Why Today’s Appliances Look Good, But Don’t Last

When we got married several decades ago I received the usual assortment of small appliances as wedding gifts.  I remember those Harvest Gold appliances fondly, and they lasted a surprisingly long time.  In fact I still own some.

So why is it that the replacements have to be replaced again every couple of years?

Suspiciously, most of these items seemed to last just a hair longer than the manufacturers’ warranty.

Related: Who Are You Calling An Antique?

Planned obsolescence

Manufacturers have increasingly adopted a policy of designing products that work more efficiently and have a large range of features, but are short on durability.

We’ve become a throwaway generation because today’s appliances are so much cheaper than they were a few decades ago and consumers have to work fewer hours in order to buy them.

For example, our first VCR cost over $600 and I was earning approximately $7 an hour at the time.  Now you can buy a Blu-ray player for under $100 and even the minimum wage is higher than what I was earning.

Average life spans of major appliances

I recently bought a new washer and dryer set.  When I pulled out my paperwork I discovered that I had originally purchased the old set in December of 1993, so it’s given me a good run for my money.  The washer only needed one small repair in all that time, which my husband was able to fix.

Related: Extreme Money Saving Tips

When our salesman was giving his spiel about the importance of getting an extended warranty, he said that 4 out of 5 machines would need a major repair within 3 years.  I don’t know if that’s a true statement, but if it is, why do consumers put up with that?

Most big-ticket appliances should still be counted on to work for a good 10 to 20 years.  Here’s a list of average life spans:

  • Dishwasher……….13 years
  • Clothes washer……14 years
  • Clothes dryer………18 years
  • Freezer…………….21 years
  • Range……………..18 years
  • Refrigerator……….17 years

I don’t have a list of small appliance life spans.  I always thought that you get what you pay for, and I would pay a little more for something that would have greater use.  This is not always the case.

We always bought a cheap Proctor Silex coffee pot that would last for about a year before breaking down.  After a few years I got fed up with this and got an expensive (for me) Cuisinart coffee maker with a few extra features.

I don’t know if we’re in some life-denying Bermuda Triangle vortex for coffee makers, but our fancy machine gave up after a little more than two years (yes, it had a 2-year warranty).

So now I’m back to my cheap Proctor Silex pots.  When they’re on sale I buy two or three so I always have a replacement in case of a sudden coffee emergency.

EnerGuide ratings and fancy features

People are replacing old energy-guzzling units with more efficient units.  Appliance manufacturers have made tremendous improvements to their products to reduce energy usage.  This can be a huge cost savings for consumers.

For example, refrigerators and freezers manufactured today are at least 50% more energy-efficient than those built in 1982.  Front loading washers are making a comeback in North America and although they can be more expensive than top-loading machines, they also use about 40% less water.

By choosing an appliance with a low EnerGuide number, you’ll save money (especially if electricity rates rise over the years).

Preserving the environment, however, will only occur if we’re not tossing out our appliances every couple of years.

Another major reason for replacing appliances, even if they still work, is the number of impressive features they now have.  The technology is amazing – different coldness temperatures in fridges, double ovens and dishwashers, dryers that steam freshen your clothes.

Related: Shopping – Too Many Choices!

A problem for some people is paying excessively for fancy features because they sound good, and then using only one or two.  There’s nothing wrong with upgrading, but don’t over buy.

Final Thoughts

Apparently, back in the day, we liked to buy a new car every couple of years but we expected our appliances to last forever.  Those heavy old workhorses were certainly more reliable and long lasting but they basically had only one function.

Today’s appliances have many more amazing features, and they look good too.

Too bad they don’t last as long.

I like to have the best of both worlds.  What about you?


33 Responses to Why Today’s Appliances Look Good, But Don’t Last

  1. You should have a look at the Bunn coffee maker from Tim Horton’s. Ours is 5 years old and working flawlessly. No fancy clocks (there’s enough in the kitchen already), no automatic turn-off, no delayed start (not really necessary since it makes 4 mugs of coffee in about 3 minutes).

    Yeah, we paid ~ $150 for it, but it was well worth the price. It’s the Weber of Coffee makers.

  2. Designs have definitely changed. I thin there’s several causes.
    – No one repairs appliances. Design for repair generally also improves reliability.
    – Much more comparison shopping with fewer humans involved on the sales side. Good human salesmen used to guide customers to more reliable brands.
    – Design to warranty & customer preference for low price/short warranty.

    • @W: People always look for the best deal or cheapest price. Also it’s getting harder to comparison shop for large appliances as each store carries a slightly different model with different features, and, as you say, no one is available to guide you.

  3. Good point as we can now buy a car and expect it to last ten years, with the advancement in quality, yet appliances have gone backwards. I guess we have to put the money we save on new car purchases towards appliances!

    • @Money Beagle: I have noticed that basic major appliances are approximately the same price as twenty years ago, or even cheaper. I noticed that our old washer and dryer cost around $1000 and the same model (yes they still make it) with an agitator is a little more than half that price. Of course, no one wants that old style any more!

  4. I love the 3 coffee pots solution. I second the calls for the BUNN Tim Horton’s maker. We’ve had one in our staff room at school for two years now and it has held up great. If it can survive the amount of java that teachers put through it everyday you know it’s built of stern stuff.

    • @TM: You mean teachers have to fortify themselves with coffee to get through the day ? :)

      I don’t drink as much coffee as I used to when I worked full time, so if it lasted for 10 years it would equal my cheapie pot in costs.

  5. Planned obsolescence will be the downfall of mankind. We sure like to buy new products and throw them away. The garbage is magically whisked away and we never see it again.

    The problem is these new devices we buy are getting fancier and using rare earth metals in them. These rare earth metals will eventually run out and then what are we going to use? Also we are going to run out of places to hide the garbage and then what?

    All this to keep profits up year after year to please investors. What’s it going to take to make this vicious cycle stop?

    • @Steve: They will make a big island of garbage in the middle of the ocean.

      It’s in the manufacturers’ best interests to come up with new and better features to get us to buy – and it works! We need to get back to the days when durable goods are used for their specific purposes (without all the extra features that don’t get used anyway) and last a decent period of time.

  6. Well, we have lived here about ten years, and all five major appliances are still functioning (knock on wood). That’s 5 for 5. Only the fridge has a ripped seal, but that’s because we stuff too much in and then insist on closing the door.

    In the meantime, we are on our third kettle, our second toaster and our third microwave oven. So, to your question about small appliances, I think there is a big difference in durability.

  7. Couldn’t agree with you more. I am sick and tired of replacing my coffee maker and can opener every 2 years. The last refridgerator I bought ended up with a huge sag on the top as well as corrosion – I guess the material is so thin in order to save manufacturing costs. And my silent dishwasher does not clean as well as my old Maytag! :p

  8. Not only is it bad for our finances that these things keep breaking down, but the amount of garbage is just ridiculous. I know this is pretty old school, but have you thought of just making cups of coffee with either an italian coffee press (only breaks if you drop the glass on the ground) or using a melitta? I love using those, some say the taste is better and the one I’ve had is at LEAST 5 years old, if not 10 years old.

    • @Gillian: I’m really going to date myself here but I used to own a Pyrex coffee pot that you put on the stove top. It made really bad coffee though because you always had to watch it so the water didn’t boil. There was a fine line between ready and burnt.

      When I was in Europe I came to like the coffee made in a French press (probably the same thing as your Italian press). These are very popular there, but not so much here. I guess North Americans prefer all the bells and whistles.

  9. What bothers me even more is it is not worth repairing. It is generally too expensive to repair small appliances that it is now disposable. Items like toasters, blenders etc are not worth repairing, it is less expensive to replace.

    • @krantcents: I would like to be able to repair my old appliances instead of getting new, not very durable ones. But as you say, it’s too expensive and it’s hard to find some Mr Fixit who can do it.

      Also, it seems too much trouble to pack up the product and mail it to the manufacturer (at our own cost) for warranty repair. I wonder how many people actually do that?

      • I do send out things for warranty repair and keep all my receipts and documentation so I’m covered (what a hassle). However, even someone meticulous like myself, gets tired of this and I do now try and make sure it is worth my time before doing it.

        I am ashamed to admit that if the product is cheap enough and the shipping expensive enough I will junk it and just find a good deal on a new one that costs half as much as it would to get the old one repaired.

  10. I’m British so I drink alot of Tea so when I moved here I picked up a cheapo kettle for I think around $9 at Zellers. It did the trick for 2 years then we bought a house. We thought since we were going to change to all Stainless Appliances it was only appropriate to update our small appliances. Well that over $100 Stainless kettle didn’t make it through the first 6 months. It’s now garbage and our cheapo $9 kettle is still rolling…

  11. My parents have a General Electric refrigerator that is likely from the 1950s but could be even older for all I know. Still purring away sweetly in the basement. Might not be the most energy efficient on the market but it was paid in full a long time ago, works great, and looks kinda cool to boot!

    Of course if everyone only bought one fridge in their lifetime, the fridge companies wouldn’t be too happy, would they?

  12. I would have to agree with how shoddy small appliances have become. When my wife and I first got married we got a fancy hand mixer. It lasted a little over a year. We bought another. It lasted just over two years. My mother gave us a hand mixer that she had gotten for her wedding (it was still in the box). It only has three settings and is tan and brown, but it has lasted over six years now. As far as coffee makers go, we have given up and gone to a french press.

    • Sometimes it does seem that certain middle- and low-end gadgets last longer than more expensive ones. That seems to be true even today…maybe the cheaper small appliances use older technology???

  13. An easy sign of quality on small appliances these days seems to be if there are replacement parts included in the box. A blender I got as a gift almost 3 years ago came with replacement gaskets so that when the rubber started to get brittle you could insert a fresh one. So far, haven’t had to use one, but the blender is still kicking and I use it almost daily.
    The manufacturer that thinks about what parts might break and plans ahead is probably making a higher quality product!

  14. My parents have a crazy dryer that’s been going for 42 years! And it’s gotten (almost ) daily use.

    I use a Black & Decker coffee maker (with timer) and I sort of wish it would die. I bought Black & Decker ’cause I thought anyone who makes tablesaws and drills would probably make a sturdy maker. They did, indeed. It’s about 5 or 6 years old, and trust me–you really don’t want them to live that long because they get grotty. I feel sorry for it, it’s done it’s workload–thousands and thousands of pots, it can retire anytime it wants and will get a proper, thankful sendoff.

  15. Companies have figured out there’s more profit in manufacturing appliances that don’t last long (just long enough for you to believe they’re worth the money). Things used to be built out of solid materials, now its all cheap and plastic. I’ve definitely come to appreciate technology our appliances have today, but sometimes its just too much. A TV in a refrigerator? C’mon… That won’t stop me from spending a few extra bucks for more (perceived) quality :)

    • @Veronica: Manufacturers are increasingly using electronic controls, probably because they are cheaper to make. The old mechanical controls on the other hand are easier to repair.

      I like a lot of the upgrades some appliances now have but I don’t need a TV in my fridge door or a computer that will tell me I’m low on milk. Like the old saying – just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

  16. Counterpoint: consumers are (as a whole) lazy. How many people actually do Google searches for reviews any potential appliance they’re going to buy? Or for that matter ANYTHING they’re going to buy?

    I do, and I’ve avoided a tonne of poorly designed products. My parent, on the other hand, recently bought a “nice” convection microwave that has underperformed and broken down several times. On Googling that model, I see dozens of hits online indicating common problems. Yet, my parents stick with it like an old pair of shoes.

    Like the people getting the politicians they deserve, consumers get the appliance they vote for with their dollars.

    Be informed and avoid junk.

    • @CJOttowa: It’s easy to do research and comparison shopping on line, but you have to be careful about the sites. Many commenters only respond when they have problems and negative experiences so you don’t get the whole story.

      I won a 50″ TV that was an off brand we had never heard of. On looking it up we couldn’t believe all the negative reviews on it. We certainly wouldn’t have bought that TV based on what we had read – but it was free so we didn’t worry. It’s had good use for over 4 years now and we haven’t had any problems with it.

      Make sure you go to reliable sites that do their own testing, like Consumer Reports, for more balanced reviews.

  17. To take your VCR example, let’s assume that minimum wages (and prices in general) have doubled since you bought that machine. So the $600 VCR should cost $1,200 today. And if you go to a blue ray player, which is more advanced, higher quality, and all that, we can assume that would be priced 2-3x higher because it’s better. So if you bought a $3,6000 blue-ray player you should expect it to last a few decades :)

    I’m not sure how the comparison runs for other appliances but it would be interesting to see if there are more expensive options that pay off in reliability. I would go for those every time. It’s hard to find good information on that since personal reviews are biased/isolated incidents (can you find a major car brand that doesn’t have people who will never buy it again?), everyone selling something has an incentive to push you in a certain direction (such as a higher price), and with the number of new models it’s hard to get good data on something that is still for sale.

    It does sound like coffee machines are a market plagued with unreliability. There seem to be a few options in the $2000+ range but I barely know where to find our coffee maker so fortunately I don’t have to figure that out!

  18. I suspect those lifespans are a little on the generous side. An appliance repair guy once told me that large kitchen and laundry appliances are now engineered to die in 7 years. And Consumer Reports has published figures that show when it’s more cost-effective to replace an appliance than to repair it…last time I saw one of those charts, it pretty much worked out to a 7-year lifetime.

    My pet peeve in the small appliance department is toasters. Have you noticed that toasters don’t make toast? You either get warm bread or a chunk of charcoal, with nothing in between. It was not always thus: back in the Dark Ages, toasters made TOAST. I read an article a year or two ago that explained why that’s happened: it’s really not hard or expensive to make a real toaster, but manufacturers collectively decided to quit doing so. The only way you can get one that makes actual toast now is to pony up $300 for a Kitchenaid. So…I don’t eat toast anymore, or else I try to toast bread slices over a propane grill.

    The coffee machine is another annoying case in point. The things make awful coffee and the price is ridiculous. That’s why I use a French press.

    The problem with online reviews, BTW, is that they’re now so liberally salted with paid raves that you can’t believe them. I usually look first at the one-star reviews and then at the three-stars. People who bitch very bitterly are often just malcontents, but the three-star reviews seem to be more credible.

  19. I have three observations on this important topic.

    One is to use old but well-made things. My coffee grinder is an Armin Trosser hand grinder, made in Switzerland and date stamped September 1943. Still works beautifully!

    Second is to purchase refurbished appliances from the 1940s and 50s. There are several refurbishers, mostly in the US, who do this work. Not cheap, and you have to light the gas stoves with a match, but they appear to last because they were built right. They are re-enameled properly, have all wiring upgraded, and timers rebuilt.

    Third, keep using things that work. My alarm clock is an old Baby Ben wind-up,from the early 50s. Bought it in a junk shop. It works every morning, and ticks away almost silently by my bed. If I have to be somewhere early in the morning, if wakes me up on-time and gets me on my way.

    There is value in old things.

  20. When we had a re-do of the kitchen 20 years ago we bought a top of the line range with all the gadgets for $1400. Within 2 years the panel broke down for a out of warrenty $400 repair. Then 3 years later the panel broke again, for $400 again. then 2 years later the oven sensor broke and the panel was beeping errors.
    We tossed it out, got the basic no gadget range 10 years ago, and it has had NO problem what-so-ever.
    Moral of the story, avoid all the features , it is all the new features that break down, get the simplest one any you will be ok.

  21. We purchased a book in the early 80s called “The Durability Factor.”

    That book guided our purchases for many years, and still does now.

    So far, our Maytag washer and dryer has lasted 29 years, our Volvo 240 lasted for 20 years, our Sunbeam stand mixer [bought in a garage sale] has lasted since the 50s, as has our Sunbeam toaster [bought in a Salvation Army Thrift Store], our Canon SLR [bought used - still using breech-lock lenses] since the 70s, and our GE fan [bought at a garage sale for $2 and re-wired for $5] was made just after the turn of the 20th century – the patent date being 1907.

    I won’t bore you with a list of the things we own / have owned / thrown out. It’s too long.

    I wish we could have the days of durability back. Modern things seem to be made with an ‘easy come – easy go’ attitude. Sad really.

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