Reaffirming what consumer advocates have advised for years, a major consumer study says many extended warranties for household appliances and electronics aren't worth the paper on which they are written.

Not only do most consumers never use the warranties, out-of-warranty repairs can be cheaper than the cost of an extended warranty. Moreover, buying a newer product with the latest technological features is often a better deal than repairing the old broken unit.

"Extended warranties generally aren't a good investment," according to Consumer Reports' "Fix It Or Forget It?" the advertisement-free consumer magazine's survey of 38,000 readers who offered their experiences with 22 major household items.

"Rule of thumb: If a broken VCR, CD player, or printer is more than two years old, replace it. But if a lawn tractor, wall oven, or projection TV goes on the fritz, it may be worth fixing even after six or seven years," the magazine reported.

Survey participants repaired 12 percent fewer comparable broken products than did participants in Consumer Reports 1997 survey and while repairs for camcorders and VCRs declined most, the magazine's latest survey showed that repairs also dropped for electric ranges, microwave ovens, and top-freezer refrigerators.

Consumer Reports said 34 percent of survey participants who decided against repairs cited falling prices for new products as the reason, while 22 percent were driven by a desire for new features. Consumers also complained of decreased serviceability, shrinking parts supplies and sub par service as reasons to move up the latest products.

The survey zeroed in on kitchen and laundry appliances, home entertainment electronics, computers and lawn-care equipment.

Here's a look at a three-year warranty's cost for some items along with typical non-warranty repair costs for those same items when they are three years old. Don't forget, says Consumer Reports, you are gambling on the "unlikely possibility" the product will malfunction during the term of the extended warranty.

Product Warranty Repair
Lawn tractor/riding mower $300 $180
Projection TV $300 $290
Analog camcorder $150 $150
Desktop PC $140 $200
Self-propelled mower $135 $75
Range/stove $120$140
Vacuum cleaner $75$50
VCR $75$75
19-20 inch TV $65$85
Source: Consumer Reports

Throw-away technology

For all items, Consumer Reports generally recommends repairing appliances and electronics during the first few years when warranties likely cover most if not all of the cost. However, whenever the repair cost of a major appliance exceeds 50 percent of the replacement cost, regardless of its age, replacing it instead of paying for a repair it probably a better idea. Not only is it relatively cheaper, the new model likely brings major new technology into your home.

Kitchen, laundry

Depending upon the appliance, for the first four to six years of a washer's, dryer's, refrigerator's, range's or oven's life, repairing is almost always the right thing to do. Beyond that, repairing or replacement can be an option on a case-by-case basis.

Built-in wall ovens, which typically cost $85 to $250 to repair and $800 to $1,200 to replace, have the longest repair life. On the other hand, microwave ovens are almost always cheaper to replace at $100 to $150 for counter top models, than they are to repair for $50 to $150.

Home entertainment

Among home entertainment electronics, rear-projection televisions have the longest repair life of 8 years or more. Repairs typically cost $180 to $400, but replacement can be as high as $3,500 or more for newer digital models. Likewise, larger televisions with picture tubes have longer repair lives than smaller televisions with picture tubes because of the relatively cheaper replacement cost on the smaller units.

VCRs and CD players have the shortest repair life based on comparative replacement costs. Among the most repair-prone products of all the items in Consumer Reports' survey (50 to 59 percent of them had repair problems), VCRs and CD players both cost about $50 to $100 to repair. VCRs cost only $80 to $150 to replace and CD players cost $100 to $250 to replace.

Of all the products in Consumer Report's survey, analog camcorders were the most repair prone. Sixty-seven percent of them had repair problems, according to consumers surveyed. They cost $100 to $200 to repair and $250 to $450 to replace.

Computer products

Laptop computers were also highly repair prone with 62 percent of consumers surveyed citing repair problems, but in the first four years or so it's cheaper to keep them and shell out the $100 to $400 in repair costs rather than pay $1,000 to $2,500 to replace them.

Desktop PCs don't break down as often (56 percent had repair problems), but because they are cheaper to replace, they have a shorter repair life, about three years, compared to four for laptops.

Printers were less prone to break down than both laptop and desktop PCs, but they are earlier candidates for replacement because they cost only $100 to $130 to replace and $50 to $125 to repair.

Lawn care products

Because they are relatively so expensive, lawn tractors, riding mowers and walk-behind gas-powered mowers have long repair lives ranging from five years for walk-behinds to eight or more years for riding mowers and tractors.

It will cost you $50 to $100 to repair walk-behind mowers and $125 to $450 for walk-behinds, depending if the model is self-propelled or pushed.

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