A recent report from CNN Money showed that only 22% of Americans have any type of adequate savings – and the bulk of these savers are millennials (those born somewhere around 1980). If you happen to be among the 78% without a healthy nest egg or even a small cushion, you know that something like a central air conditioner or furnace breakdown can be devastating. At a potential cost of upward to $10,000, even using credit cards or financing options can add another $300 or $400 to your monthly bills. And, with the myriad of options and diverging professional opinions, it can be very difficult to make a sound and informed decision on how to proceed.

The following is what I learned from watching my friend, Kate, try to navigate the very frustrating world of central A/C replacement. It is my hope that the information will save others from the stress my friend endured when an early June heat wave coincided with an air conditioning breakdown.

The first thing to do when experiencing trouble with your central air conditioning is to check the filter. A clogged filter can cause serious – and sometimes permanent – problems with the unit. While the filter can be found in different places depending on the unit, it is generally located behind the only panel that can be opened without unfastening screws. It should be clean enough to see even dim light through it, and if it is not, replace it ASAP. A/C units are generally located in dusty basements and a common source of debris (as in my friend’s case) is dusty cat litter from boxes kept nearby. Filters should be checked every two weeks and in the case of a dusty basement – every week is best.

If the filter is clean and your problem persists, check out the condensate pump. When the pump has failed, you will generally see puddling – sometimes quite a bit – around the base of the unit. If the water accumulation is especially bad after the unit has been turned off, it is often times the condensate pump. This is an surprisingly easy part to replace, and since it is only about $55.00 at your local home improvement center (and refundable), it is well worth the time and effort to give it a try. My friend replaced hers in less time than it takes to cook most microwave dinners, so even if you consider yourself severely challenged mechanically, you really can do it yourself. Click here to learn how to replace your A/C condensate pump.

If neither the pump nor the filter is the culprit, it’s time to call a professional. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of Kate’s frustration. If you don’t already have a trusted HVAC person, the single best way to start is by asking friends, family or neighbors for a referral. If you get nowhere with that tack, use popular referral websites like Angie’s List, Home Advisor or Renovation Experts. Simply doing a blind internet search with your zip code may lead to a local gem or, on the other hand, a laundry list of unvetted “contractors” that could cost you a lot of time and money with bogus “estimates.” A good example of bad business is the first technician that came out to evaluate my friend’s job. He was from a well-known national plumbing franchise that offers “free” estimates. Upon arrival (6 hours late) the technician proceeded to hem and haw, and tell her what she already knew: her unit may be at the end of its lifespan. He told her that to actually open the unit and do any real diagnostic work would cost $200. So, this outfit will come out to shake your hand and scratch their head for free, but if you want a diagnosis, it will cost you.

What I learned is that gone are the days of a truly free estimate or diagnosis, so be very wary of those claiming they are free – unless they come recommended.

The next thing to consider carefully, is that if your unit is, in fact, reaching the end of its lifespan (generally about 15 years), you will most likely need to replace it. It is tempting to engage in some trial and error with refilling coolant or changing coils, but since coolant can run upward to $100 per pound, it is just not worth the gamble.

After another technician from a local company gave my friend an estimate of $10,000 to replace only the A/C unit (she was considering replacing the furnace at the same time), she finally decided it was time to call the local big box home improvement store. They contract with reputable HVAC companies and offer financing options if you have their credit card. They also come out to do a full diagnostic check for only $99 and will try to save you money by doing some trial and error. The estimate to replace both the A/C and heating system was a relatively fair $7500, but the thing to watch for is the upsell. The salespeople are there to make money and will slip in unnecessary options like extended warranties, carbon monoxide detectors and high-end filters. Being aware of the nonessential costs shaved $300 off of the total and my friend was fairly comfortable with spending the $7200 to replace the entire system.

It was at the final hour, however, that a neighbor stepped in, recommended a reputable local contractor and Kate got her entire system replaced the next day for a flat $5000 – with a 10 year warranty on labor and parts at cost. She and her family are now cool as cucumbers and she got the best possible price.

For me, the question that still remains is how can there be such a disparity in the cost of A/C replacement. From $10,000 for just the air conditioning to $5000 for both units seems a bit suspicious. After poking around and asking various companies with no vested interest in securing the job, it turns out that this is, very much, a business where in some cases unscrupulous parties take advantage of people in desperate circumstances. And, apparently the biggest tactic used to scare people away from lower estimates is by discrediting the units they are selling. From what I have learned, there is no one brand of A/C or furnace that outshines another, and all of them come with a manufacturer’s warrantee should it simply be a dud.

So, the takeaway is to thoroughly do your research and be prepared to spend some initial money on estimates (getting at least three is the best way to go). And, if you follow the bullet points below, you will save money in the long run.

1) Check first to see if the filters are clean and that the condensate pump is functioning properly.

2) If replacement is necessary, look first for an HVAC person that comes recommended from a friend or family member. Look secondly to trusted referral sites and finally consider your local big-box home improvement store. And, if a company tells you they offer free estimates, be sure to ask if it is for a full diagnostic test.

3) Know your home’s square footage and learn what ton-size unit is appropriate for your space. Selling units that are larger than necessary is a common upsell practice.

4) Don’t feel guilty about getting at least three estimates and have them carefully outline, in writing, the cost of each item, the brand of unit and the labor. This way you can compare estimates more easily and readily see if you are being sold unnecessary parts or services – including a unit that is too large or too costly.

If you take your time and “keep cool” during the process, you can save yourself thousands of dollars and still have a solid, quality A/C and heating unit for many years ahead.

Credit: Diana Cammarota