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Appliance Rebates: The good, bad and truly clunky process of getting your cash

old washerIf you have a clunker of an appliance you'd like to replace in this year, the good news is that the government is offering an attractive rebate that can pay you up to $250 for upgrading to a more efficient model. But the bad news is that with this latest version of "Cash for Clunkers" incentives, you'll have to do a lot of clunky work to get your cash.

The U.S. Department of Energy and individual state governments are working together to hand out the $300 million allocated for the Appliance Rebates Cash for Clunkers program. While this may sound promising, it's not. The lightning speed with which we ran through the money budgeted for last year's automotive "Cash for Clunkers" program, and the involvement of multiple government agencies means consumers can expect a lot more paperwork to stand between themselves and a rebate.

In fact, depending on the state they live in, consumers may be required to submit forms with four different entities: the manufacturer of their new appliance, the retailer that they bought it from, the local utility company and a government agency. (Forms can be obtained at the retailer or online from government agencies. You can also visit ApplianceClunkerRebates.com where you can download a package of forms specific to your appliance.) Some retailers may help consumers to bypass most of the paperwork by granting rebates at the register, although that option could turn out to be limited or short-lived since the retailers have to turn around and recoup the rebate money from their state -- money that could run out before they submit the request.

Further complicating the process, qualifying appliances and the rebates they earn vary greatly by state (the information pertaining to each state's program can be found on the Department of Energy's web site.) California, for example, won't start it's program until March while New Jersey has already launched its program, and includes rebates for heating and cooling equipment, as well as clothes washers, dehumidifiers, and lighting fixtures/CFLs. Also, California currently only lists three products that are eligible to turn in for the rebates, while New Jersey accepts 14 appliances so far.

Even after you've navigated the paperwork and all of the different rules, you can't just sit back and wait for that big fat check to arrive. Rebates won't be delivered in one big lump sum, but rather through a collection of smaller ones issued by the appliance manufacturer, the retailer, the government and your local utility. That's why you have to fill out so much paperwork in the first place. Since each state has its own rules and each manufacturer and retailer have their own guidelines for which products qualify and which do not. (A helpful hint: at ApplianceClunkerRebates.com you can plug in your zip code and appliance type and find out how much cash participating brands will give you for each locally-approved model.)

Bottom line: claiming cash for a greener appliance investment could end up being more complicated than filing your 2009 tax return.

On the flip side, you'll be keeping money in your pocket year-round if you replace an inefficient appliance with one that helps to trim utility bills, and that rebate can always be reinvested in other energy-saving improvements for your home.

To make the process just a little simpler, keep the following in mind:

  • Know your state's Cash for Appliance Clunkers start and end dates, as the program's schedule varies depending on where you live.
  • As you shop for appliances, consult with retailers for the most current info on this rebate program, and enlist their help in selecting qualifying appliances with rebate amounts that'll make the process worthwhile. Also be sure to comparison shop for the best local deal on the energy-efficient appliances you're targeting.
  • Don't dump your old appliance until you know whether or not it needs to be taken to the retailer in order to qualify for the rebate.

Finally, act fast. As we've seen before, government rebate programs can run out of cash faster than a car crusher can smash a clunker.

Tom Kraeutler delivers tips on energy efficiency tax credits and more each week as host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program. He is also AOL's Home Improvement Editor and author of "My Home, My Money Pit: Your Guide to Every Home Improvement Adventure." You can also subscribe to Tom's latest home improvement podcast.

This story was updated on January 24, 2010 to reflect more information regarding the rules governing the Cash for Appliances program.

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