Consumer Reports, Total Cost of Ownership, and Why I Buy What I Do

Over the weekend, my wife and I visited an appliance store where we were looking at potential appliances that we may have to purchase when we move into our home. We are doing such things now so that we can quickly order such items when the actual rush of moving in and getting settled happens.

Anyway, while we were shopping, we were also perusing some materials we had printed off that discussed the various features of the washers and dryers we were looking at. Of particular interest to us was electrical use, water use, and reliability. In the end, after looking at a lot of different models, we came to an agreement on exactly which model to buy.

Afterwards, we sat around the dinner table with my parents and we told them about the washer we had decided on, including all the features and other caveats. When we told them the price of the washer, however ($1,200), my father almost spit out his food. “We’ve never spent more than $400 on a washing machine,” he said proudly.

However, under further discussion and inspection of their washer, I discovered that it had been replaced roughly every five years, it wasn’t Energy Star compliant (in fact, it used a ton of electricity) and it also used a lot of water. So, together, we sat down and ran the numbers over twenty years, assuming the same amount of laundry in both machines. Given the average front load washer lasts about twelve years, I figured in one and a half machines for myself at $1,200 a pop and four low-end top loaders for himself at $400 a pop, giving me a total of $1,800 in upfront costs, while he spends $1,600 up front.

Then it got interesting. When we looked at the cost per load for water and electricity, we found that his machine was costing roughly six cents per load more than my machine. If you figure six loads a week for fifty two weeks over twenty years, you end up with extra costs of almost $400. That means that his “cheap” machines have a total cost of ownership of almost $200 more than mine over twenty years. That’s also assuming that, even though I’m buying the most reliable one, it only has the “average” washing machine lifespan, plus it doesn’t include the additional headaches of buying as many new machines, having them delivered, etc.

When you are about to make an expensive purchase, it’s important to estimate how long you’ll be using the item. Will you be living in the same house in twenty years? Ten? Five?

With that in mind, it’s worth your time to calculate the total cost of ownership of an item. In other words, if you use this item normally over your timeframe, which is really the cheapest item? Factors always worth looking at are the reliability of the item (I use consumer publications and reviews to gauge this), the cost per use (electricity, water, miles per gallon, etc.), and also maintenance costs.

When I first started doing this regularly, I was often shocked to find that the best value price point was very rarely anywhere near the low end and was often near the high end. If you’re looking for the “best buy,” don’t just go for the cheapest item when making a major purchase, no matter what the item is. Spend some time figuring out what the total cost of the item’s use will be over a longer period of time, then compare the items based on that period.

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  1. alex says:

    Trent: Did you discount for the fact that future dollars are not worth as much? Every dollar spent on washing machines in the future is worth only a percentage of a present value dollar, due to inflation and opportunity cost.

    If you bought a cheap washer and invested the cost savings in the market, you would have 7 times as much money at the end of 20 years.

  2. Tyler says:

    Ok great article but which one did you go with? I always love your articles Trent, but including more of your experiences in them makes really helps others in my opinion. Sort of like the quote “do what the rich do” if you want to get rich. Well, others that may be buying a washing machine may want to say “do what Trent does.” It may help others make decisions because you’ve done the grunt work.

  3. Trent says:

    That’s assuming, Alex, that you had all of the money to spend right at the start of the period. That’s not a realistic view for most people.

    You easily can make this comparison very complicated. What about the inflation of electricity and water and gas to keep the item going? This means the savings for buying a lower-maintenance but higher-initial-cost unit is even greater.

    The easiest way to eliminate all of the back and forth variability is to simply not add in inflation at all.

  4. Bobby says:

    Of course, the $200 starting difference will be worth over $500 if you invested it at a measly 5% over 20 years.

    Or you could spend $500 on an energy star compliant top-loading washer and probably break even on the whole water/electricity savings compared to the top loader. Or at least get close enough for it to be a wash. Oh the pun hurts.

  5. And cut-rate appliances don’t last as long.

    We spent $1,300 on a Fisher & Paykel dishwasher. Worth every penny! Having a two-drawer dishwasher is amazing – you can have one drawer running (or clean), and still load dirty dishes in the other one. With a conventional dishwasher, you have to 100% empty it before putting dirty dishes in it.

  6. Lifeguard says:

    TCO is a valuable tool, but remember it is just a tool. I used it to buy my car, dishwasher, and oven. However, I would not use the technique to buy minor purchases, like a DVD player.

    And my Maytag washing machine and dryer have been going strong for 16 years … just before Energy Star started in 1992.

  7. Jim Lippard says:

    We bought a new washer and dryer just a couple of years ago. At the time, it seemed that the best-of-breed machines were the Whirlpool Duets, and they were priced accordingly. Many of our friends and relatives have bought them. We found, however, that a high-efficiency, high capacity front-loading Frigidaire model was rated almost as highly by Consumer Reports, though it didn’t have as many bells and whistles and looks decidedly low-tech by comparison. But after negotiating an additional 10% off the price, we paid less for the pair than the cost of a Duet washer.

  8. Andamom says:

    I agree to a limited amount about this comparison… Owner usage is an important component — If you and I had purchased the same machine and yet you were harder on it than me, it wouldn’t last as long… For business expenses, the method of depreciation matters a lot too (ex. straight line vs. activity based) as a business may only want to use a fixed asset for a specific period of time and then purchase anew.

  9. Trent says:

    Jim, that’s exactly why I love CR so much.

  10. Gene says:

    Another consideration for washing machines is the wear and tear on your clothes.

    Front loaders are MUCH gentler on you clothes – thus your clothes will stay in better condition longer vs. a top loader.

    Yet another benefit of top loaders.

  11. Chris says:

    Remember, most of the bells and whistles are never used. Buy a basic good washing machine.

  12. Josh says:

    Did you figure in the pricy service plan for that washer and dryer? With that insurance is the only way I’ll even think about buying such an expensive item — and even then I might pass on it because my experience in the past with getting the policy honored has been lacking. (Lots of hidden fees in the fine print.)

    I have a hard time spending large amounts of money on any appliance or electronic device, including computers. I usually go with the cheapest one that does what I want. Why? Because things aren’t built very well anymore and never seem to last as long as they should. How can Consumer Reports even test to see if a washer will last for 20 years? Even if it does, you have to plan on at least one or two service calls over the 20 year period. That isn’t cheap either.

    I’d say your father has the right idea, it’s the less risky, but it does bother me to create all that extra waste when the cheap appliance dies.

  13. Lisa says:

    20 years seems hard to plan for when I think of appliances. I expect the technology, at least the energy consumption, to have changed a lot by 2027. Twenty years ago no one would have been considering energy and water efficiency. Who knows what the primary consideration will be 20 years from now.

    It is a tough call, but I would go with the cheapest model of a respected brand and move up from there paying more for additional energy efficiency.

  14. Jean says:

    Actually, when we bought 23 years ago, we bought for reliability and durability. It was before front loaders. At least in the part of Canada I’m from. We bought a top loader with adjustable water and temperature levels, and an adjustable cycle length. It cost us $1200cdn. for the pair – washer and dryer. Both Maytag heavy duty machines. We bought before children.

    We wash a minimum of 6 loads a week. Up to about 12 when the kids were young. In late years (last 5) we’ve been hang drying 4 loads a week (about 2/3 of the laundry). Hang drying saves us about $20cdn/mth.

    The washer and dryer are both going strong as I speak. Only had a repairman in once for the dryer fan, and he put himself out of business when he told what the problem was and how to fix it! Lint had built up on the fan. He recommended vacuuming it on a regular basis.

    As my in-laws kept their Maytag set for close to 50 years, I have high expectations of our set. Only another 27 years to go…

  15. cami says:

    Besides your dad, did you ask any friends that might have similar needs about the models they used/considered? Sometimes there are models that are middle of the line that will hold up just as well as the top of the line, but you won’t pay for bells and whistles that you don’t need. I researched with friends as well as online when I was shopping for road bikes, which new start out more than a washers (so, major purchase), and I got great scoops on what I really needed.

    I like that you’re looking at this as a 20 year commitment, I wish more people did that, versus just sticking their unwanted appliances on the side of the road. Like Josh asked, just how do they know it will last 20 years? I’m curious.

  16. martha in mobile says:

    Mr. Washie and Mrs. Dry just celebrated their (estimated) 5,000th load together. That’s true love. They are Maytags — low end models of a (then) respected name, bought when I was pregnant with my daughter (we did the cotton diaper route, so they definitely have paid their dues).

    I get a little teary just thinking about it.

  17. Sarah says:

    Trent, the first poster is right. You really can’t talk about figures over such a long period of time without taking the time value of money into account. Your sense that you’re getting the math right is just an illusion if you don’t. It’s true that many people may not have the money up front–but you obviously do.

  18. right side of the river says:

    Hi Trent, I am a regular reader of your blog, though this is my first time posting. Do you and your father really do 6 loads of laundry a week? Reduce that by half and your calculation of ~$400 is down to ~$190.

  19. Ace Davis says:

    If you’re really going to shell out $1,200 up front, you should somehow account for the opportunity cost of forgoing some $800 in your pocket right now (or whatever the difference is between the machine you fell in love with and some other decent model from a reliable brand).

    Also, based on my experience, I would never expect to have to replace a broken washer every five years. Not for a reliable brand. As a fluke, a machine might die that young maybe once in your lifetime, but that could just as easily strike your pricey box too. That’s a risk worth thinking about for any such near-necessity.

    It’s a much safer bet that a decent machine in the $300-$450 range lasts at least 10 years, probably more like 20. Then, if it doesn’t, you’ll have a chance to get a new model and make another decision, one refined by having more real-world experience about what is really most important to your family about a washing machine.

  20. Lisa says:

    When I researched our w/d choices 7 years ago I also added into the equation our values related to living lightly on our planet. Less water, electricity and detergent use were important to us. Also, we have a well and septic system. Using both of these lightly is also important. They can cost $6-8,000 each to replace around here, plus all the hassle. It takes less electricity to dry clothes using a front loading machine. We used CR, bargained for the floor model, and paid no state tax (5%) due to the energystar rating.

  21. Lisa says:

    One more thing, we looked at buying used appliances out of the pennysaver. We bought our range for $100 and it still works great 7 years later. We bought our refrigerator and dishwasher used and it cost $200. The dishwasher finally broke this year, after 7 years of use. The refrigerator was fine but my husband wanted a different model, so after 5 years of use we bought a new one. I have no regrets except for the new fridge.

  22. plonkee says:

    Hmmm. I just buy the cheapest appliance that is A rated for energy efficiency and has the specific feature(s) that I want. For example my washing machine has a delay start so I can set it up before I go to work and the washing will be finished when I come home. I don’t care about the other features that I use.

  23. Sense says:

    wow, do people really use their machines 6x a week?? i wash one load every week, week and a half…

    staying single/childless really pays off! :)

  24. Michelle says:

    Here’s one thing no one ever mentions — the cost and inconvenience of moving the appliance if you relocate.

    You can leave the four year old washer behind, and buy a new one at your destination. With the expensive one, you take a big loss by either paying for the move or by selling it before you move.

    Since a lot of people move often, and sometimes without much warning, this could be a factor more often than you would think. Sadly, because otherwise I agree with your analysis completely.

  25. Dean Jackson says:

    Six loads a week?

    If you have a large washing machine, that seems like a *lot*.

  26. Debbie says:

    It doesn’t sound like you factored in detergent. I’m not sure how you’d do that. On the one hand, you’re officially supposed to use special detergents for those kinds of washers, and it costs more per load than regular detergent. On the other hand, I’ve heard rumors that you can use regular detergent so long as you use less of it, so that would cost less.

    I’ve found two additional problems with buying things that last a long time (besides the moving issue above). First, technology can advance so much that it’s cheaper to replace your perfectly good still-working item than it is to keep using it.

    Second, your needs or wishes may change such that you wish you had something different. For example, I’ll have to wait several additional years to switch to a metal roof because I got the 30-year shingles instead of the 20-year shingles; overall all I’ll pay for one metal roof and one shingle roof and it would have been cheaper to have gone with the 20-year shingles.

    Another comment: repairing things can be a bit cheaper these days now that you can often find instructions online (often from the manufacturer) and you can often buy the parts online from the manufacturer. I’ve fixed a washer very cheaply this way. And I’ve gotten a free door shelf for my refrigerator from the manufacturer when it broke right away.

    I’d also like you hear the choice you made. I’ve been looking at washers lately, and I haven’t found it obvious at all which one is best even though it sounds like we have similar priorities.

  27. ck_dex says:

    If you are buying the Duet w&d the electrical panel in our dryer had to be replaced within a year. Fortunately, it was the one and only time I had ever bought an extended warranty. But the washer has been wonderful and clothes come out very well-wrung versus a top-load, thus easier on the dryer.

  28. tabletoo says:

    1. A washer and dryer may come with the house – if not offered, you can always write it in the contract if you want the existing ones.

    2. It may be cheaper to buy a used washer and dryer. I bought an expensive ASKO front loading washer and dryer at the local Habitat for Humanity resale shop for about half retail. It was only two years old but the new owners did not like it so they donated it. It’s been great.

    3. It’s not necessary to buy a matched set, especially if they will be shut away. A repair person told me that dryers typically last much longer than washers. You could consider buying your dream washer and using an older dryer. By the way, I think the best way to extend the life of your washer is to NEVER overload it, better to slightly underload it, and not to use excess soap.

    4. Don’t forget noise and space issues. One reason we love our ASKOs is that the washer is very quiet through most of it’s cycle. It’s located in our kitchen. Also we love it because it is a front loader and we were able to build it in under the counter and get more counter space in our kitchen.

    5. I have had various front loaders. I prefer them. They do treat your clothes better and I think they wash better.

  29. Jackie says:

    While we did not sit down and factor out the calculations as detailed as you did, we recently bought a new washer and dryer and I couldn’t be happier that we splurged for the LG with steam cycle. The steam cycle has pretty much eliminated my need to dry clean my suits on a regular basis, thus saving significant amounts of money each month (has anyone ever noticed that it is typically more expensive to dry-clean women’s clothes than men’s clothes?). By a quick estimation, I figure within 6 months to a year it will have already made up for the additional amount we paid above other standard front-load, energy-saver machines.

  30. I bought a front loading washer and cheap dryer. I have an LG washer 2 years old and a maytag dryer. I looked in CR for the cheapest most energy efficient dryer. And save a nice bundle doing that.

    Now front loading washers save a lot on water 14 gallons versus 42 per load. Calculate that savings, plus the savings for heating the water. Also calculate that front loading washing machines use very little detergent, about a tablespoon a load, and are gentler on the clothes. I’ve had the same bottle of detergent for 2 years, I don’t buy it the way I used to. So nice savings there. Also front loaders get the clothes dryer so they are in the dryer longer. I unfortunately have an electric washer and dryer because the person who renovated my house was not smart. Plus where I live water and electric is ridiculous, so using less of both is awesome. I know I’ve saved money from my loaders.

  31. paula says:

    What is it about washers that inspire so many posts? I have bookmarked a website (“That Home Site!”) that is devoted to home stuff, and the posts about washers are passionate too. See http://ths.gardenweb.com/search/nph-ind.cgi?term=washers&p=3

    I bought my washer after perusing this site for awhile. I visit it for fun every now and then, along with The Simple Dollar! Every now and then I check it for new information about detergents, or a different appliance, or I go over to the garden site that it is part of, etc.

    There’s a useful tool buried under this discussion about washers: Calculating cost-per-use is an excellent technique for getting value out of everything you buy. Apply it to your clothing, for example. If you buy a dress at $50 because you like it, but it hangs in your closet because you don’t wear it anywhere, you have gotten $50 per wearing. If you find it is something you wear three times per season, that’s a little better. If you find you wear it around the house nearly every day, and suddenly realize it’s 12 years old, think of what a bargain that dress was–and would have been had you paid double for it.

  32. Bill says:

    front-loading models here in the U.S. are relatively recent introductions, and have not been very reliable.

    search any appliance repair forum for stories (e.g. Neptune)

    I agree with Ace – dad should switch brands – the Whirlpool direct-drive top-loaders are extremely reliable – those models can last 15+ years with only a $15 water pump replacement

    If you want to save energy doing the laundry:

    1. wash only in cold water

    2. buy a house where you can hang laundry to dry

    water use is only a consideration if your area is under mandatory water restrictions or you have a well with inadequate recharge

    use a “plant-friendly” detergent in the washer and send the discharge to a water barrel for later use in your garden/on your lawn.

    another consideration is since washers and dryers are so bulky many people will sell them cheap instead of paying to move them.

    that new $400 top-loader often won’t cost you any more than $100 used, even less if you are willing to take one in “avocado green” or “harvest gold” :)

  33. Marcus Murphy says:

    Trent, I highly recommend the German engineered Miele Washer and Dryers. They are even more efficient than other front loaders, plus they have a patented honeycomb washing basin. So not only will you be saving money on water and electricity, you will also be saving your clothes from being beat up by constant washings. They cost $1600 – $2000 but they will last you the full 20 years and save you more money too! I do not work for Miele I just admire all their products (which promote energy savings, ease of use, and durability). Good luck in all your endeavors.

  34. ck_dex says:

    The New York Times ran a feature recently on people who equip their rural (vacation) homes with European-brand ovens, washers and dryers, and then cannot find technicians to work on them. Or they have to pay hundreds in travel costs. Since you are in rural Iowa, check out the availability of technicians before buying a European brand, or you may have to entice the Miele repair person down from the Twin Cities.

  35. mjc says:

    Considering it took Sears 7 trips to correctly deliver and hook up my washer and dryer, I will always go with whichever choice requires fewer buying decisions in the future.

    That being said, we have been very happy with our new Whirlpool washer and dryer.

  36. Kevin says:

    I wonder if your calculations are somewhat flawed when determining costs over time of each washer. A dollar in the hand now is worth more than a dollar in the hand 10 and 20 years into the future. The purchasing power of a dollar degrades over time. Perhaps it is best to save the money now in some instances and invest the difference. Just sayin’

  37. Susan says:

    My parents have had the same cheapest washer/dryer set that was in the store since I was born. So yes, the 5 year washer/dryer can be a 31 year old washer/dryer. In contrast, a friend purchased a new fancy washer/dryer and it crapped out the 2nd year. Myself, I go with the cheaper top load due to a bad experience with a front load where the door gasket failed and caused a leak on my floor, costing me thousands.

  38. KarenFLA says:

    I buy a cheaper washer and dryer that are energy efficient and maintain a home warranty plan so all it costs me is $50 to have a repairman in no matter how long it takes. My mother got the extended warranty on her washer and had it 20 years until she moved.It’s cheaper to have a home warranty. However, often it does pay to have the best. We had lots of sets of knives, many of which deteriorated. When our daughter sold Cutco knives, which are almost as much as Henckl, but better quality (and made in the US), we never had to replace a knife again. I have a friend who has had her set for 40 years and never had to sharpen or replace a knife.

  39. daydreamr says:

    I grew up with the cheapest models and they have lasted a long time. When we moved into a house in 1995 we bought the most inexpensive washer/dryer that has lasted 12 yrs so far. We had a cheap-o dishwasher that lasted 10+ years and then my mom splurged on a fancier one that needed to be replaced a couple years later. In fact, a salesman @ circuit city (before they got rid of appliances) told us that the cheaper brands last longer. This is especially true for models that have less features. Less moving parts to break. I have found this to be true. They don’t make things like they used to and you are really buying the name on most items. I think it’s more assuring to buy the maytag because you spend more upfront and think it will last a long time. That’s fine, but I think it would be better to take the difference and put it into your account. If anything happens to the cheap appliance down the road you could buy another one and probably still come out ahead. I just can’t see spending so much on something that is going to do the same thing as a cheaper model. That’s what being frugal is all about. In fact, I bought a very old washer for $50 a year ago. I do several loads a week and it’s still going strong. I could have bought a new one but I figure it’s paid for it’s self by now and if I have to leave it behind when I end up moving, I won’t mind.

  40. Schwamie says:

    There is something called life-cycle costs that are calculated for items over an extended period of time to determine what their overall cost will be as well as when a certain “break-even” point is reached. You either have a benchmark to work from or a comparison (as you did in this case) to determine which becomes the more cost efficient route to go. Everyone should do this for all expensive long term use purchases. As you pointed out, lower upfront cost doesn’t always equate to lower overall cost!

  41. marty says:

    While this article sounds good on the surface, it has one major flaw. The assumptions the author is using to develop TCO (mainly the average life of each unit or mean time between failure, MTBF) is flawed. As a result the conclusion drawn is also flawed. In short, I question the 12yr lifespan of a front loader as I have both emperical evidence (my own & other that have opted to buy the more expensive units) and the testomony of a reliable appliance store/repair shop to counter. What the dealer repair told me (& I have found) is the average lifespan of a front loader (including the maytags) is closer to 5 or 6 years (mine failed just after 6 yrs of operation). The repairman that I’ve talked to agree that the old style top loader simply outlast the front loaders and there really isn’t much of a comparison. So the TCO figures the author uses ought to be flipped around. The only area the TCO of a front loader is superior in is the H2O & electricity costs (which can be significant). However if a top loader is likely to last 2x as long as a top loader the break even point may never be realized depending on your electricity & H2O costs. You’ll need to do your own math. And should H2O & electricity costs go way up (as they will) then you can always re-evaluate.

    So If you figure six loads a week for fifty two weeks over twenty years, you end up with extra costs of almost $400

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