Help for hapless appliances

Knowing what to do when a home appliance goes on the fritz can be one of domestic life's most exasperating problems.

Finding a qualified repair technician, scheduling a home visit, or taking the appliance in, and deciding whether to replace or repair it are some of the common hurdles.

Many people, says Jim Hodl, a columnist with the Appliance Service News, try to save a few bucks by searching out fix-it types. Following such leads, he says, can be a dead end.

"The guy will come to your home," Mr. Hodl says, "but if it looks like a problem, he'll say the appliance probably can't be fixed. He'll walk away and take his $40 'I walked in the door' fee."

Help from the Web

The repair options include taking the appliance to one of a dwindling number of local repair shops, or doing it yourself with some online assistance.

Chris Hall, a former appliance repairman in Canton, Mich., has created an online repair service that not only sells parts to major appliances, but gives free advice to those willing to undertake such projects themselves.

Launched last year, RepairClinic.com has 27 employees, carries 9,000 different parts, and sells these parts to customers in all 50 states.

Mr. Hall says many people - including a number of women - are willing to take on the challenge for a variety of reasons, including the difficulties in finding reliable repair-service technicians.

"What you have are a lot more single-women households," he observes, "and many women don't feel comfortable having a repair person come over, or they work during the day and don't have time to stay home," Hall says.

The company features a Do-It-Yourselfer of the Week on its Web site (www.repairclinic.com), and not infrequently they are women.

It's now easier to do it yourself

Such DIY repairs are more feasible than ever, Hall says.

"Unlike automobiles, which you virtually can't repair yourself," he says, "appliances have gone the exact opposite direction. They're getting easier and easier to repair, even if a little more expensive. There are more electronic sensors and modular components, so instead of taking apart the timer, you just replace the whole thing."

The cost of having an appliance repaired professionally now often reaches 50 to 60 percent of the original price, leaving owners to feel reluctant about repairing, rather than replacing, them.

Repair or replace?

"People are saying, 'Forget it, I only paid $300 for this; I'm not getting it repaired,' " Hall explains. "We're hoping to help people put in the needed $20, $30, $40 part and keep the appliance from going in the landfill."

From an environmental standpoint, good news may be found in the average length of appliance ownership, which has increased in almost every category, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. For instance, microwave ovens, owned an average of 4.9 years in 1990, remained in a single owner's possession for 7.7 years by 1996. "Appliances have definitely become more reliable," says Hodl.

For many years, Hall says, wires have been numbered, labeled, or color-coded, so a typical do-it-yourselfer who might replace a wall switch or a faucet can also fix an appliance.

RepairClinic.com offers 75 pages of troubleshooting and maintenance tips on its Web site, but is not set up to walk a person with little aptitude through the repair process.

"I'd say about 85 or 90 percent of the people who call us have the ability to perform the repair," Hall says. "About 15 percent, we advise [them] to get a repair technician."

One factor that favors the repair business, Hodl says, is the growing number of baby boomers buying upscale products. When they purchase many-featured $1,400 refrigerators, for instance, they're less hesitant to spend $250 to repair them.

The general rule of thumb: If repair costs run half or more than the cost of a new appliance, it's generally wiser to purchase a new one, because only the replacement parts installed in an old appliance can be given a warranty.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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