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To Buy New or Repair: That Is the Question

How to know when it is — and isn't — worth repairing a broken appliance or electronic device

En español | Boy, it feels like just yesterday you were breaking that new laptop out of the box. But it's been four years and now you can't turn it on without strange windows popping up on you. And why does it shut down without warning lately?

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cracked cellphone screen, buy new or repair

To buy or repair? That's the question when it comes to electronics. — Istockphoto

You could pay your local tech person to fix it. But are you better off simply buying a bug-free new one? It's a question all people grapple with from time to time — whether it's the dishwasher, the fridge or an electronic gadget.

"The common thought is that 'they don't make them the way they used to,' but we found that's not true," says Celia Kupersmid Lehrman, deputy home editor for Consumer Reports. True, appliances die more "dramatically" today, she says. But that's because they've become more complex than past models. Refrigerators have electronic components now, for example. They don't fail any more often, but when they do fail, they stop working altogether.

When the moment to decide arrives, consider the following three factors before you fix or fork over money for something new:

Cost: By far, the price of repair plays the starring role in this drama. How much would you spend repairing the item versus replacing it with a new version? In the case of electronics, it's often not practical to go the repair route. Typical repair jobs with small gadgets such as iPods and iPhones, for example, include cracked screens, which could cost roughly $100 to replace, says George Otte, founder and president of Geeks on Site computer repair. For your desktop or laptop computer, it could be a bit trickier (and pricier). "Usually, it's not a hardware problem," Otte says. "More often, there's a glitch with the operating system or a virus." If the item is more than 5 or 6 years old, and the repair is a few hundred dollars, he recommends backing up your data to install on a current model, which could cost as little as $300 for a PC or $500 for a laptop. Also, add on the costs associated with paying someone to transfer your data and configure your device to the way you want it, he says.

Lehrman likes the 50-percent rule: If the repair will cost you more than half of the price to replace it, don't repair. Consumer surveys show that some products are tougher and more frustrating to repair, such as built-in fridges, gas cooktops and home theater systems, she says. Dryers, electric cooktops and digital cameras are easier, which may mean a less-expensive fix.

Weigh your options by getting an estimate from an authorized repair person or other qualified professional, but do a little cost-free troubleshooting on your own first. Check the back of your owner's manual (if you can find it) or search for your problem online at websites such as repairclinic.com or howstuffworks.com.

Warranty: Could the costs of your repair be covered? If it's more than a year old, then it may not be. But it's worth contacting a customer service rep to find out. Also, if you purchased the item with a major credit card, check to see if your benefits include extended warranty coverage. But don't go out of your way to buy extra coverage. "For appliances, extended warranties really don't deliver," Lehrman says. According to Consumer Reports surveys, items rarely break down during the coverage period. "Find a reliable brand, and you won't need to spend the money on a warranty." The same is true for electronic purchases, Otte says. "A manufacturer warranty always comes with a product, and they will repair it at no cost." However, know that if you crack the screen on your iPad, Apple's limited warranty excludes such coverage. For hardware repairs that are past warranty, an "out-of-warranty" service can be purchased for between $219 and $249, more than half the cost of a new one.

Age: In some instances, your outdated appliance is costing you on your utility bills. "There are benefits to buying modern appliances," Lehrman says. "Consider today's more energy-efficient, water-efficient dishwashers and washing machines." So, even if the repair is cheaper than buying new, could a new purchase save you money elsewhere in your budget? On the electronic side, parts may be scarce for older devices. "Usually, the older the device, say 6 to 7 years, the tougher it is to find a motherboard for it," Otte says.

Last, exhaust all options. If you aren't satisfied with the manufacturer's response to your repair problem, take it to social media. "Don't get mad, get social," Lehrman says. Post your complaints on the company's Twitter and Facebook pages to see if you can get the attention you need.

And should you choose to buy new, try selling your broken item on eBay. Who knows: According to Otte, folks may wish to buy the parts that are working.

Stacy Julien is a writer and editor for AARP Media.

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