Repair or replace it?

The right answer can save you thousands on appliances and gear

Last reviewed: August 2011

What do side-by-side refrigerators, laptop computers, and zero-turn-radius riding mowers have in common? They're among the most repair-prone products you can buy, according to our latest reliability data as well as our most recent Repair or Replace survey, in which 27,404 subscribers told us about the troubles they had with 53,218 broken appliances, electronics, lawn equipment, and more.

It's not all doom and gloom. Though consumer goods have become more complex and contain more electronics than they did a decade ago, the 33 products we asked about aren't failing more frequently. But when things do go wrong, they tend to go horribly wrong, according to our surveys, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. More than half of the products that did break stopped working altogether, and another 30 percent still worked, but poorly.

That won't surprise Kermit Moreau of Lumberton, Texas. His Whirlpool front-loading washer required three service calls before a cold-solder joint in the main computer was identified as the problem and fixed. "It meant us going to the washeteria each time to do the laundry," he said.

Cinnamon Howell of Indianapolis complained to The Consumerist, our sister website, about the icemaker on her GE refrigerator, which broke not once or twice but three times before the refrigerator gave out completely.

So how do you avoid a lemon? Check our "What breaks, what doesn't" lists (See Appliances, Electronics, and Lawn equipment & home exercise gear, which are all available to subscribers) for the most temperamental products, and some of the most and least reliable brands. Then use our "Repair-or-replace timeline" charts (See Appliances, Electronics, and Lawn equipment & home exercise gear, which are all available to subscribers) to find out which products to fix and which aren't worth the effort and expense. Here's what else our survey found:

Computers break—a lot

Around one in three laptops and desktops break by their fourth year. And warranties are getting less generous. "With many electronics, parts are covered for one year, but labor is only good for 90 days," says Eric Arnum, editor of Warranty Week, an online trade publication. "I think that's designed to encourage people to dispose of the products when they find out the cost of the repair is more than their product is worth. You say to yourself, 'I'll just toss it and get a new one.' And manufacturers say, 'Aha! It worked.'?"

Many computer breakdowns are due to malicious software (malware) or hard-drive failure. Installing antivirus software on your computer is the best defense against malware. Some manufacturers have attempted to improve hard-drive protection by parking the drive head on a nondata section of the disk to minimize the risk of damage if the computer is dropped. We believe that protection should be standard on all laptops and netbooks. Regardless, you should always shut down your device before traveling even short distances.

Some rugged laptops, such as a Panasonic Toughbook or the Dell Latitude model, carry Military Standard 810-G certification. We haven't tested those devices, but the manufacturers claim that they can withstand all sorts of abuse, thanks to such features as magnesium-alloy cases, shock-mounted hard drives, and spill-resistant keyboards. Many are backed by a three-year warranty, although they can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more than standard laptops.

Some technologies are finicky

Refrigerators with icemakers are twice as likely to break down as those without. "They're the bane of any refrigerator's existence," says Chris Hall, president of RepairClinic.com, which dispenses repair advice and sells appliance parts to consumers. The device's complicated design and the extreme environment it must operate in explain the high failure rate. Kenmore has switched to a simpler type of icemaker that's basically a mechanical version of a manual twist-style ice tray. "Fewer moving parts means less to go wrong," says Doug Constantine, product manager for Kenmore refrigeration. Even with this innovation, Constantine recommends emptying your icemaker and turning it off if it won't be in use for an extended period. And if your home has hard or sediment-filled water, adding a whole-house water filter or a water softener should help the icemaker and your dishwasher because the water inlet valve on both appliances is susceptible to scaling and clogging.

Among laundry appliances, front-loading washers are more repair-prone than top-loaders. The large rubber gasket that forms a watertight seal around the door is a common culprit. Carefully loading and unloading clothes will minimize wear and tear to the gasket. Mold is another issue. Manufacturers recommend that you periodically clean the gasket with a bleach solution and keep the door ajar after each use to allow ventilation. We'd like to see more mold-eliminating innovations. LG, for example, has developed a special magnet that props the washer door slightly open. LG washers had been more vulnerable to mold in the past, but they now have the lowest repair rate among models of front-loaders.

Extended warranties don't deliver

Based on our survey, appliances usually don't break during the extended-warranty period, normally after the standard warranty has expired but within two to three years of purchase. Even when breakdowns do occur in that time, the median cost of repair, $150, isn't much more than the median price of a warranty, $142. And if the product doesn't break, you haven't wasted your money on needless protection.

A computer might be an exception, especially if you travel a lot or it's for your busy teenager. Make sure the warranty covers accidental damage and extended tech support. Some credit-card companies extend the manufacturer's warranty free. American Express, for example, adds a year of protection for computers.

Buyback programs are another "peace of mind" come-on that probably don't pay. For one thing, they don't cover broken products. And what it costs to join is often more than the credit you might get on working items. Some retailers, including Amazon and Costco, have trade-in programs, which don't cost anything up front. But broken items aren't covered, and the retailer can reject even those that work.

Brand reliability varies by product

Manufacturers often have strengths and weaknesses in different product categories. GE, for example, has made very reliable cooking appliances, but its refrigerators with icemakers have been repair-prone. John Deere's lawn tractors have been very reliable, but its self-propelled lawn mowers have been significantly more repair-prone than other brands. And LG has made reliable plasma TVs and clothes dryers but not reliable side-by-side refrigerators.

The 50-percent rule still stands

We recommend that you replace a broken item if the repair will cost more than half the price of a new product.

Replacing electronic gear might be less costly than you think because prices are steadily dropping in some categories. For example, you'll probably pay at least $1,500 less for a new 50-inch flat-panel TV than you did in 2005.

Major appliances, on the other hand, are getting more expensive and they usually have long service lives, which is why we generally recommend holding onto them longer than electronics.

Some products are harder to repair

Celia Chapman of North Hills, Calif., discovered this firsthand when her KitchenAid double wall oven gave out over a Thanksgiving weekend. After a visit by an authorized repairman and repeated phone calls, she finally contacted the manufacturer, who told her that the needed part was on back order indefinitely. Chapman tried to find the part online but gave up after six weeks of looking and instead opted to replace the oven. KitchenAid refunded the cost of the new oven, but Chapman says she ended up losing about $700 on service calls and installation.

Our survey indicates that repairs of gas cooktops, built-in refrigerators, digital camcorders, and home-theater systems can also be frustrating because they take an inordinately long time or cost a lot, or because the item requires further service calls. Dryers, electric cooktops, and digital cameras have the highest success and satisfaction rates.