Col. 1

Say you buy a toaster and use it every morning but never clean it.

Then, a year down the road, right after the manufacturer's warranty expires, a thick slice of bread gets stuck in one of the slots, starts to smoke and ignites the accumulated crumbs. The ensuing fire burns the toaster, the rest of the kitchen and your house.

You:

* Return the toaster and demand your money back.

* Write to the manufacturer and tell it how lousy its toasters are.

* Kick yourself for not cleaning the crumbs out of the toaster regularly.

* Sue everyone in sight.

If you chose "sue everyone in sight," you're in good company. A poll published in a magazine last October showed that suing people was first on the list of ways Americans planned to get rich, said Marie Spodek, a consultant from David City, Neb.

It hardly would have occurred to the toaster owner that a little maintenance would have gone a long way in averting disaster.

Most home buyers, especially those buying new houses, want to avoid maintenance chores. They don't want to paint or mow lawns or shovel snow or clean decks.

In survey after survey, the vast majority of new-home buyers cite low -- or no -- maintenance as the key ingredient in their choice of new over old.

But new appliances, paint jobs, siding and roofs don't last forever. Just because pressure-treated wood is supposed to last 40 years doesn't mean that it will endure on its own.

In a 1993 survey, undertaken to discern how long the components of new houses might be expected to last, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) found that although a well-built house can last for centuries, many of its parts have to be replaced or refurbished regularly.

Most appliances have life spans of between 10 and 20 years, according to the survey, "while ceramic counter tops can last a lifetime" -- with proper installation and proper maintenance.

A wood casement window has a life span of 20 to 50 years. Drywall, including varieties designed as tile backing in high-moisture areas such as bathrooms, can last 30 to 50 years. Some high-end door hardware comes with lifetime guarantees.

Most builders and remodelers will agree that although the craftsmanship of pre-1940 housing was beyond reproach, today's materials tend to be more versatile, safer to use and live with, and easier to maintain.

A brick still lasts 100 years or more, and marble continues to endure a lifetime plus, but buyers of new houses these days don't have to live with lead-based paint, asbestos insulation and aluminum electrical wiring.

Even if today's materials require less maintenance, they still need some attention.

And sometimes, with all the precautions taken and all requirements met, these materials don't perform the way they should. Some builders offer warranties of 10 years designed to help ease the financial burden of such calamities and protect builders from lawsuits.

Even with such warranties, new-home buyers need to check the reputation of the builders they are dealing with. They should visit other communities the builders have developed and talk to residents there.

According to Gary Schaal, vice president of sales and marketing at Orleans Home Builders Corp. in Bensalem, Pa., the new-home warranty covers mechanicals -- plumbing, electricity, and heating and cooling -- for the first two years.

As time passes, fewer items are covered, although the structure itself is guaranteed for the life of the warranty.

"If the builder isn't around at the end, the warranty provider picks up the tab," Schaal said. "But it isn't perpetual care. If something happens 15 or 20 years down the road, it isn't going to be covered."

In a new house, it often takes wood a year to dry completely, Schaal said. When wood dries, it shrinks, resulting in cracks and popped nails. This is considered a natural occurrence, and the homeowner's warranty doesn't cover it.

However, the builder usually takes care of legitimate problems with shrinkage that might cause interior and exterior doors to stick, Schaal said.

Cracks in concrete sidewalks caused by settling are covered, while cracks caused by deterioration from rock salt aren't, he said.

If lawns are hydroseeded and "a gully-washer washes the seed away," the builder will usually reseed, he said.

If the lack of grass is the result of the buyer's failure to water the grass regularly, that's the homeowner's responsibility.

Wet basements often appear in new houses as well as old. Sometimes, wet basements result when homeowners regrade the land alongside the house during landscaping, Schaal said. This can cause water from rain and melting snow to flow toward the house rather than away from it.

Wet basements caused by the owner aren't covered in typical new-house warranties, Schaal said.

Manufacturers usually determine the life of a product by testing or by customer surveys. Sometimes they do both, along the lines of Consumer Reports.

Whirlpool Corp. spokeswoman Carolyn M. Verweyst said the manufacturers' warranties aren't based on average life expectancies. If the April 1990 issue of Appliance Statistical Review says that your dishwasher should last 10 years and it dies after nine, don't expect to get a new one for free.

"Warranties for appliances are typically one year, parts and labor on everything, and that's it," Verweyst said. "If it is something exceptional -- for example, the sealed system tubing in a refrigerator that carries the coolant -- then it's covered for five years."

Moen Inc., a leading manufacturer of faucets and other bathroom and kitchen fixtures, has a laboratory in the basement of its North Olmstead, Ohio, headquarters that staffers call "the torture chamber."

"We know that people will not use a product as we would expect them to, nor do they read instructions," said spokesman Allen E. Pfenninger.

Not only do Moen's products have to pass corporate muster, they have to meet national standards for "functionality and finish," Pfenninger said. This means testing at outside laboratories.

For a faucet to be certified as functional, valves have to be turned on and off 500,000 times, Pfenninger said. That results in a lifetime warranty.

The life expectancy of products and materials in the home is greatly affected by such factors as exposure to elements and regular maintenance, according to HouseMaster, a home-inspection franchise in Bound Brook, N.J.

A gas-fired or oil-fired furnace typically lasts about 18 years, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers. If the average American moves every seven years, that means a furnace will serve about two owners.

Heat exchangers usually last about 25 years. An air-conditioning compressor lasts 15 years on average, according to the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute.

How does a builder determine which products to use? Experience and research are the twin answers. Small builders, always short of staff, do the legwork themselves.

Larger builders, such as Toll Brothers Inc., which builds luxury homes in 17 states, have product-research groups whose job is to meet with manufacturers' representatives to talk about what's available, said Kira McCarron, Toll's vice president of marketing.

"We get testimonials of all kinds," she said. "We base decisions on quality, shelf life and reputation, as well as cost."

Builders pay attention to manufacturers' research. They also attend trade shows, such as the NAHB's annual convention, "scouring the exhibition floor for the latest and greatest, trying to determine the kinds of things that buyers will put a value on," McCarron said.

When it comes to appliances, the warranties are critical elements in builders' decisions, McCarron said. "They want to know how easy it will be to get information or have an appliance repaired or replaced."

Although the NAHB survey says concrete will last about 50 years, concrete is formed and poured on site, so "there are a lot more variables contributing to its life expectancy," said Bruce McIntosh, spokesman for the Portland Cement Association in Skokie, Ill.

"We find that by reducing the number of variables, the life expectancy will increase," he said. "This is done by establishing training programs and developing specifications for mixing and applying the material."

Paint falls in the same category as concrete, but extensive testing has shown that exterior paint on wood, brick and aluminum surfaces will probably last seven to 10 years.

"That's a pretty good range," said John G. Stauffer, director of the Rohm & Haas Paint Quality Institute in Spring House, Pa.

"There are caveats, though. There needs to be sound surface preparation before painting. In older paint jobs, you see a lot of paint failure because moisture is getting behind the surface, so you have to take care of that."

There are variables on other products, too. For example, while a medicine cabinet should last 20 years, "the interior paint finish usually wears, leading to moisture damage and rust," the NAHB says.

While sheet-metal roofs last from 20 to 50-plus years, "it depends on the gauge of the metal, quality of the coating, the thoroughness of the design and application," according to the NAHB's survey.

And though carpeting is supposed to last 11 years, it rarely gets a chance to reach old age.

"Most people get tired of the color of the carpet or the stains on the carpet long before it wears out," Schaal said.