Built to Last: Tips on Buying for the Long Haul

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Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, Western Australia, Australia, Australasia
Andrew Bain/Getty Images

International correspondent John Rosenberg bought a Hewlett-Packard laptop in 2007. He invested in a dependable virus protector and made sure to stay on top of registry and driver updates. Six years later, it's still going strong.

"It has been with me unfailingly every single day from the remote valleys of Tibet, the grassy plains of Africa, to the dust plumes of Afghanistan," Rosenberg says.

Everyone has examples of purchases that failed to live up to their potential, sometimes costing more than the sticker price in repairs and replacements. But at the other end of the spectrum are those great investments that wind up lasting for years longer than you expected them to, ultimately proving to be a great value when factoring in the item's cost-per-use. Finding these smart purchases is a combination of research, up-front investment, and occasionally a bit of luck.

A Quality Wardrobe

Your closet is likely stuffed with a combination of good and bad investments -- expensive dresses worn once, items that could be mended rather than replaced, and a favorite pair of shoes that have gone more miles than expected.

Ken Downing, director of fashion for Neiman Marcus, says that a deliberately chosen, properly maintained wardrobe can last many seasons. Downing recommends buying quality, timeless pieces in well-wearing fabrics like leather or jersey, and which can be updated with seasonal accessories in the latest color.

Downing says one of the most expensive mistakes people make with their wardrobe is dry cleaning items too often; he recommends it only when truly necessary.
"Dry cleaning is really harsh on clothes," he says. "Anything that can't hang out in a nice steamy shower for five minutes shouldn't be purchased. Let them hang out and air out."

Some clothing brands also hold up better than others. Logan Sowa, an editor at AOL's StyleList, likes J.Crew and AG Jeans for mid-priced, versatile pieces that will last. She also recommends the Pennsylvania-based Madewell.

"Similar to J.Crew, it's chock-full of classic pieces at decent price points," she says. "As long as you properly care for the pieces, they'll last for years."

Whether you're buying clothes or computers, reading reviews on Amazon.com or doing research in online forums can give you a sense of what breaks quickly and what goes the distance.

Don't Replace: Repair, Retread, Retool

Technology is known for its planned obsolescence, but savvy users like Rosenberg can make their products last. FatWallet.com's Brent Shelton says investing more in the right tech at the outset can make all the difference over the long haul. Shelton prefers Apple products for their durability, versatility, and elegance. He says, "The price is high, but the products last, and the AppleCare service is very good."

Apple isn't the only company offering repair services on its products. Gail Keefer of Orford, New Hampshire, had a 16-year-old pair of Chaco shoes resoled and re-webbed through the company's ReChaco paid repair service. "My favorite old sandals are like new," Keefer says. "I'm thrilled."

When shopping, consumers should also factor the value of warranties and lifetime guarantees into their purchasing decisions. Dr. Martens, for instance, guarantees of its "For Life" products against failure with normal wear and tear; Fiesta dinnerware offers a 5-year chip warranty. If not included during the sale, information on warranties can often be found with a quick web search.

But not every purchase is going to last as long as you wish it would, and not every company offers a generous warranty. For an extra layer of protection, buy with a credit card that extends a manufacturer's warranty or offers additional purchase protection.

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