WHEN Carmela DeBellis accidentally dropped a dust cloth into the lint filter of her dryer, she started calling repair services to come to her Florida home and fix the damage.
''They all wanted $45 or $50 just to come in the door,'' said Mrs. DeBellis, who is 72. ''I thought, 'There's got to be somebody who can help me.' ''
Like other Americans who do not want to wait half a day -- or longer -- for a house call or pay a steep hourly rate for service, Mrs. DeBellis decided to try to fix it by telephone. She called the Sears Consumer Technical Advice Line, which charges $12 for such help.
''I don't know a screwdriver from a pliers,'' she said. ''But this young man was very reassuring.''
The technician on the phone, Jason Herrera, spent 40 minutes guiding Mrs. DeBellis through the removal of the back plate of the dryer and then the removal of a second plate to get to where the rag was stuck in the machine.
When Mrs. DeBellis had to put the phone down, she would yell, ''Jason, are you there? Don't leave me!''
When she pulled out the cloth, Mrs. DeBellis said, ''I turned around and screamed, 'Jason! I did it!' and he said, 'I knew you could.' ''
Sears and Maytag are among the companies that are helping consumers help themselves with appliance repairs.
Six months ago, Maytag started testing a program in which consumers can call a toll-free number (800 688-9900) and receive advice on minor repairs, order parts or determine whether they need a service call.
Maytag's program includes repairs that can generally be done with common household tools -- or without any tools -- are part of Maytag's program, said Dale Reeder, general manager for customer service at the the company in Newton, Iowa.
In many markets, Maytag dealers and factory service operators are offering Saturday hours for house calls and giving a two-hour window for a service call rather than making a customer commit to being home for an entire morning or afternoon, Mr. Reeder said.
''Time is becoming a real precious commodity for today's consumer,'' he said. ''This is something people need and expect.''
Sears established its toll-free number (800 469-4663) in 1993, and now has 200 technicians who offer advice over the phone. The consumer help line received 1.8 million calls in 1996 and is expected to receive 2 million in 1997.
The service has become more popular each year, said Tom Nicholson, public relations manager for Sears, Roebuck & Company in Hoffman Estates, Ill. For their $12, customers may call back as many times as needed in 30 days for the same repair. If a technician must come to the home, the $12 is deducted from the customer's bill.
''Some people are comfortable with do-it-yourself, and sometimes you have to tell every little step, like what is a torque wrench,'' Mr. Nicholson said.
Whirlpool has a toll-free number (800 253-1301) for basic questions and to make appointments for service. Customers who feel confident of their mechanical ability can buy repair manuals. But for many repairs, ''you would have to have some kind of technical expertise,'' said a spokesman, Chris Wyse.
General Electric also has a toll-free number (800 626-2000) to answer consumer questions. People who want to fix their own appliances can get telephone help for $12.99. Most of the technicians are former service people for G.E., said Chip Keeling, a company spokesman in Louisville, Ky.
In the 15 years that the GE Answer Center has been operating, the number of callers seeking repair advice over the phone has increased, Mr. Keeling said. The biggest concern, he said, is that people not try to do repairs that might expose them to electrical currents or natural gas.
THE savings in time and money through such programs can be impressive. Alvin Shrader, a 60-year-old retiree in Fountain Valley, Calif., said he used Sears's repair service when a fan jammed on his dryer. He talked to a technician for about 10 minutes, hung up the phone and made the repair in less than 30 minutes.
''I was envisioning a service call for $75,'' he said. ''When this happened, I was elated.''
Photo: Alvin Shrader of Fountain Valley, Calif., fixed his dryer in a half-hour after talking on the phone with a Sears technician for 10 minutes. ''I was elated,'' he said. (Edward Carreon for The New York Times)
Nussbaum, Debra. "SPENDING IT; For the Screwdriver Challenged, Fix-It Advice by Phone." New York Times 23 Nov. 1997. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
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