Retail and Small Business & Startups

Making a living from old appliances

West End Appliance will soon be open in a new location.

April 18, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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When Matt Prentice looks at old appliances, he sees beauty and potential, not junk. Photo by Matt Radick

Some people may restore a 1964 Ford Mustang and become very attached to it. Matt Prentice has restored a Frigidaire Flair range and became just as attached to it.

Prentice — the Grand Rapids appliance guy — had almost completed all requirements for a Ph.D. in philosophy from Michigan State University when he had second thoughts.

“I wanted to go into the business world. I became somewhat disillusioned with being an academic,” he said.

He landed a job as a shipping-and-receiving manager at the Knapp’s Corner Meijer store in northeast Grand Rapids. Later he bought a retail building at Fourth Street and Garfield Avenue in northwest Grand Rapids, where he launched West End Appliance as his full-time occupation in 2006.

Disaster struck in 2010 when a fire destroyed his inventory. Prentice sold the building and leased a very small shop on Leonard Street at Remembrance Road. Eventually, as his inventory increased, he moved to a larger space in an old warehouse at 1111 Godfrey Ave. SW.

A year ago, Scott Hosteter, a friend who had a small business of his own, sold it and threw in his lot with Prentice as a partner. Now Prentice has acquired a vacant retail store on Leonard Street at Walker Avenue, which has a huge basement for storage of parts and appliances, and much improved access for customer traffic. The new West End Appliance will open there any day now.

Prentice learned appliance repair years ago while working with an in-law who had been trained by a master technician. Later, he became a certified machinist through GRCC.

“Give me a CNC machine and I can make anything,” he said.

Prentice discovered he really enjoyed household appliance repair and restoration, and supplying hard-to-find parts. He repairs many everyday appliances but specializes in antique and high-end stoves and refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, etc. He said he is known locally within the antique dealer community.

If you start talking appliances with Prentice, be prepared to spend some time.

The Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh once called him, searching for a particular type of historic refrigerator for an exhibit. The call came about because Prentice had restored one and posted a photo of it on his appliance blog.

“I told her, ‘Sorry, that posting was a year and a half ago. You should have talked to me then,’” he said.

He once restored a Tappan Fabulous 400 range for the widow of a prominent Grand Rapids business owner. The fee was about $2,200, but it would be a few hundred dollars higher now because parts get harder to find every year, he said.

He found an antique 1928 Detroit Jewell stove, sandblasted off the enamel and refinished it in red and black powder coat. It was sold at Century Antiques in Grand Rapids to somebody from the Petoskey area. Prentice won’t say what the price was, but to him, it was well worth it.

“It was stunning. It was like nothing else; nobody else had anything like it. There’s not another stove on the planet like it,” he said.

Century Antiques, 445 Century Ave. SW, also handled the sale of a 1920s-era Elkay double-basin high-end kitchen sink Prentice found and restored.

He finds plenty of opportunity in appliance repair because so few people do it anymore.

“It’s not glamorous,” he said. “It’s one of those things that have kind of died away, but there’s a huge need,” he added.

He also works on electronic appliances and has had calls from LG “more than once,” asking if he will do warranty work for them on products such as flat-screen televisions. The compensation is usually at apprentice level so he declines.

There is a shortage of competent technicians, according to Prentice, although he admits, “The truth is, fixing appliances isn’t very difficult.”

Many people recently have learned how to fix an appliance on YouTube. Search YouTube and you will find videos on fixing just about everything — but there is a catch.

“You’ve got to get the part,” said Prentice. “Some of these parts are very expensive — more expensive than they should be.”

Prentice said oven racks for some stoves can cost hundreds of dollars and an oven door could easily be $300 or $400.

“And this is where used parts come in,” he said. YouTube, together with the economic downturn, increased the number of people repairing their own appliances, which “created a huge demand for certain used parts — and also for someone who is qualified to tell the difference if a used part is good or not.” His used parts are guaranteed for 90 days.

Service calls used to be 80 to 90 percent of his workload, with the rest of the calls being for parts. Now about half the calls Prentice gets are for parts.

He also sells new appliances and is a distributor for Marvel, AGA and Heartland, which he describes as “high-end stuff.” A new “high end” kitchen stove can cost $12,000.

Prentice has restored the Fridigaire Flair stove from the 1960s, which has a range that pulls out on rollers, and oven doors that open in a unique fashion.

“It’s just really cool. They’re still highly in demand,” he said, adding that the Flair “represents perhaps one of the coolest mass-produced items of the ’60s. A mint one goes for about $1,600 to $1,800 on eBay.”

Prentice recycles a lot of the metal he recovers from appliances that are beyond salvation, and at trips to scrap yards to sell the metals, he always looks out for appliances that have ended up there. Americans, he said, “throw away so many useful things.”

Everybody knows small dead batteries shouldn’t be thrown in the trash because the lead content could pollute groundwater, but Prentice also points out that a five-gallon bucket full of them would be worth more than a couple of dollars if sold to a scrap metal dealer. Old car batteries have a lead scrap value of $10 or $12, he estimates. That’s one reason places that sell new ones require the old one in exchange.

Prentice loves scrap yards because they recycle the metal things Americans throw away. He does business with West Side Iron & Metal, and with Padnos scrap yards, too.

“Padnos has been very cooperative and, as a big company, has gone out of their way to help a little guy like me because they are a good company and they care about sustainability,” said Prentice.

“I love restoring appliances,” said Prentice. “What’s not to love about this business? You make people happy, you’re kind of helping save (the environment).”

He likes history, too, and was originally a history major in college.

“A lot of appliances can really tell the (industrial) history of America,” he said, noting the big U.S. auto companies owned appliance companies at one time. GM had Frigidaire; Ford had Philco; American Motors owned Kelvinator …

Mention of Kelvinator got Prentice thinking: “Now that was very high quality …” he said.

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