People Want to Get Phones and Appliances Fixed—But Often, They Can’t
Black Americans and low-income people are especially likely to value repairability
Amario Andre set out to fix his phone, but all he ended up with was a burn mark on his carpet.
The battery life on his Samsung phone had plummeted, so he ordered a replacement battery and tried to follow the directions in an online video tutorial he found. It said to warm up the back of the device to soften the glue that sealed the case shut, but after using a heat gun (and charring his carpet) the phone remained firmly shut.
“I didn’t realize how complicated it was to just take the back off my phone when previously it used to be so easy—snap it off and, bam, replace your battery,” says Andre, a 27-year-old digital animator in Atlanta. “I’m left with few options here. It’s incredibly inconvenient to buy a whole new phone or go into a repair shop.”
Repairs Are Becoming Harder
Things have gotten worse for consumers who want to get their broken stuff fixed, according to a 2021 report from the Federal Trade Commission entitled “Nixing the Fix.”
For one thing, new products often have forbidding design elements such as nonstandard screws and glued-on parts, making it tough to access basic components like the battery in Andre’s phone. That affects both do-it-yourself fixers and independent repair shops.
“I think it’s totally unconscionable that smartphones—the most widely used consumer product today—have glued-in batteries,” says Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixIt, a site that provides manuals and tools for at-home repairs and advocates for repairability.
“It’s like if the tires were welded to every car in America,” Wiens says. “You’d drive thirty thousand miles and then get a new car.”
Phone makers counter that there are good reasons they’ve started sealing in batteries. “Removable batteries can affect structural strength, slim design, and water resistance, which are innovations that consumers demand,” a Samsung spokesperson said.
Even if you or an independent repair shop manage to get into a hard-to-crack product, the FTC says replacement parts are harder to find than in the past. Manufacturer instructions for how to do repairs are scarce, too.
Adding to the hurdles, the government says, manufacturers often suggest that it’s dangerous to have their products fixed by anyone other than their authorized technicians or that repairs by independent services will be of low quality.
Companies can also make it sound like taking a broken item to an independent repair shop will void the warranty, even though that’s not the case. Since 1975 it has been illegal in most cases for manufacturers to void a product’s warranty just because a consumer chose to have it fixed at an independent shop. But a 2021 report from U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group, found that 45 of 50 appliance manufacturers made a version of this misleading claim.
These obstacles may feed the reluctance among some Americans to take their possessions to independent repair shops. Nearly half of Americans mistakenly believe that independent repairs could void their warranty, CR’s survey found.
And many people doubt these shops can get access to genuine parts or have the experience to do a good job.
Attitudes Vary by Race and Income
Lots of Americans want to be able to fix their possessions when they break, but consumers with low incomes and Black Americans are most likely to say it’s very important to them.
Someone who makes less than $30,000 a year is 14 percentage points more likely to say that mobile device repairability is very important than someone who makes over $100,000 a year.
And 53 percent of Black Americans say smartphone or tablet repairability is very important to them compared with about a third of white Americans. The gap is even wider between Black and white Americans who make less than $30,000.
A broken screen or dead battery is a major inconvenience for anyone, but for those who depend on smartphones to access the internet, it’s a much more serious problem. The harder it is to get that phone fixed, the longer its owner is cut off from vital connections.
More Black American households than white or Hispanic households depend on smartphones for connecting to the internet at home, according to a separate nationally representative survey that CR conducted last year (PDF). And Americans with a household income of less than $30,000 a year are over two and a half times more likely than those making at least $100,000 to rely on smartphones for their only at-home internet access.
“We need to start thinking about access to repair as an economic justice issue,” Perzanowski says. “For lots of reasons rooted in systemic racism in this country, there are communities with access to more limited resources—and those communities put a higher priority on repair.”
“This lack of repairability has an adverse impact on people’s ability to be economically mobile,” says Gary Bonner, executive director of PCs for People Maryland, a nonprofit electronics repair and recycling center in Baltimore. “This is far more than convenience; this is about being able to build a life.”
PCs for People refurbishes donated electronics, including laptops and smartphones, and makes them available free or at very low prices to low-income residents of Baltimore. The average customer makes $15,500 a year, placing them near the federal poverty line. And because people of color are overrepresented among the city’s low-wage earners, they’re nearly three times more likely than white Baltimoreans to rely on the group’s refurbished electronics.
“One of the reasons we have to do this work is because of the unavailability of parts, guidance, and manuals that regular folks could use to repair devices and upgrade them,” Bonner says.
Attitudes vary by product category, too. CR’s survey found that Americans are much more likely to fix a broken car than a busted toaster or other small appliance. That’s not a surprise: A car can easily cost 1,000 times more. But it shows how eagerly people pursue repairs when options are available.
Automotive right-to-repair legislation enacted in the past decade helps ensure that it’s relatively easy to get a car fixed at a wide variety of locations. And nearly three-quarters of Americans say consumers have enough choices for fixing a car, the CR survey found. For the other product categories we asked about—large and small appliances, home entertainment items, and smartphones—less than half of people say there are enough repair options.
“The automotive market is an example of a healthy market, with a healthy set of consumer attitudes,” says Wiens of iFixIt.
For small home appliances, just one-fifth of people say consumers have enough repair choices. This might help explain why broken blenders, toasters, and similar gadgets tend to go straight into the waste stream if they stop working. Only 3 percent of Americans who had a small appliance break recently said they got it fixed.
Lawmakers Take Aim
Pressure is mounting on companies to stop making repairs so difficult. A national campaign agitating for consumers’ “right to repair” their own goods, or have an independent shop or service do it, has made inroads at statehouses and in Congress—and even President Joe Biden is pushing to make repairs easier for consumers.
Lawmakers in nearly 20 states are considering right-to-repair bills, and advocates say several of the bills have a good chance of passing. In Washington, D.C., members of Congress are proposing legislation aimed at making it easier to repair electronic devices and fix your own tractor if you’re a farmer, and get access to digital auto repair tools. A separate bill dubbed the Freedom to Repair Act would make permanent an exception to copyright law that enables some basic electronics repairs. (Currently, advocates must petition the Copyright Office to extend the exemption every three years.)
After President Biden signed an executive order last summer that asked the FTC to come up with new rules limiting the ways companies can implement repair restrictions, the commission said it would boost enforcement efforts against companies that illegally hobble repairs by doing things like suggesting that independent repairs will void a consumer’s warranty.
“The right-to-repair movement has made major strides and is right on the precipice of some pretty big wins,” says Perzanowski, the Case Western professor. “This is the year we can really expect to see some good things happen.”
Amid the flurry of activity, several tech giants are beginning to back down from long-held repair restrictions.
In November, Apple said it would make some parts and repair manuals available to consumers and repair shops for the first time. Microsoft, under pressure from a shareholder resolution pushing for better repairability, said it would work to make some of its devices easier to fix, according to reporting in Grist, an environmental news outlet. And just this month Google said it’s starting a program to help schools fix Chromebooks, teaching students about electronics repair at the same time.
“It’s clear that consumers want more and better repair options,” said Maureen Mahoney, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports who advocates for right-to-repair laws at the state and federal level. “We’re pleased that some manufacturers are now realizing that they need to do better for their customers and create more opportunities for independent and self-repair. But lawmakers need to step in to help ensure that consumers have these choices.”
CR’s survey echoes this sentiment. A majority of Americans say manufacturers should be required to make repair information and replacement parts available to owners and independent shops.
What You Can Do
So you dropped your smartphone? Don’t panic: You have options.
First, you can compare prices from authorized repairers—say, the Apple Genius Bar or a Samsung authorized repair location—and independent shops. And remember that companies can’t void your warranty just because you took a product to an independent service center.
Before you shell out for a fix, check to see if you purchased cell phone insurance or a repair plan like AppleCare. Those might bring down the price of the fix significantly. Some credit cards even provide phone insurance.
Without insurance or a repair plan, independent shops can be considerably cheaper than authorized repairers. Apple charges $279 to fix a cracked screen on an iPhone 12 and $199 for an iPhone 11. Small independent shops will often replace an iPhone 12 screen for less than $200 and an iPhone 11 screen for around $100.
That mirrors the pricing at Mission Wireless & Repair, a narrow storefront on San Francisco’s busy Mission Street, whose two technicians might fix 20 or 30 broken smartphones on a typical day. But not every consumer thinks to bring their broken phone to shops like these.
“People think they can’t fix their phones, or they think they can only get it fixed at the Apple store,” says Christian Rodriguez, a technician at Mission Wireless.
Rodriguez says he often ends up fixing up phones that Apple wrote off as beyond repair. “It makes you feel good you were able to do something the Apple store wasn’t,” he says.
But independent shops like Rodriguez’s don’t always have the parts they need. Mission Wireless can’t currently fix an iPhone 13, Apple’s latest model, because it can’t get affordable replacement screens.
Consumers who have taken smartphones to both independent shops and authorized or manufacturer repairers provide a number of insights into how their experiences compare.
According to CR’s survey, two-thirds of people say it was as convenient or more convenient to fix their phone at an independent shop, and two-thirds say the cost of repairs at an independent shop was about the same or better than at an authorized shop. But many consumers think authorized repair locations have higher-quality parts and workmanship.
To avoid surprises, next time you’re on the market for a new electronic device or appliance—whether it’s a phone, a microwave oven, or a washing machine—look to see which models are most easily fixable, Wiens, from iFixIt, suggests.
That could take as little effort as doing a quick Google search in the store to see if replacement parts or manuals are easily available. Doing that could help you save big on fixes over the long run.