Electronics Repair: How To Get Your Money's Worth.

Don't trust repair shops with your expensive electronics? Here's how to get your money's worth on electronic repairs.

If you don't know much about how your video game console, television set, or stereo system works, you might be nervous about taking it to a repair shop. You don't know what they'll need to do to fix it; they might get the idea to put in expensive parts that aren't necessary and charge you hundreds of dollars you shouldn't have to spend. Worse, if the repair person isn't licensed or competent, you might end up with a worthless pile of circuit boards and wiring.

The good news is that most repair shops want to make you happy. This is because the average American has numerous electronic components in his or her household. Repeat business and positive word-of-mouth advertising keep repair shops in business. There are a few bad boys and girls in the industry, but they're exceptions. Keep this in mind while you're trying to spot the renegades.

Before you put the component in for repairs, here are a few things you should do:

-read the troubleshooting guide in the instruction manual or on the manufacturer's Web site. This might fix the problem, or clarify it so that you can convey the information to the repair person.

-try a few different things with the system. If it's a CD player that won't work, try loading different discs. You could have a scratched disc or, if it's a new album, one that's been copy-protected in such a way that your player can't read it. If it's a video-game system, try a different game.

-clean the unit with canned air. DO NOT TAKE THE UNIT APART; this will void the warranty and could hurt you (remember, you're dealing with electricity here). Clean the unit by first unplugging it, then using the air to blow out dust and other debris. This might help, especially if you have a problem with overheating or live in a house with lots of dust (or smokers).

If these things don't work, call the product manufacturer or visit the Web site for a list of approved repair shops in your area. Many manufacturers certify repair shops and personnel to ensure that your experience with their product is positive from start to finish. This also makes the complaint-resolution process faster and easier because the product's maker already has contact with the shop - and a record of previous complaints, if any exist.

In some instances, you'll have to ship your product back to the company's own repair center. This might end up costing you a little more than it would to take your kid's video game system to the shop up the street, but the product will be returned fully repaired and with warranty coverage. Even if this isn't necessary, it's one of the best ways to deal with the problem: who will know the product better than the company who made it, and who will be most inclined to make sure that you're satisfied with the repair job?

If you decide to go with a local shop, check it out before you call or walk through the door. The best way to do this is by calling the Better Business Bureau; they'll have a business rating for you as well as records of previous complaints filed against that company. Just remember: if you go with a shop that serves you adequately, or goes beyond what you expected, be sure to file positive feedback - it helps the next person who comes along in need of the same thing you wanted, which helps keep the ratings system as accurate and fair as possible.

One VERY IMPORTANT thing you need to do when you drop off a component is to EXPLAIN THE PROBLEM THOROUGHLY. "It's not working" doesn't help the repair person; he or she won't know exactly where to start. However, "It works great for about ten minutes, then shuts itself off - and the outside is really hot when I touch it at that point" narrows it down significantly. Also: be honest. If you spilled the entire content of your twelve-gallon fish tank on the stereo system, let them know.

Even if the shop gets a perfect rating, you need to ask a few questions - and receive satisfactory answers, preferably in writing - before you drop off your component or make any commitment.

-How much for a repair estimate? Some shops charge a nominal fee for testing the product to find out what's wrong. In many cases, these shops deduct that fee from your bill's total if you have it repaired with them. Others offer free estimates, which is nice because you don't have to put any money down. In both cases, GET THE ESTIMATE IN WRITING. This ensures that both parties know exactly what is supposed to happen. Many shops will give you a phone call if, after the estimate, the repair person finds another problem; this gives you the opportunity to add it to the work order or tell them not to bother with it. (You might as well let them fix it if they're already inside, though.)

It helps if this estimate is on a form or letter with the company's logo, and is signed by a representative (such as the repair person or the one who took your order in the first place).

-When will you know what's wrong with it? Depending on how large (and busy) the shop is, it could take a few days or a few weeks. Don't call them before the time they give you; it only takes time away from checking out your equipment to find the problem. However, if you haven't heard anything from them by the last day, give them a friendly phone call to see what's going on. In most cases, they aren't trying to cheat or annoy you. They could have an unusually high number of customers in line ahead of you. One of their repair people could have taken a couple of sick days. They could have a piece of equipment that's taking a whole lot longer than they thought it would. Remember: courtesy makes things easier for both you and the shop, and they're more likely to help you if you don't scream and curse at them for taking a day or two longer than they said it would.

-Do you warranty the work and parts? Many shops guarantee that the new parts they install, and the work they do on your component, will work perfectly for a certain amount of time. (Obviously this doesn't count if you drop your stereo in the parking lot on the way out of the shop.) If the shop won't warranty, take it somewhere else. There's no reason to risk paying twice for the exact same repair job because somebody forgot to solder a wire to the circuit board.

-Will you return my old parts when I pick this thing up? If the parts are really and truly broken, the shop should have no problem letting you have them back; they're just trash at that point, right? Of course. This is more of a "good faith" gesture than anything else, because it's difficult for you to test that broken part at your house (unless you have diagnostic equipment, or are willing to open up your component, thus voiding the warranty, to reinstall said old part to confirm that it doesn't work).

-Can I test it before it leaves the shop? Most shops will let you do this, provided they have a means of hooking it up. If you have a video game system to test and you didn't bring the television hookup cables, don't expect them to have a set sitting around.

If there's a problem, which can happen even with repair persons who are trying to do a good job, bring it up with the shop before you go elsewhere (like the Better Business Bureau). Try to resolve any problems with the repair person before you bring in outside help: putting people on the defensive by going "straight to the top" without any warning will only make matters worse. Also: in most cases, they'll want to make it right so you'll come back and tell your friends that they're worth the money spent.

Now that you're satisfied with the repairs, it's time to pay up. Pay by check or credit card so that you have an indisputable record of payment in case something goes wrong. It should work out, but this is common-sense advice for any payment for services.

Also: if you're satisfied, let the repair person know! Compliments make others feel good about the work they've done, and it encourages them to continue doing good work, especially if you come back in need of something else. Positive feedback works wonders on just about anybody, but don't overdo it: a simple, "Wow, this works great - thanks," will suffice.

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