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Posted on Sun. Feb. 09, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Consumers keeping appliances as long as possible

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Average life expectancy of major appliances:

Refrigerator: 13 to 19 years, with (rare) single-door models at the top end, top freezer at 17 years and side-by-sides at 14 years

Stove: 13 to 15 years. Gas stoves outlast electrics by two to five years on average

Washer: 10 to 14 years, with top loaders at upper end

Dryer: 10 to 13 years

Garbage disposal: 10 to 12 years

Dishwasher: 9 years

Microwave oven: 9 years

Trash compactor: 6 years

Baby boomers’ joints aren’t the only things getting a little creaky lately. So, likely, are the major appliances in their homes – and in the homes of other Americans, too.

According to a new federal survey, the nation’s consumers are hanging on to their refrigerators, stoves, washers, dryers and dishwashers for a lot longer.

The average age of major appliances is higher now than at any point but one since 1987, the report by the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis found.

Area appliance dealers have taken note.

“What’s happened is that, unless people are doing a full remodel of their kitchen, or their appliance is dead in the water, they’ll hang on,” says Tom Mathis, sales manager and owner of Wisman Appliances in Fort Wayne.

He blames the recession’s lingering effects – continuing uncertainty about employment and overtapped credit – with making consumers wary of buying big-ticket items.

“Why would you upgrade when your refrigerator is still working but only making ice half of the time? You’ll say, ‘I just won’t use that,’ and keep going.”

Jim Benninghoff, in sales at Stucky Bros. appliance store in Fort Wayne, agrees.

“We’ve been trying to keep track of things that come in (for repairs), and generally, yes, they are older than they used to be,” he says. “People are holding on to stuff as long as they can.”

They’re people such as Fort Wayne’s Walt Hackett.

“We’ll buy things new, but we make sure we get our dollars’ worth out of them,” says the 63-year-old retired health care administrator, who confesses to having a stove from the 1980s, a 25-year-old refrigerator and a microwave from, wait for it, 1969.

“My parents bought it from Montgomery Ward, and it was passed down,” he says.

The microwave has only one setting, but when the latch on the handle broke a while back, Hackett made a new one out of a piece of metal and kept on using the oven – which works fine, he says.

“I’m kind of a hands-on person, so if something breaks, I get it repaired or try to see if I can get a part or make a part, and I fix it,” he says. “I expect to be able to service things and keep ’em functioning.”

Indeed, some analysts say the population bump of boomers with similar attitudes may be contributing to the nonreplacement trend.

That generation, bred of Depression-era parents and facing retirement’s fixed incomes, may not be willing to invest in new things that just might last longer than they will – or figure they’ll be moving soon enough to a fully furnished living situation to make do with what they’ve got.

But Benninghoff says sticker shock also can be a factor. With basically flat incomes and spending more of their money on intangibles, such as health care, insurance and energy, people have less to spend on durable goods, he says.

Terry Broberg-Swangin of Fort Wayne says she’s been living with a now 30-year-old stove for several years. It came with the house, she says, and she can’t afford a new one.

“I’m like a lot of people; I live paycheck to paycheck,” the 54-year-old says.

Benninghoff says prices of basic appliances haven’t gone up much for a few years, but prices for ones with popular features have, and even basic models have inched upward lately.

“The biggest increase we’ve seen is in washing machines,” Benninghoff says, adding that the front-loading, high-efficiency washer designs cost more because they need bigger motors.

“To buy a washer or a dryer, it used to be to get someone to pay $699 was like pulling teeth,” Mathis adds. “Now it’s nothing to see $1,800 to $2,000 on a washer that’s a front-loader.”

Similarly, he says, refrigerators with the French-door design, ice- and water-dispenser, bottom freezer and stainless steel finish can easily cost $3,600 or more, compared with $500 for a standard one-door, freezer-on-top model.

Customers might not mind rolling that kind of price into a mortgage when they build a new house. But they tend to be quite surprised at what replacements cost, area dealers say.

Randy Doty, owner of Sandpoint TV and Appliances in Fort Wayne, says a portion of the higher prices is the result of new government requirements for energy efficiency or water conservation in appliances.

He’s seen a change in buying patterns based on cost, with people more often making repairs to older units, even though costs there are also rising.

“Say we used to repair a washer for $100. Now it’s not uncommon to find a bill of $300 or $400 because of the cost of parts,” he says.

But people swallow the higher repair price because new machines are about double what they were a few years ago.

“I think that’s forcing people to keep things longer,” Doty says.

But Doty also thinks consumers haven’t been enamored with features the industry thinks they want. So-called smart washing machines are one example, he says.

“We don’t even have a washer that’s not electronically controlled,” Doty says. But when asked if people like such machines, his reply comes quickly.

“No,” he says. “People are afraid of them.”

When people do laundry, Doty says, “they just want to press a button or turn a knob and have something similar to what they have and are used to.”

Mathis says he’s noticed that when people have replaced appliances, many have been looking for used units. He says they’re in somewhat shorter supply because people are using items until they wear out and aren’t trading in as many.

In addition, he says, the life span of more recently manufactured appliances is tending to become shorter, adding to the pressure for used pieces.

Nonetheless, industry prognosticators already are forecasting that this year may unleash a wave of replacement buying as the economy improves.

“I really believe we have a significant amount of pent-up demand today, and we’ll get a catalyst from both housing and the replacement cycle over the next three to five years,” Whirlpool CEO Jeff M. Fettig says.

Some local dealers think it might be sooner than that. With people cooped up in their houses because of the weather this winter, they just might be getting annoyed enough at having only three burners working on the stove to come out and buy as soon as the weather breaks.

“It’s always hard to predict pent-up demand,” Mathis says. “But people have to replace appliances. You’re not going to eat out all the time. And you’re not going to want to always be going to the laundromat.”

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