Chances are you have a broken household appliance collecting dust in your garage or basement. And chances are you're never going to take the time to find a repair shop to fix that appliance.
These days folks just figure, why bother? As prices continue to come down on many appliances and pieces of electronic equipment, by the time you pay to repair something, you're halfway to buying yourself a new and improved washing machine, microwave oven or DVD player.
In its latest repair-or-replace survey, Consumer Reports magazine confirmed what most of us already know -- the repair road is a costly and often frustrating trip. Nearly half the respondents said they didn't seek repairs or quit along the way.
It took me several days and many telephone calls to find a repairman who would make a house call to diagnose and fix my 10-year-old, 32-inch television with a sound problem. If I got more than a couple of feet away from the set, I had to be able to read lips.
For a hot second, I, too, thought why bother, knowing full well that repair costs can be daunting. Consumer Reports found that readers paid as much as $500 to fix projection TVs, $400 to repair laptop computers and $180 to fix digital cameras. A front-load washer typically costs $350 to service.
With these costs it's easy to see why people don't want to call a repair shop.
Instead they go looking for a replacement as soon as they realize they've got a problem.
So what is Consumer Reports' basic advice about whether you should fix or nix something?
Don't bother repairing any product for which you paid less than $150 or if the repair bill is going to be more than half the price to replace it, the magazine suggests.
And the Professional Service Association confirms the wisdom of that. In many cases, "it is now cheaper to replace rather than repair," said Ron Sawyer, the association's executive director.
The association has been tracking the decline in repair shops. The number of electronics-repair shops has dropped from 20,014 in 1992 to just 7,168 in 2004, according to Sawyer. The number of appliance-repair shops has declined as well, from 18,546 to 11,620 in the same time.
Still, if you think it's worth your time and money to repair a product, follow this advice from Consumer Reports:
* Make sure the product is really broken. Seriously, I once called a repair person for a freezer that wasn't working. Turns out the cord, which we had snaked around a corner to an outlet, kept coming unplugged.
* Check the owner's manual. You know, it's the book that you tossed in a drawer after you opened your new electronic toy. Most instruction manuals have a troubleshooting section. Personally, I've saved a number of products from the recycling bin by just reading the owner's manual. (Okay, my husband has fixed them by reading the owner's manual.) You can also try www.livemanuals.com, which gives instruction on how to operate many products as well as offering online versions of user manuals.
* Look for help online. If you're the do-it-yourself type, there are a number of Web sites that can help you with a broken product. Check out www.repairclinic.com or Appliance Repair Central at www.pcappliancerepair.com. Both provide troubleshooting help so you can figure out how to fix your appliance. Each also can help you find replacement parts. And if you're a handyman (or handywoman), Appliance Repair Central has a national in-home service referral database.
* Contact the manufacturer. That's right, call the maker even if your product is no longer under warranty. In the Consumer Reports survey, 10 percent of readers who complained about a problem got an offer to fix or replace an out-of-warranty product free of charge. Hey, it never hurts to ask.
If you want a list of products that have been exceptionally reliable or to obtain a very useful repair-or-replace timeline, check out Consumer Reports' Web site at www.consumerreports.org. You will have to pay to register on the site to access the information. But it's worth it.
If you're faced with the fix-it-or-nix-it choice, do a cost analysis. Don't assume a repair will be too expensive. When it came to my TV, I thought it was at least worth the effort because I had paid $900 for it. (Under duress, I might add. My husband was tired of watching the Super Bowl on our 19-incher.) Trust me, having paid more than I ever thought I would for a television set, I wasn't going to heave-ho it into a landfill.
For $80 I got the sound back. Now I don't have to strain to hear what those desperate housewives are saying as I prepare my kids' lunches for the next day.
* On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org.
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