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Car, iPhone Repairs Prove Difficult for Users

As cars, electronics and appliances become more intricate, their owners are more inclined to dump them when problems arise.

CUPERTINO, CALIF. (TheStreet) -- Apple (AAPL) - Get Report makes changing the batteries of new iPod models increasingly difficult by soldering them to the device's casing. Consumers would know this if they repaired such items instead of replacing them.

Apple's obstacles to repair and

Toyota

(TM) - Get Report

and

Ford's

(F) - Get Report

recent spate of recalls highlight the deteriorating relationship between the buying public and the products it owns. Though Kelley Blue Book and Edmund's say the value of troubled Toyotas dropped more than 4% since recalls were announced, some consumers see replacement as a more viable option than addressing complex electrical and mechanical problems they know increasingly little about.

As cars, electronics and appliances become more intricate, their owners are growing less attached to them. In

Consumer Reports'

"fix it or nix it" survey, one-third of more than 3,000 respondents who experienced problems with TVs, appliances and other household products opted not to fix them.

"People's relationships with their cars in terms of their personal ability to figure out what's wrong with it has shifted quite a bit in the past 20 years," says Lena Pons, policy analyst for the Auto Safety Group of the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen. "The most expensive piece of electronic equipment that people own is their car, and they all have proprietary computer algorithms that they use."

There was a time when a car buyer's independent mechanic would have dealt with such issues, but even they are becoming frustrated by the complexity of fixes. Because most cars' computers contain manufacturer-specific fault codes that trigger the growing number of dashboard alert lights, they can only be repaired through dealerships or through independent shops that pay $60,000 to $100,000 for diagnostic equipment that Pons says may only contain a sampling of the necessary codes.

"Twenty years ago, you'd push a pedal, there's these two things that would clamp on to your wheel and your car would slow to a stop," Pons says. "That's not how your brakes work now."

If cars are too complex, home electronics are absolutely alien. As entertainment technology evolved from tubes to LCD, the switch from mechanical to digital shifted repair duties to warranty-waving manufacturers just as it did in the automotive industry. Though the falling prices of new technology have made upgrades more affordable, replacement prices still take a few years to outpace replacement costs.

Consumer Reports

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says repairing LCD and plasma televisions is less costly than replacing them even five years into their lifespan. That's an improvement over tube and projection models, which didn't justify repairs after three years. It even rivals the durability of

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

and

Whirlpool

(WHR) - Get Report

washing machines, dryers and dishwashers.

"I'm amazed that people are still surprised when they learn that you can actually fix these things," says Anthony Magnabosco, owner of

Milliamp

, a San Antonio-based iPhone and iPod repair service. "About 80% to 90% of people don't even think they can repair an iPhone or iPod when the battery's dead or when they break the screen, and think they need to buy a new one."

Magnabosco's company debuted in 2005, selling iPod battery repair kits to users who could still pop open their Minis without much fuss. When sixth-generation iPod Classics were introduced, the batteries were soldered in and replacement became more labor intensive.

Milliamp services 60 to 80 iPods a day and charges $20 for a new battery and $19 for labor, which is less than the cost of a new $59 iPod Shuffle. The company's Web traffic has nearly quadrupled in the last two years as the company began replacing headphone jacks and other iPod and iPhone components.

"When Apple sealed up the first iPod in 2001 with a battery that you couldn't remove, they were sending a signal that they were not intended to be repaired," Magnabosco says. "I believe they want people to come in and buy a new one when the device isn't charging anymore."

Soaring stock prices and ramped-up revenues aren't built on third-party maintenance and consumer patience. Magnabosco admits that turnover is driven as much by the updates of new models as by the deterioration of the old, and Pons acknowledges that some seemingly simple car repairs require specialized equipment that's costly to use. Still, they agree that consumers are making a tradeoff when they replace problem possessions instead of repairing them.

"Anecdotally, there's been some backlash against throwaway products that aren't going to last very long," Pons says. "Buying a $29 DVD player that's going to break after nine months is testing the limits of what people can tolerate."

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.

Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.