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How to Fix Your iPhone (the Unofficial Edition)

Brendan McElroy’s living room in an apartment on the top floor of an East Village walk-up is crowded with anxious patients, each one jiggling a knee, or gnawing on a fingernail or lip.

Everyone is awaiting a prognosis — not for an ailing child or pet, but for an iPhone.

Mr. McElroy, a lanky, clean-shaven 28-year-old who looks more likely to be playing an afternoon game of touch football than tinkering with the innards of a phone, is standing at a workstation littered with the detritus of his trade: tiny silver screws, peels of plastic and cartons overflowing with spare parts.

Apple's iPhone
Getty Images
Apple's iPhone

Using a quick succession of tools — suction cup, razor blade and screwdriver — Mr. McElroy sets to work replacing a broken screen, deftly prying it off the iPhone.

Fifteen minutes later, he slips the back cover on and hands the phone to an eager client, who punches in the code to unlock it and sighs with relief as it leaps to life.

“It’s not difficult to do,” said Mr. McElroy, who taught himself to repair iPhones by studying YouTube video tutorials that demonstrate how to disassemble and reassemble the device. “But it’s difficult to do perfectly.”

With Apple having sold 50 million iPhones, it was perhaps inevitable that a cottage industry of iPhone repair shops would spring up. The one-year warranty that comes with the iPhone doesn’t cover damage unless it is shown to be caused by a manufacturing defect. And using official Apple channels for repairs can get expensive quickly. Screen replacements alone can cost as much as $300, inspiring some iPhone owners to seek out alternative ways to restore their phones’ health.

Enlisting the services of Mr. McElroy — or Dr. Brendan, if you prefer his Web moniker — costs markedly less. Replacing the battery on a 3G or 3GS iPhone for example, will run about $50. The price tag for fixing the touch-screen on an iPhone 3G is $70; for a 3GS, it’s $15 more.

Mr. McElroy’s operation is one of many offering rehabilitation services for the iPhone. A quick perusal of the business reviews site Yelp for places to take a mangled phone turned up dozens of listings in urban areas like San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Companies like MissionRepair, Rapid Repair and iResQ primarily offer mail-order services, which require shipping off the damaged iPhone. In addition to inviting customers to his apartment, Mr. McElroy makes house calls in and around New York City, sometimes crisscrossing boroughs several times a day. He also accepts repairs by mail and says he has a healthy international clientele from as far away as Portugal.

Of course, the bravest among us — and those with the steadiest fingers — can always try to make the repairs themselves. There’s no shortage of kits and online how-tos to guide adventurous tinkerers.

It’s worth noting that taking the D.I.Y. approach, or allowing someone other than Apple or its authorized repair centers to fix the phone, could violate Apple’s warranty.

One of those authorized businesses is TekServe, a well-known computer store in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. Although its fees are significantly higher than Mr. McElroy’s — repairing a smashed screen on a 3G iPhone costs $149 — the company justifies them by pointing to its long track record.

“We’ve been around for 23 years,” said Jazmin Hupp, a spokeswoman for the company. “We’re not a college kid who set up shop to do it this weekend and won’t be around in 90 days after the guarantee is up.”

Ms. Hupp said that the company offered a guarantee on its repairs and that its technicians had been trained by Apple. She would not say how many iPhones the shop had repaired, but she did say that cracked screens were the most common malady.

Apple recommends finding authorized repair shops on its Web site at apple.com/support. “We can’t vouch for the quality of unauthorized repairs,” said Natalie Kerris, a company spokeswoman.

Mr. McElroy offers customers his own warranty of sorts. He guarantees his handiwork and will replace any phone damaged in the repair process — though he says that hasn’t happened since his inaugural attempt at fixing an iPhone.

“The first try went less than smoothly,” he said. “I had just finished a bartending shift and reached for my phone. I dropped it and it smashed on the concrete floor.”

Hoping to find an economical fix, he decided to try his hand at replacing the shattered screen. He purchased parts, first from eBay, then from a local repair shop, and got to work.

“I’d describe it as semi-successful,” he said.

But after polishing his method on the phones of a few willing friends, it wasn’t long before he had improved enough to charge for his services.

Through an advertisement on Craigslist, Mr. McElroy began offering to replace shattered screens, and eventually expanded his menu to include broken SIM card trays, cracked covers, water damage and more mysterious glitches, like unresponsive buttons.

Before long, he said, business was booming. He took down his classifieds ads because word-of-mouth referrals and his Web site (www.drbrendan.com) were driving enough traffic. He quit his job tending bar to focus on his repair work. In the last few weeks, he’s enlisted an apprentice: his younger brother, Dan, who handles the iPod Touch touch-ups.

“There’s rarely a phone I can’t fix,” said Mr. McElroy, who estimates he’s worked on a thousand iPhones since June. “There was once a guy whose phone was thrown out of a 10-story window. The entire thing was split in half, but the motherboard was fine.”

Despite the trauma, he said, “I was able to get it up and running for him.”

The worst phones aren’t the ones dropped from great heights, Mr. McElroy said. They’re the ones that are dropped in the toilet.

“I keep a pair of rubber gloves around for that,” he said.

Mr. McElroy said he had recently branched out to doing repairs on MacBooks. Now he’s gearing up for a fresh wave of business: the iPad. But he suspects the iPhone will remain his main source of revenue.

The iPad “actually looks like it won’t break as often,” he said. “It has a nice sturdy case that should protect it when falling.”

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