The appliance scam

If you haven’t noticed, the price of large appliances continues to climb. What’s worse, in a year or two, many find that the costly smart refrigerator, oven, or washing machine in your kitchen is suddenly plagued with all kinds of problems. What happened to the concept of quality?

In the last two years, my wife and I have had to purchase a new refrigerator and washer. The guy who delivered them warned me that it was just a matter of time before the dryer went as well. None of these items were more than ten years old. I credit Rachel Wolfe of The Wall Street Journal for explaining why.

There seem to be three factors behind the shorter life span of these household goods. Computerization, an increase in the number of individual components that go into each appliance, and the quality of materials overall. Let’s take the refrigerator, as an example.

Back in the day, I can remember my mom having to shut down the fridge every six months or so and scrape off the ice that had built up in the freezer. Those days are gone. Manual defrost gave way to frost-free refrigerators that came with a bunch of new parts like heaters, fans, and sensors to automate the defrosting process.

The dawning of the 2000s saw a breakthrough in both energy efficiency and precise temperature control by replacing thermostats with digital computer control. All that was required was to add another batch of components and parts, mostly electronic, such as relays, capacitors, and solder joints to the old ice box.

Another factor impacting all appliances, not just refrigerators, was the industry-wide transition to lead-free solder in 2006. Environmentally, the benefits are obvious, since it eliminates toxic lead, however, the new solder requires stricter control over manufacturing processes and better design practices to ensure long-term reliability. This has resulted in an entirely new series of challenges to your neighborhood repair person to figure out what parts need to be repaired while others may need to be replaced.

In the meantime, George Jetson would be proud of the advancements. Appliance manufacturers keep coming up with wonder after wonder. Icemakers, touchscreens, and chilled water dispensers are built into refrigerator doors. I fully expect my fridge to be able to sing Zippity Do Dah in its next reincarnation.

The same trend is occurring in other appliances. New smart ovens offer induction, convection, air fry, steam, dual-fuel, and touch control. Washers and dryers promise smart technology integration with features such as in-washer faucets, dirt level and fabric type sensors, steam closets, removable agitators, cold water wash technology, and even add-on filters for microplastic capture.

While all these features enhance functionality, the number of valves, pumps, electrical connections, electronics, and such make something created to keep things cold now takes a rocket scientist to figure out, let alone repair. I confess that I still can’t figure out how to switch the icemaker from simply dispensing water to giving me a cup full of ice. What’s worse is that a blip in the icemaker can cause a system-wide failure and put your fridge down for the count. It has happened to me.

I am not alone. My appliance repair guy said his industry is seeing a ton more items in need of repair. The Wall Street Journal article confirmed that and found that Yelp helped users request 58% more quotes from thousands of appliance repair businesses. American households spent 43% more on home appliances last year than ten years ago, even though prices have declined during that same period. One of the main reasons for this discrepancy is there has been a higher rate of replacements. Twenty-five years ago, the average homeowner replaced appliances every 12-13 years. Today it is every eight to nine years.

As most readers know, getting someone to repair your appliance is an expensive and time-consuming process. House calls are roughly $250 per visit before any work is done. You can easily spend almost as much repairing an appliance as buying a new one.

In summary, the appliance market today “ain’t what it used to be.” One of my neighbors just ordered a dishwasher from Home Depot. They only drop it off. Now she needs to find a plumber to uninstall and cart away the old one and install the new one. There’s not much anyone can do about it but if you still have that old freezer or fridge in the basement, I would keep it.

Bill Schmick is a founding partner of Onota Partners Inc. in the Berkshires. None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Email him at bill@-schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

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