Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Bill Jones, after 42 years, is finally closing the Procter Appliance Service shop in Silver Spring.

“You can’t make a good salary to survive on the way you could years ago,” said the 61-year-old owner of the oven, refrigerator and washer-dryer repair shop. “Everything has changed in the appliance business.”

Mr. Jones recently sold his home in Laurel and is in the process of moving to Bluffton, S.C., with his wife, Jeannette.

Mr. Jones is one of the many Washington-area repairmen who have struggled to stay afloat as residents replace, not repair, old appliances.

“It’s a dying trade,” said Scott Brown, Webmaster of www.fixitnow.com and self-proclaimed “Samurai Appliance Repairman.”

The reason for this is twofold, Mr. Brown said: The cost of appliances is coming down because of cheap overseas labor and improved manufacturing techniques, and repairmen are literally dying off.

The average age of appliance technicians is 42, and there are few young repairmen to take their place, said Mr. Brown, 47. He has been repairing appliances in New Hampshire for the past 13 years.

In the next seven years, the number of veteran appliance repairmen will decrease nationwide as current workers retire or transfer to other occupations, the Department of Labor said in its 2007 Occupational Outlook Handbook.

The federal agency said many prospective repairmen prefer work that is less strenuous and want more comfortable working conditions.

Local repairmen said it is simply a question of economics.

“Nowadays appliances are cheap, so people are just getting new ones,” said Paul Singh, a manager at the Appliance Service Depot, a repair shop in Northwest. “As a result, business has slowed down a lot.”

“The average repair cost for a household appliance is $50 to $350,” said Shahid Rana, a service technician at Rana Refrigeration, a repair shop in Capitol Heights. “If the repair is going to cost more than that, we usually tell the customer to go out and buy a new one.”

It’s not uncommon for today’s repairmen to condemn an appliance instead of fixing it for the sake of their customers’ wallets.

If they decide to repair an appliance that is likely to break down again, repairmen are criticized by their customers and often lose business because of a damaged reputation.

Mr. Jones said he based his repair decisions on the 50 percent rule: “If the cost of service costs more than 50 percent of the price of a new machine, I’ll tell my customers to get a new one.”

“A lot of customers want me to be honest with them, so I’ll tell them my opinion and leave the decision making up to them,” he said.

In recent years, consumers have tended to buy new appliances when existing warranties expire rather than repair old appliances, the Department of Labor said.

Mr. Brown acknowledged this trend. “Lower-end appliances which you can buy for $200 to $300 are basically throwaway appliances,” he said. “They are so inexpensive that you shouldn’t pay to get them repaired.”

“The quality of the materials that are being made aren’t lasting,” Mr. Jones said. “Nowadays you’re seeing more plastic and more circuit boards, and they aren’t holding up.”

Many home appliances sold in the United States are made in Taiwan, Singapore, China and Mexico.

“Nothing is made [in the United States] anymore,” Mr. Jones said. “But then again, American parts are only better to a point, a lot of U.S. companies are all about the dollar.”

Fortunately for the next generation of repairmen, some of today’s high-end appliances make service repairs the most cost-effective option.

The Department of Labor concurred. “Over the next decade, as more consumers purchase higher-priced appliances designed to have much longer lives, they will be more likely to use repair services than to purchase new appliances,” said the 2007 Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Modern, energy-efficient refrigerators can cost as much as $5,000 to $10,000, and with such a hefty price tag, throwing one away is not an option.

In some cases, repairmen can help consumers reduce the amount of aggravation that a broken appliance will cause.

Consider the time and effort it takes to shop for a new appliance, wait for its delivery, remove the old one and get the new one installed.

In addition, certain appliances such as ovens and washing machines can be a bigger hassle to replace because they are connected to gas and water lines.

“It takes your time, it takes your effort, and if you don’t install the new appliance, you’ll have to hire a service technician to install it anyways,” Mr. Brown said.

Some consumers bond with their appliances like old pets, and for loyalty or sentimental reasons, refuse to let them go.

Mr. Rana said some of his clients have appliances that are more than 30 years old. It makes sense, he said. “A lot of old refrigerators are worth fixing because they give people good service. They just don’t make things like they used to.”

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