WASHINGTON -- No one ever wants to put money into a house. Owners will do it less grudgingly if they have to because of health or safety reasons or to protect the integrity of the house.
They will also move more quickly if money is not a consideration or if they expect to get back the investment soon by selling the property for a lot more than they paid.
But a national recession, with an increasing joblessness rate, really makes homeowners think about priorities and about how they might anticipate or delay budget-busting expenses.
"My experience is that people always try to put off repairs, particularly major ones," said Michael Casey, incoming president of the American Society of Home Inspectors Inc. and a home inspector in Haymarket, Va., for 17 years. "But these times definitely can make it more difficult. ... I certainly would not be thinking of replacing my roof if I were laid off. ... I'd have a professional -- a licensed contractor -- patch it."
"In a down economy, a lot of people aren't doing the big things, like putting on additions. Instead, they're spending small money on short-term repairs to make sure that whatever's wrong doesn't turn into big money," said Walt Stoeppelwerth of HomeTech Information Systems Inc., a Bethesda, Md., home inspection firm and publisher of building cost-estimating books.
"In times like these, handyman spending goes up rather than down," Stoeppelwerth said. "People try to fix things rather than buy new things."
Setting priorities, however, is never easy when it comes to a house.
Experts said attention should always be paid first to those problems that threaten the integrity of the house, such as the roof, or anything that is leaking or flooding. For instance, a water heater that is starting to leak is about to fail completely and should be replaced.
When it comes to appliances, energy savings can be a big incentive for replacement because of the lower monthly bills, experts said. But the upfront costs often give homeowners pause.
What makes it hard to decide whether to delay, repair or replace is that there is no hard scientific data on how long your particular appliance or roof will last.
In fact, though, there is no real definitive source for how long any appliance, roof or building material can last, experts said.
What is available instead regarding durability is based mostly on manufacturers' estimates.
The National Association of Home Builders, for example, in 1993 published a much-welcomed, wide-ranging life expectancy survey.
Among its findings, the survey said the typical life of a major appliance is about 15 years, with the average refrigerator and range lasting a bit longer and the average washing machine a bit less.
Fiberglass bathroom products and materials were said to be good for 10 to 15 years, while the average for cast-iron bathtubs is 50 years. The life expectancy for a toilet is 10 to 15 years, but the seats do not hold up as long because manufacturers have replaced metal bolts with plastic ones.
Central air-conditioning units on average last 15 years, the survey said, while window units last 10. Electric water heaters are good for 14 years with proper maintenance, while heat pumps have a 15-year average.
The survey is the most-requested publication the NAHB has ever issued, but the group is the first to acknowledge that the data were drawn from manufacturers and trade associations rather than from independent analysis.
Consumer demand for the information is still high, despite the shortcomings of the data, "because there is no scientific data," said Gopal Ahluwalia, the NAHB's chief economics researcher.
Ahluwalia regrets that there is not more information, but he said the big problem has been finding money and time to do more. He is planning an expanded update on life expectancy in six months, with financial help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The new study seeks to improve on the old by including consumers in the survey, he said.
The builders' numbers, however, are similar to life expectancy estimates published by Bethesda's HomeTech Information Systems and used by inspectors and building contractors. There are some differences in the details -- for example, HomeTech says a water heater will last eight to 12 years rather than the 14 that builders estimate.
Do not put too much faith in any of the estimate surveys, though. According to both the builders and HomeTech, much of what happens to appliances and equipment in real life depends on how the equipment or appliances are treated by their owners.
"One of the caveats in the survey was that you must do the manufacturer-suggested maintenance procedures, and most people don't do that," Ahluwalia said. "For air conditioners, for example, manufacturers recommend replacing filters every six months. But people don't."
Other variables also cannot be covered by averages. Life expectancy "always depends on the quality of installation, the level of maintenance during use, the weather and climate conditions, and the intensity of use," warned the builders' 1993 report.
Ahluwalia said the survey also was hurt by some manufacturers' resistance to committing to an expected lifetime. "Some ... said they feared homeowners would think this was the warranty time for a product, not the life expectancy," Ahluwalia said.
But the group's intent was only to offer an expected average, Ahluwalia said. "An average is an average," he said. "It's the same with a person's lifetime. One person may live to be 80, but another may only live to be 22."
Another useful source of information is Consumer Reports magazine, though it doesn't publish an overall timetable for when things in the house will break.
Instead, the magazine offers general estimates on life spans and then draws heavily on lab testing and its subscribers' repair experiences. It then ranks major brands in its annual buying guide and in monthly reports on different products.
The magazine annually publishes a report, "Fix It or Forget It," that lays out the numbers on when to stop paying for repairs and instead buy new models. This October's "Fix It or Forget It" report drew on the experiences of 38,000 subscribers to evaluate 22 major household products.
The results on major appliances may disappoint homeowners who have banked on manufacturers' longevity estimates.
Based on its readers' experiences and the costs of repairs vs. replacements, Consumer Reports said it is better to replace most big appliances after only seven years of operation.
Wall ovens, because they cost more than most appliances, are worth keeping for a longer time.
Microwave ovens, with relatively low price tags, are always cheaper to replace than repair, Consumer Reports found.
The magazine also emphasized that extended warranties "generally aren't a good investment."
"Generally, extended warranties amount to little more than unnecessary insurance," Consumer Reports spokeswoman Jen Shecter said. "I call them insurance Linus blankets (after the "Peanuts" character who always carries a blanket around) because you're betting on several things -- that it will break during the period of the extended warranty and that the cost of repair will exceed the warranty -- that usually won't happen."
The nation's home appliance manufacturers also publish data that could influence when a homeowner might want to replace a unit.
The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers tracks how long consumers keep appliances, regardless of whether they break or simply fall out of favor because of design or color.
The latest report, issued last summer, indicates that consumers are retiring most major appliances earlier than they did five years ago.
According to the survey, people keep freezers the longest -- for 11.7 years. Ranges get replaced after 9.5 years, clothes dryers and refrigerators after 8.5 years, and clothes washers and microwave ovens after 7.7 years.
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