired and install it in such a way as to make the repair easy. The thermostat on our oven broke. Not only did we have to pay for the repair to the oven, but we had to pay to repair our kitchen after pulling the oven out. The oven was flat against the outside wall. We had to tear out the floor molding and part of… Read more »

TeresaA
TeresaA
11 years ago

Try this site: http://www.repairclinic.com We have used this several times. We have fixed both our dryer and our stove. This site will help you determine what is wrong with your appliance, tell you what part you need and give you instructions for repairs. You order the part right from the same site. They even have one on one support. If you are feeling apprehensive about doing your own appliance repairs, let me tell you this: repair people are not rocket scientists. They are no more intelligent than you or I. My husband is not mechanically inclined AT ALL. Yet, he… Read more »

RBB
RBB
11 years ago

I disagree with the notion to not buy extended warranties. I can give two great examples where they have paid off greatly to my benefit. I would say that if you buy a top of the line machine with new features that you may want to look at getting the extended warranty because the new features may not be proven to work or hold up over time.

Susy
Susy
11 years ago

This is one reason to buy a Staber washer & dryer, they make simple energy efficient products that can be serviced by the owner. They even have a hotline to call and they’ll tell you what part you need, send it to you and tell you how to fix it! How’s that for a long-lived appliance! We’ve also found that if you search around on the internet you can find a way to fix almost anything. Our dishwasher which was purchased 7 years ago has broken down twice. Since it was a high-end dishwasher we didn’t want to spend money… Read more »

TeresaA
TeresaA
11 years ago

By the way, I was not slighting repair people at all, so I hope it did not come across that way. They are capable intelligent people!!!! I am just saying, that equipped with the same knowledge, most of us can do the same repairs ourselves.

However, if you are short on “common sense” I would not reccommend do it yourself repairs. If unplugging your appliance before working on it does not naturally occur to you, please leave the repairs to the professionals!

: )

Ricky
Ricky
11 years ago

I agree, if you can repair something makes much more sense to do that than go out and buy a new one other than the convenience factor. we had an issue with our TV, we had a nice 52″ RCA projection TV, one day the sparks were flying from the back of it and it turned off and as soon as you would try and turn it on it would spark, I took it apart and found it was the transformer that had gone bad, I called around and no one serviced those TV’s and the ones that did wanted… Read more »

mike
mike
11 years ago

Would you be happy with yet another crappy item manufactured and shipped from anywhere other than China?

TeresaA
TeresaA
11 years ago

A word about appliance warranties: Many times the parts are covered, but not the labor! Unless your refrigerator needs a new condensor or soemthing like that, guess what tends to be the most expensive part of appliance repair? The labor. (The same is true for home remodeling. We replaced our sink, a counter top, a few cabinets, some old leaky water lines and the faucet. The parts were around $800.00. The labor they wanted was over $2000.00.) Our hot water tank was under warranty through Sears. They charged us $60.00 just to come out and verify that it was broken.… Read more »

Ian
Ian
11 years ago

I recall a wonderful article I read during the 2001 recession stating that the recession was partly due to all the fancy appliances like computers and cell phones not actually working! Whether or not that’s true, it makes one wonder when confronted with frustrating breakdowns.

Renter
Renter
11 years ago

We don’t own a house and sometimes end up in apartments where the landlord leaves you on your own for all repairs. I have found that Sears appliance service (it’s a bit hard to find, but it is on their website somewhere) is cheaper than hiring a plumber or handyman (unless you know a nice local one – unlikely if you move almost every year or two), plus you can schedule it online. You can use it for almost anything too, you don’t need to be covered by a Sears warranty or buy one – even ancient dishwashers of indeterminate… Read more »

Kai Jones
Kai Jones
11 years ago

We’re fortunate to have an appliance *parts* store within a mile of our house. I’ve driven by it for years but only recently needed a replacement part for my dishwasher. The new part is completely redesigned to eliminate the problem that made the first part fail! Another good thing about newer appliances: they’re often redesigned so that common old failure modes are impossible. And if you’ve had a repair person tell you it’s not worth repairing, ask them what to look for in a new appliance. When my electric dryer broke past fixing, the repair person told me what to… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

My philosophy of simplicity comes into play here. “Instant hot water heater”? What? My tea kettle may not be quite “instant”, but I’ve never had one fail on me. And you know, when I bought it no one even offered me an extended warranty, and it didn’t come with a manual, so I didn’t have to worry about where to store that. Heck, it didn’t even come in a box. It was a steel kettle with a price sticker on it. The natural gas that my stove burns in order to heat the kettle may produce some small amount of… Read more »

Jules @ Lovely Las Vegas
Jules @ Lovely Las Vegas
11 years ago

I’m a stovetop tea kettle kind of girl (it’s a daily therapeutic ritual), but my husband loves his hot water pot… so for people interested in those, I think Zojirushi is a pretty good brand. He’s had the same hot pot for years and years, even before we were married. No problems with it. So if someone else does like that convenience, maybe consider that brand.

Great article by the way. Very good points to keep in mind.

Happiness Is Better
Happiness Is Better
11 years ago

If people are OK with 22 old appliances, great. It’s good to see that people are actually hanging onto items that still work as opposed to buying the next latest and greatest.

I don’t agree with buying a warranty either, but I agree with a previous person that commented and mentioned that they would like to see proof. I know that on NPR Planet money (podcast), they mention how on some items a warranty is definitely not a good idea, but on other, more expensive items, the decision gets into a gray area.

Great article Betsy!

Sheherazahde
Sheherazahde
11 years ago

The Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ Theory Of Socio-Economic Injustice. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Vimes#Vimes.27_Boots “Early in his career, while he is still a nearly-impoverished Watchman, Vimes reflects that he can only afford ten-dollar boots with thin soles which don’t keep out the damp and wear out in a season or two. A pair of good boots, which cost fifty dollars, would last for years and years – which means that over the long run, the man with cheap boots has spent much more money and still has wet feet. This thought leads to the general realization that one of the reasons rich people remain rich… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

The economics of extended warranties are simple. An extended warranty is essentially insurance. Like any other insurance company, the warranty company has to charge more for the warranties than they pay out in repairs or replacements on warrantied items, otherwise they wont be profitable, and they will go out of business.

What this means is that the average amount of money you’ll get back from your warranty is less than the amount you paid for it, with the difference going towards keeping the warranty company running and their employees paid.

S
S
11 years ago

Find a great second hand appliance shop! I bought my ceramic top stove, washer, and dryer from a 2nd hand shop that also services appliances.

One tip for the dryer — get the dryer vent cleaned out once a year.

Thankful
Thankful
11 years ago

We just had a round of annoying problems with our furnace, which is less than 7 years old. Ultimately, it looked like the previous owners weren’t that great with maintenance, but every repair person discussed how crappy HVAC appliances are made these days.

Our garbage disposal has started just started leaking, so we’re going to attempt to fix/replace it ourselves. JD, you mentioned replacing yours–please share any resources you might have!

Bill in NC
Bill in NC
11 years ago

My preference is for older appliances. They are usually better made than new ones (e.g. ovens have more insulation – better temperature stability) If you can easily swap parts, it is worth repairing yourself (ebay has many parts suppliers) Some brands are easier to work on than others. I’ve had no problems fixing my Whirlpool washer, dryer, and fridge myself by swapping parts. But I paid a repairperson $250 to replace the microwave cooling fan in my GE all-in-one microwave/oven/range. Because that repair required moving the unit off the wall to access the rear of the unit and almost complete… Read more »

Bether
Bether
11 years ago

The locally owned appliance shop near us (Standard TV & Appliance, for those Portlanders playing along at home) has a refurbish department. When our Craigslist dryer died, we went there. Our dryer now is an early 1990s model from there, refurbished and shiny, for about $150. TOTALLY worth it. We returned when our 2nd Craigslist washing machine died. The timer broke, even Ebay didn’t reveal a replacement that was cheaper than the whole thing had cost us initially. This time, we investigated Standard’s scratch & dent department and wound up with a fantastic, brand-new washing machine. So: look for refurbished… Read more »

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

Everyone complains about how things break, but have you thought of how expensive it would be if it were built to last? Mass manufactured electronic and plastic parts have us spending fewer dollars as a percentage of income, but the tradeoff is in longevity. Plus in a consumerism culture how many people are itching for a new “X” after 5-8 years anyway?

There are industry standards for how long an item needs to last. They directly correlate to the length of warranty. It’s all in the numbers. It’s always a trade off.

Brigid
Brigid
11 years ago

We are remodeling our kitchen and had a big debate about whether to replace our stove, a Frigidaire Custom Imperial that was installed in about 1970. It’s 40″ wide, and the cabinets were built around it so it would be perfectly centered, so getting a stove of a different size would mean tearing out and replacing a perfectly good set of cabinets. Frigidaire and GE both make a 40″ stove that’s clearly the latter-day version of mine, but after long debate we decided to keep the old one. It has two good-size side-by-side ovens, where the new stove has a… Read more »

Forty2
Forty2
11 years ago

My parents bought their house in 1971 with hideous “Harvest Gold” GE built-ins and a Kenmore fridge. The GE dishwasher cacked it a few years later and was replaced with a Kitchen Aid one. The Kenmore washer and dryer replaced an ancient, enormous Kenmore washer/dryer combo unit around 1976 or so.

It’s all still running fine, if not with best efficiently. These were not high-end models then, but they were obvs built to last, because that’s pretty much how things used to be made in the US.

Vishwas
Vishwas
11 years ago

I am from India where the first thing we do when equipment stop working is to look for such spares immediately. They are available in plenty and are extremely cheap. For example, a gas stove knob may cost around 1-2c while a burnt out motor of a washing machine may cost something like 20-40$ (depending on the machine). We never buy the “full” equipment from the manufacturer as it seems illogical to do so when a small and simple part is the culprit. I find it very strange that people ‘throw away’ so much equipment here in the US while… Read more »

Todd
Todd
11 years ago

I’ve fixed numerous appliances (gas range ignitors, microwave doors, oven control panels, etc.) and have always had great luck getting parts from these guys:
http://www.appliancepartspros.com

Once you have the parts, the actual fixing part is often pretty easy.

Nicki
Nicki
11 years ago

My parents were meant to be married on 22 Nov 63 but for obvious reasons got married the next day. My mother still has the washer that they were given as a wedding present and it is still going strong (the dryer broke a few years ago and had to be replaced). They were also given a toaster which has been taken all over the world (she works for the State Department) and used with power converters. My last washer pooped out after 8 years. There is no doubt that manufacturing standards have fallen.

Mark
Mark
11 years ago

I bought my Maytag clothes washer and dryer about 6 years ago. With a family of 5 they get a lot of heavy use. Using common tools, parts from a local appliance parts store, and applianceaid.com, I was able to repair the water pump on my washing machine for about $50 and the belt on my dryer for about $25. I imagine that it would have cost considerably more to have an appliance repairman perform the work.

15 Minutes to Riches!
15 Minutes to Riches!
11 years ago

I’m a huge advocate of becoming your own handyman. It’s saved me tons of money.

See my recent experience of and subsequent reflection on replacing my own garbage disposal:

http://www.15minutestoriches.com/2009/01/10/garbage-disposals-and-money-in-my-pocket/

Thanks!

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