What do side-by-side refrigerators , laptop computers, and zero-turn-radius riding lawn mowers  have in common? They’re among the most repair-prone products consumers can buy, according to Consumer Reports’ most recent Product Reliability Survey.
Modern household products are not breaking more often, but when things go wrong, they tend to go horribly wrong. Consumer Reports National Research Center found more than half of the 33 products tested that did break, stopped working altogether. 30 percent still worked, but worked poorly.
Here’s what Consumer Reports found:
Computers break – a lot. Around one in three laptops and desktops break by their fourth year. Many computer breakdowns are due to malicious software (malware) or hard drive failure. Installing antivirus software on a computer is the best defense against malware. To be safe, always shut down the device before traveling even a short distance.
Repair-Prone Products: Some technologies are finicky. Refrigerators with icemakers are twice as likely to break down as those without. The device’s complicated design and the extreme environment it must operate in explains the high failure rate. Among laundry appliances, front-loading washers are more repair-prone than top-loaders. The large rubber gasket that forms a watertight seal around the door is the common culprit. Mold is another issue. Manufacturers recommend periodically cleaning the gasket with a bleach solution and keep the door ajar after each use to allow ventilation.
Extended warranties don’t deliver: Based on Consumer Reports’ survey, appliances usually don’t break during the extended-warranty period, normally after the standard warranty has expired, but within two to three years of purchase. Even when breakdowns occur in that time the median repair cost isn’t much more than the median price of a warranty. And if a product doesn’t break the extended warranty is just a waste of money. A computer might be an exception, especially if you travel frequently and take the device along for the ride. Make sure the warranty covers accidental damage and extended tech support.
Brand reliability varies by product: Manufacturers often have strengths and weakness in different product categories. GE, for example, has made very reliable cooking appliances, but its refrigerators with ice-makers have been repair-prone. John Deere’s lawn tractors have been very reliable, but its self propelled lawn mowers have been significantly more repair-prone than other brands. And LG has made reliable plasma TVs and clothes dryers, but not reliable side-by-side refrigerators.
The 50-percent rule still stands: Consumer Reports recommends that a replacement should be purchased if the repair will cost more than half the price of the new product. Replacing electronic gear might be less costly than most people think because prices are steadily dropping in some categories. Major appliances, on the other hand, are getting more expensive and they usually have long service lives, which is why Consumer Reports generally recommends holding onto them longer than electronics.
Some products are harder to repair: Consumer Reports’ survey indicates that repairs of gas cooktops, built-in refrigerators, and home-theater systems can also be frustrating because they take an inordinately long time or cost a lot, or because the item requires further service calls. Dryers, electric cooktops, and digital cameras have the highest success and satisfaction rates.
To ensure all consumers are well equipped to avoid lemons, check Consumer Reports for the “What Breaks, What Doesn’t” list of temperamental products and of some of the most and least reliable brands. You can also use the “Repair-or-Replace Timeline” charts to find out which products to fix and which aren’t worth the effort or expense.