Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Mon Sep 14 2009, 11:22PM

Maybe you've heard about the Cash for Appliances program, a spin off of the Cash for Clunkers program

Maybe you've heard about the Cash for Appliances program, a spin off of the Cash for Clunkers program. Essentially, the government will give you a rebate if you trade-in your old, inefficient household appliance for new Energy Star rated ones. But how do you know if your old frig, dishwasher or dryer really has reached the end of its useful life? After all, another way to be green is to use products as long as possible rather than scrapping them prematurely.

Whether to fix it or replace it is a tough call. The first step is to check your warranty. Many household appliances have long-term manufacturer's warranties. Next, get an estimate. If the repair cost is 50% or more of the price of replacement, you should scrap it. If the repair cost is 50% or less, ask yourself some questions. What kind of shape is the appliance in? If it's already been fixed several times, it may not be worth another overhaul. Do newer models offer vastly improved features? For example, new refrigerators use less energy than old ones. You may be able to recoup part of the cost of replacement that way. Consider whether the appliance is unique. If it fits into an odd space or it's an unusual color, it may be too expensive and difficult to replace. Finally, figure out how old the appliance is. Over the years, experts have figured out the average life of most household appliances. Here they are:

Air conditioners 8 to 15 years

Dishwashers 5 to 12 years

Disposals 5 to 12 years

Dryers 8 to 12 years

Freezers 15 to 20 years

Furnaces 8 to 12 years

Heat pumps 8 to 12 years

Refrigerators 15 to 20 years

Stoves 15 to 20 years

Washers 8 to 12 years

Water heaters 8 to 12 years

Don't just go online and hire the first company you find. Be the hunter, not the hunted! Don't do business with companies that come to you out of the blue. Beware of companies that call and claim to be subsidiaries or affiliates of the company you usually use. Instead, check out repair companies with the BBB at www.bbb.org. You can also ask your county or state consumer protection office. Keep in mind, in some states, appliance repair companies have to be licensed. If you don't have a solid referral, plan on getting more than one repair estimate on expensive appliances.

When you call for an appointment, be ready with the make and model number of the appliance. That way you can make sure the company services that brand and that the technician is prepared to bring the proper tools. Ask whether the company charges for estimates. Most companies waive that fee if you go ahead with the repair work. Find out the charge for the first half hour of work and see if there's a minimum repair charge.

When the technician comes to your home, ask for a written estimate. That estimate should list all parts needed, plus labor charges. Some states require the technician to get your permission if the price is going to rise more than 10% above the written estimate. Find out if the company offers a warranty and get it in writing. Typically, repair companies guarantee their labor for 30 days, the parts for 90 days. Heads up: don't panic if one of these companies tells you your appliance is a hazard. That's an age-old ploy. Stop using the appliance and get a second opinion.

Once you choose a repair company, alert the technician up front that you are going to want your old parts back. This is a good test to make sure the technician really does replace those parts. Keep in mind, the technician cannot give you your old parts if they contain hazardous materials or if the manufacturer requires their return in exchange for warranty service.

Don't pay big bucks up front. Established companies should not ask you for any money at the beginning of the job. Certainly don't pay more than ten or twenty percent. When the job is complete, pay by check or credit card. It's hard to fight the charges if you pay cash.