The mantra for the Nineties: "Bear with me." It's what the harassed home-maker hears when she phones the manufacturer to ask for a broken machine to be fixed. While they check the diary, you're left hanging on, watching your washing machine spewing foam through your home. Eventually you may get a reluctant offer: "We can fit you in on Thursday week between 9am and 6pm."

Why should we "bear with" this treatment? If an appliance breaks, we have every right to expect that it will be repaired promptly.

Too often we have to pay extra for an independent repair, because the glibly-advertised "nationwide repair teams" don't come the same day, or work evenings or weekends, or offer timed appointments.

They all explain that they can't specify arrival times. But you'd think they could call ahead with an estimated time, or the mobile number of the repair man.

Do they hope that by making it hard to get things fixed, we'll throw away our duff equipment and buy new, bringing them more profit?

Increasingly, yes - though none I spoke to would go on the record. Those rumours of machines built to go bust just after the standard one-year guarantee are not exaggerated.

One major maker has redesigned a perfectly good washing machine so that if the cheap, vulnerable and easily repaired bearings break, the whole drum has to be replaced at five times the cost, tempting you to scrap it and start again.

Suzanne Brookens, of Twickenham, had a similar problem with her Hoover tumble dryer.

"The repair man took one look and said it wouldn't be a good idea to fix it. He tried to sell me a new dryer and a washing machine to match, and said his calling out charge of about pounds 25 would be cancelled if I did. I called a local man who fixed it in 10 minutes and charged pounds 23." He may have been a member of the Domestic Appliance Service Association, whose code of practice binds them to call within three days and complete 80 per cent of the work then and there.

Some supposedly user-friendly companies say that they do offer flexible repair calls. What a shame their service departments don't know this. "Our standard service charge is pounds 52," said a spokesperson at Whirlpool, the US-owned white goods giant, when I asked for a microwave oven repair. Their earliest call was in six days; 11 for a timed appointment. Saturdays take a fortnight and need a supervisor's permission.

This contrasts with the "two-day service pledge" you get when you buy the oven. "We offer 60 per cent of our service calls as timed calls, but these may take an additional one or two days," says Gordon Pickering, service director for Philips, Whirlpool, Bauknecht and Ignis. "We can and do work weekends and evenings. I encourage it. We're going through a difficult patch because of the flu epidemic, but I don't want to sell new appliances; I want to repair them."

Others claiming same-day service if you call before 10am are Cannon, Creda, Electrolux, Hotpoint and Zanussi - though this last refused to come on the same day when I phoned to test.

It's often in retailers' interests to have slow or expensive repair schemes from manufacturers. Then they can soften the blow by selling you their own "extended warranty". City stockbrokers have estimated that Dixons depends largely on the profit from warranty sales.

Don't be panicked into buying these. They won't make the man in the van come any faster. Among the retailers, Curry's did not reply to my questions about repair times; Comet's "no-claim, money back" scheme gives a full refund after five years without a call, and an exchange warranty for anything under pounds 100 offers you a new one immediately if it breaks down within three years. The cost is from pounds 9.99.

Comet also operate their own fixing team. "If someone particularly wants evenings or weekends, we'll accommodate them," says a spokeswoman. "We've invested in mobile phones for all our engineers, so if there's an emergency, we can divert them to fix it." She also took up my suggestion of phoning to give people a time of arrival.

Some manufacturers make elaborate promises, but cut their service costs in practice by having only one number, which is always engaged.

For example, during my three days' research I couldn't get a reply from Electrolux's South London Repair HQ or from Bosch, Siemens, Gaggenhau and Neff, all of which share a number. I've also had this experience with Dyson, who don't have repairers but insist on collecting the cleaner from you (you must be in, no appointment time possible) and returning it.

What can you do? Learn to speak the repairers' language. Ask for a "first call of the day", usually 8.30am. Ask them to avoid school collection times, which most stay-home housewives still have to go out for.

Always ask for the supervisor if a repairs booker is being difficult. They are infinitely more reasonable. If a company breaks a service promise, ask for compensation. Don't be put off by large companies: challenge their right to charge for repairing a newish defective machine. Involve your local authority's Trading Standards department. "Customers expect to buy something of reasonable quality. That should cover a product for longer than 12 months, the manufacturers' guarantee time," says Alan Street, head of trading standards. And if you complain, be determined. Unexecuted threats don't bite. If you threaten to go to the small claims court, you may find that your claim is settled speedily.

If a repairs department is always engaged, use the new BT service which automatically goes on trying an engaged number and rings you back when it is answered. When you hear the engaged tone, press 5, then put the phone down. It tries for 45 minutes and costs about 10p.

Find a small repair agent instead of a national network. A local authorised service engineer may have a call-out fee of pounds 30; the bigger companies can cost pounds 60.

Avoid repairs by buying fewer machines, and those less likely to break. (Which? magazine says washer-dryers are prone to prang.)

Don't take frustrations out on the repair man. Worm out secret short cuts, such as the private service numbers. There will always be a corner of my heart for the woman who locked a service engineer into her kitchen rather than let him go away to get yet another spare part. Or you could marry a plumber.

*The Consumers' Association can send new subscribers back numbers of `Which?' covering extended warranties (April 1995), machine insurance (September 1996) and most reliable brands (March 1995). Freephone 0800 252100 for information, including an offer of three free issues.

Good thing

`All the tricks of the trade and no call-out charges' promises the reader's Digest Complete DIY Manual. You can change a plug or instal central heating by enquiring within. pounds 16.95 from bookshops or mail order on 0800 434 434.

Mad thing

While you're waiting for your central heating to be fixed, wear Giali self-heating washable clothing. Waistcoat or gloves cost pounds 89.95, socks are 49.95 plus rechargeable sealed safe battery at pounds 16.95 or pop in your pocket. Call 01179 690690.

Sure thing

AA Home Assistance's Annual Cover. pounds 39 annual fee buys everyone a 24- hour, 365-day emergency service which sends a pre-vetted plumber, electrician or builder within two hours. You pay no call-out or time charge for ninety minutes, and parts are charged at pre-approved rates. Follow up work is available after the emergency.0800 383838.

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