Your seven-year-old dryer isn’t working. The estimate to repair it is $250. Do you fix it or buy a new one?

Lists pop up all the time showing the lifespan of major appliances, and you may have read that 12 years is typical for a dryer. So why spend $250 for five more years when a new dryer costs $600? To decide whether to repair or replace any appliance, consider how much time your investment is likely to buy—but be aware that published lifespans can be misleading.

First, 12 years is an average. If yours is already seven years old, it’s likely to last longer than 12 years. Small households that use appliances lightly can expect longer-than-average lifespans. And because lifespans of appliance models are all over the map, a well-built appliance with few fancy controls might last much longer than its less durable, more high-tech counterparts.

Second, many owners replace old appliances with new units because they want different features, a new color, or another size; don’t want to move it to a new house; or want to get rid of the machine for reasons unrelated to durability. Some might even be jettisoned because owners misuse published lifespans to prematurely condemn their appliances to the junk heap. If you are happy with your dryer, these factors are irrelevant.

Also, just because one element of your appliance breaks doesn’t necessarily mean others will fail. Things break, even on new appliances. An appliance with no visible damage, one that except for the problem prompting the repair has otherwise functioned well, might last many years without other problems—and the next problem also might require only a reasonably priced repair. Many major appliances, including relatively inexpensive models—which may cost less because they have few extra (and failure-prone) controls—labor on for decades.

If you are considering replacing an appliance because you don’t want to deal with an unexpected outage down the road, keep in mind that appliance problems are generally inconvenient, not disastrous. It’s not like having the brakes fail on your car or the bottom fall out of your water heater. The worst possible catastrophe is flooding caused by the failure of a clothes washer’s supply hoses or a dishwasher’s shut-off valve (see below), and that is very unlikely.

There are, of course, good reasons for replacing broken appliances:

  • Many new appliances are more energy efficient than older models, and some are designed to be as “green” as possible—but do the math if you’re going to make a decision with environmental considerations in mind. Some appliances (especially dryers) aren’t much more efficient than they were years ago; and even clothes washers and dishwashers, which have made environmental strides, won’t make a big difference in energy use if you do only a handful of loads a week.
  • Rust and other visible flaws might signal impending problems.
  • You like the features and looks of new appliances: a washer or dishwasher that operates more quietly, a range with sealed gas burners to keep out spills, or a refrigerator with more storage capacity.
  • In short, the repair-or-replace decision is not always easy. In fact, it’s often a balancing act.