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Buying Guide: Refrigerators

By: Kelly Burgess on March 05, 2018

The best refrigerator has

  • A flexible layout. A refrigerator should have the ability to store wide and/or tall items with no hard-to-reach or hidden spots.
  • Convenient features. The extras that buyers appreciate most include ice and water dispensers, adjustable shelves and humidity-controlled vegetable crispers.
  • A well-lit interior. Most models have at least one light inside the refrigerator compartment; some have additional lights in the freezer or produce bins.
  • Good temperature control. Any refrigerator will keep food cool if it works properly, but side-by-side and French-door models generally regulate temperature a little better than top-freezer refrigerators.
  • Durable construction. The doors should be well-balanced and feel sturdy. The shelving units or bins should not feel flimsy.
  • High energy efficiency. With updated, more stringent standards, Energy Star compliance guarantees the least energy usage. Keep in mind that some older models might lack Energy Star certification, but testing shows them to be very efficient as well.
  • Straightforward controls. Controls should be easy to reach (up front rather than on the back inside wall, where you may have to empty a shelf to adjust them) and intuitive to use.
  • Easy-to-clean surfaces. Solid glass shelves, rather than wire ones, help keep spills contained; new finishes such as "black stainless" offer the look of stainless steel with less vulnerability to smudging.
  • Stylish looks. Some fridges now come in a range of colors, from basic white to sleek stainless. Where choices are offered, stainless can add $100 or more to the price of what's otherwise an identical refrigerator

Know before you go

Measure your space carefully. Shop with a tape measure and check height, width, depth, and door-swing clearance. Check the direction of the door swing, too, and make sure the refrigerator you choose opens in the direction that works best for your space (or has a reversible door). Don't forget to measure the path to and from your kitchen to make sure your chosen fridge can make it through the doorway.

Think about how you will use the refrigerator. For many people, a bottom-freezer arrangement is most convenient, because the fresh food section is on top, where it can be reached without bending. The freezer section is harder to reach, however, so if you use the freezer at least as much as the fridge, a top-freezer arrangement could work better. Side-by-side fridges often work best for families with small children, as they can reach both the refrigerator and freezer compartments without standing on a chair.

Consider your noise tolerance. One of the most common complaints about refrigerators is that they make too much noise. If your kitchen is located near sleeping areas, or if you're especially sensitive to loud noises, then a quiet fridge may be a top priority for you. On the other hand, if you're looking for a second fridge that will be kept out in a garage or somewhere else away from main living areas, noise may not matter as much.

Weigh extra features carefully. A through-the-door ice and water dispenser is the feature buyers request most, but refrigerators with them are much more likely to require repairs. Dispensers also boost energy use and steal space from the interior.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

The lifetime cost of a fridge includes not just the price you pay upfront, but also the cost of the energy it uses. To compare the energy costs of different models, check their yellow EnergyGuide label. Don't go by the Energy Star certification alone; Energy Star standards vary depending on the type and size of the refrigerator. Thus, a large side-by-side model with an Energy Star rating might actually use more energy than a smaller top-freezer fridge without one. The EnergyGuide label, by contrast, estimates energy usage in both kilowatt-hours per year and dollars per year.

Buying tactics and strategies

  • Shop the sales. Sometimes buying a new fridge is an emergency affair because your old one just died and you need one now. However, if you aren't in a hurry, keep an eye on the calendar. Refrigerators are often deeply discounted around holidays, Veteran's Day and President's Day in particular. This can knock the price down quite a bit, in some cases by thousands of dollars.
  • Join the club. Many major appliance retailers have customer loyalty programs where you can get discounts and earn points toward future purchases. It's almost always free to join, and doing so may net you an immediate discount.
  • Use a store-branded credit card. As with loyalty programs, using a store-branded credit card will often get you a discount as well as free shipping. Of course, this is only a good deal if you can pay it off when the first bill arrives -- otherwise the interest will eat up those savings. However, if you're short on cash at the moment, using a store-branded card can also net you no interest deals for a period of time, maybe even up to a year or 18 months.
  • Skip the extended warranty. Most shoppers are invited -- or even urged -- to purchase an extended warranty for a new appliance. However, most experts agree that it's almost never worth the money.
  • Look online first. Most appliances are sold in retail stores rather than online. Shopping in a showroom allows you to check size, features and finishes close-up. However, even if you buy in a store, you can check the price online first (be sure to check multiple sites) and invite the retailer to match it if it is lower.
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