Money & Career

How to deal with a broken appliance

Washing machine losing steam? Toaster oven now toast? With our seven tips, you can figure out if you should fix it or toss it

1. Consider the cost
First, take stock of your investment. Prices for major appliances (fridges, washers, dryers, ranges and dishwashers) vary widely, from thousands of dollars for a top-of-the-line, stainless-steel built-in fridge to $250 for a bargain-basement dishwasher. When you’ve bought an average mid-level appliance, a good rule of thumb is that a repair should not cost more than half of the original price. For example, if your seven-year-old washer cost $500 and the repair will set you back $500, go down the street and buy another one. On the other hand, if you spent $2,000 on an induction range and the repair bill comes to $700, then it’s still definitely worth fixing.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff
It doesn’t pay to fix burned-out small appliances (priced under $150), such as toasters, microwaves and coffee makers. “Once you start getting into repairing the elements or controls, you’re adding the labour to the price of the parts, and it costs you more than the darn appliance does,” says Frank Baldwin, who has been repairing small appliances at Dudley’s Hardware in Toronto for 38 years. But if your appliance is still under warranty, you can likely send it back to the manufacturer for a replacement.

3. Plan ahead
Traditional wisdom holds that extended warranties are a waste of money. That’s not always so. Because regular warranty periods are shrinking – to just one year in most cases – the extended policies have become indispensable for certain purchases. When you buy a $2,500 steam washer, for example, it makes sense to protect your investment. On the other hand, when you buy that $250 dishwasher and the dealer wants to charge $40 to extend the warranty for an extra year or two, it’s not worth paying for since it’s rarely needed. If your appliance is no longer under warranty, you may be in for a shock. An initial diagnostic visit generally costs $70 to $80. Add to that charges for parts and labour, which can cost more than $100 per hour. “It’s a crapshoot, to be blunt,” says Ken Freeborn, who teaches in the appliance-servicing program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C. “Some people never need them, but when a $600 electronic component goes on a machine that’s a year and a half old, you think, ‘Thank God I sprang for the extended warranty.’?”

4. Don’t be seduced by the call of the new
The Toronto Star columnist and consumer advocate Ellen Roseman was surprised by how many readers wrote in for help with their broken appliances after she addressed the issue last fall. Some people were living with mouldy washers and leaky fridges, and others had even tossed year-old appliances because they didn’t run properly. Roseman learned that when it comes to appliances, they just don’t make ’em like they used to. Remember the classic Maytag with the knobs and push buttons that could last for 30 years? Today’s models may come with LCD displays and snazzy functions, but for all their sophisticated technology, they won’t last as long. “If you have older appliances, hold onto them and keep them going as long as you can,” Roseman advises. “Though they may not be as energy efficient, it might be easier on your pocketbook and your psyche in the end.”

5. Do your research before you buy
The next time you’re in the market for a new machine, be it a vacuum cleaner or a popcorn maker, consult the reviews first. Check out Consumer Reports, a popular American magazine that has been independently testing and reviewing products since the 1930s; you can get it at the library or access the info online for a small fee. You should also consider seeking owners’ comments and reviews online, or try talking to an appliance dealer in your area to find out what customers are saying about different products, and what the warranty will cover in the event of a breakdown.

6. Be proactive
If you have to replace your appliance do it intelligently. Switching to an EnergyStar-certifie, can mean a dip in hydro costs according to a report from National Resources Canada. Those savings will soon pay for the new appliance. “Without question, energy efficiency is driving a lot of earlier purchases,” says Larry Moore, vice-president of consumer councils at Electro-Federation of Canada, an industry association. More good news: The cost of new appliances has declined steadily since 2002. (Plus, the industry now recycles 90 percent of discarded units, so your old appliance won’t languish in landfill anymore.)

7. Try fixing it yourself
Make friends with the trusty owner’s manual, which includes a section on troubleshooting. (You can find it on the manufacturer’s website if the print version has vanished.) It will coach you on resolving common problems and, if all fails, will provide the 1-800 number for the service department.

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