When it's worth it to fix an old appliance vs. buying new

appliance repairIt doesn't take a math whiz to figure out that spending $200 to repair a clothes dryer is a better deal than paying $375 for a new one.

But the pluses and minuses can quickly clog your brain when trying to decide if the short-term savings is worth it when a few hundred dollars more would get you a new appliance that should last for years.

Americans spend $15 billion a year on new appliances, and with a repair visit and parts often costing more than buying a new appliance, you'd think repairmen would be out of jobs.

Not so at Sears, where I recently had to schedule a repair service for my broken dryer four days out and make sure I was home during a four-hour time window when the repairman would arrive. The whole process made me weigh the pros and cons of appliance repair.

In the end, a $25 part -- which Sears would have sold me online for $17.40, or could be had for $15.95 at another Web site -- was needed fixing to bring heat back to the machine. And a ton of lint had to be cleaned out under and inside the machine.

When I first called Sears, I was given two basic options: Pay $129 for a repairman to visit, and then pay whatever extra for parts. Or pay a flat, $200 fee for a repair visit, which included up to $500 in parts and a one-year warranty that included unlimited repair visits and up to $500 in parts per visit.

Since I figured the $129 plan wouldn't get me too far because appliance parts can quickly get expensive, as so happened with our washing machine that broke last summer, I went with the $200, one-year warranty. I figured I'd be saving some money and didn't want to buy a new dryer. The one we have is less than 10 years old, or four years less than the average lifespan of a dryer.

My gamble didn't pay off in saving money. Or at least it didn't yet. We'll see what the new year holds. The $166 in repairs was covered by my new $200 warranty, or $34 less than I had spent.

But even before I learned that replacing the $25 thermal fuse would fix it, I considered the $200 repair service a deal and like getting a new dryer. After all, a Sears repairman would be at my call for a year and I wouldn't have to lay out another dime.

Sears often gives vouchers for new appliance purchases when a repair bill would be more expensive than a new appliance. But knowing how much that voucher would be for -- up to $100 but possibly as low as $40, the phone salesman told me -- wouldn't be determined until the repairman got to my house.

There are plenty of Web sites for do-it-yourselfers who are confident enough not to electrocute themselves. I figured mine had some type of heating problem since, duh, the clothes weren't drying and no heat was coming out. But I wasn't about to troubleshoot it on my own and make things worse.

In the end, fixing the appliance was cheaper than buying a new one, which is the opposite of what it was last summer with our washing machine. After the simple math of figuring out a repair visit against buying new, buying a one-year warranty for $200 was a better deal.

And it came with a few lessons from the repairman: Use the moisture sensor to dry clothes, not the timer; don't use dryer sheets that can prevent the sensor from working correctly; and he showed me how to pop off the lower front of the dryer so I can remove the lint.

Those lessons, which should extend the life of the machine and make repair calls less likely, made it worth the $200. The moral: Talk to the repairman and listen.

Of course, the best way to save money in this whole ordeal is to hang a clothesline in the back yard. That's going up next summer.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area who can be reached at www.AaronCrowe.net

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