When to Repair and When to Replace Home Appliances

When that old, dependable household appliance sputters to a halt, you may be confronted with this classic dilemma.
By Jan Baxter
May/June 1984
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To repair or replace: that is the question.
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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Whether you prefer a myriad of electrical appliances in your home or just a few, you'll surely agree that the mechanical aids can be useful . . . until they break, whereupon they become inconvenient, time-consuming, curse-producing headaches. But wait! Don't hastily toss out your ailing gadgets or consign them to the scrap pile for parts. A great number of broken home appliances can be fixed easily, at real savings over the cost of replacement. On the other hand, it's not cost effective to repair a large appliance that's long past its prime. Then how can you figure out whether it's more economical to repair or to replace?

Home Appliance Information

First of all, you'll need the solid information provided by the machine's manufacturer. When you buy a home appliance, you receive—in most cases—a warranty card, an operations/use booklet, a list of repair centers, and a parts list. These should be kept on file with the sales receipt where you'll have easy access to them in the event that the appliance breaks down. (If you've inadvertently thrown away or lost your owner's manual, you can usually get another copy by contacting the manufacturer, identifying the model and serial number of your appliance.) Then, assuming the malfunctioning article's warranty has expired, start studying the owner's booklet. Find out whether the problem lies in the appliance itself or merely in the electrical circuit that provides its power. Sounds silly, but—in my experience, at least—about 10% of the time, the trouble's in the power source: A plug's loose in the outlet, or a circuit breaker has been tripped. (Or perhaps your electrical gadget has an internal switch that shuts it off in case of circuit overload. The service manual will provide instructions for restarting an appliance equipped with such a safety device.)

If this sort of thing isn't the source of the problem, take another good look at your owner's guide. Some manuals provide a checklist of "symptoms" to help you determine what the trouble is, and you may be able to fix the appliance yourself. Otherwise, this information plus a phone conversation with the repairperson can usually help you narrow down the diagnosis to one or two possibilities . . . and will give you an idea of the price range for the probable repairs.

An Economic Decision

You should now determine how many years of service life your machine has left. To do so, consult the accompanying table (see Image Gallery) to compare the age of the appliance with its estimated life span (how long the model normally can be expected to function properly). Although the life expectancy of any appliance will vary slightly among different models and brands, the chart tells you how long an average one should last.

If, say, your room air conditioner is eight years old, it's got only four of its (estimated) 12 years remaining. But an eight-year-old sewing machine should have a lot of good years ahead of it . . . a full 16, to be exact.

In addition to the relative age and the estimated repair cost of your broken appliance, you'll need to know the cost of a new replacement for it. Then you can divide that purchase price by the machine's expected service life to find out the yearly cost of a newly bought appliance. For example, let's say that a new washing machine with the same features as your on-the-blink one would cost $290. Well, according to the table, its expected life span would be 12 years. Divide that 12 into $290, and you come out with a per annum price tag of $24.16.

The next step in your cost/benefits analysis is to prorate the estimated repair cost of your ailing machine. For instance—to continue our illustration—suppose you reported that the washing machine ran but didn't drain completely in the spin cycle, and the repairperson guessed that the water pump was to blame, giving you an estimate of $65 for parts and labor to fix it. Now, divide that repair fee into the number of years the machine probably has left. Since the average washer lasts for 12 years, and your broken one is already seven years old, it's got only five more good years left. When you divide the $65 repair bill by five, you'll find that the pro rata yearly cost of repair is $13.

Well, all you have to do now is compare the yearly cost of a new washing machine with the yearly cost of repairing your old model. In this case, the $24.16 annual cost of a new washer is considerably greater than the $13-per-year bill to have the old one fixed.

Of course, the decision you make (based on your initial cost/benefits analysis) can always be altered if the serviceperson turns in a higher repair estimate when he or she examines the appliance. Say, for instance, that the washing machine technician determines that the washer also needs a new transmission . . . so the total bill would now be $160. Even if you deduct the flat $30 service call fee (which was included in that total), you'll find that it's now more cost effective to buy a new machine. After all, the old washer has only five functional years left and the repair bill is $130, which figures out to a yearly cost of $26 for keeping it. A new machine would cost only $24.16 a year, so buying it would save you about $2.00 a year (or over a 12-year period, approximately $24). In that case, buying a new machine is your best bet.

Other Factors

Although the per annum comparison explained above will give you the hard numerical data that you need in order to choose between repair and replacement, there are a few other non financial factors you'd do well to consider before making your final decision. As a result of the constant technological improvements made by appliance manufacturers, newer machines may have features that make them especially attractive to you. So if you'd like to purchase an appliance that has more operational features, uses less electricity, or is made to last longer than the old one, you'll want to take these factors into consideration when you decide whether the broken one is worth the trouble and expense of repairs.

Keeping a service record on your appliance can also help you make your decision: Up-to date records will tell you at a glance whether or not the machine has been generally reliable in the past. (Remember, the life expectancy figures in the table are only averages. Some machines do worse than that, some better.) If you haven't had good luck with a particular appliance, you may wish to replace it—possibly with another model or a different brand—even though your cost/benefits analysis suggests that repairing it would be less expensive.

Another option is exchanging a broken appliance: Some manufacturers of small appliances will give you the choice of having a broken item repaired or trading it in for a rebuilt model . . . as I found out a few months ago, when a two-year-old rechargeable calculator in my office broke.

I didn't want to replace the calculator, since the manufacturer no longer makes that particular model and some of its most attractive features aren't available on newer machines. By calling the nearest service center, however, I learned that I could either have the calculator repaired at the factory (a six-week undertaking) or buy a rebuilt model (which would be sent to me immediately). After mailing the broken machine to the service center, I received a refurbished one a week later. The total cost for the "new" machine including postage was $37.50 . . . slightly more than half of the original purchase price! Since the manufacturer provided a six-month warranty on the rebuilt machine (and since the average portable calculator lasts only a year in my office), this turned out to be a wise investment indeed.

The Answer

The decision to repair or replace should not be a haphazard one . . . and it won't be when it's based on a cost/benefits analysis. Armed with this, you can quickly and easily decide whether "tis nobler" (or rather, "economical-er") to repair or to replace . . . and that is, after all, the question!


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