Appliance Buying Guide: Refrigerators

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By: Douglas Trattner
Published: August 28, 2009

When you buy a new refrigerator, arm yourself with the facts, so you’ll be sure to make the right decision for your budget and space needs

All refrigerators keep food cold. The major differences lie in the configuration, dimensions, and features. What particular model works best for you often comes down to size, budget, style, and energy efficiency. In terms of efficiency, Energy Star-qualified refrigerators are required by the U.S. Department of Energy to use 20% less energy than other models. A qualified fridge can curb your energy bills by $165 over the lifetime of your fridge, says Energy Star, roughly $9-$12 a year.

Cost range: $450-$2,000 and up

Likely additional costs: Delivery, installation, haul away, water line hookup for ice maker

Average life span: 14-17 years

Size: Because there are numerous refrigerator styles, each requiring specific footprints, door clearances, and height and width allowances, the place to start your search is in your kitchen. Take careful measurements of the space, including height, width, depth, and distance to nearby obstructions. “Pay special attention to upper-cabinet height,” says Anita Wiechman, a Certified Kitchen and Bath Remodeler with Omaha’s The Interior Design Firm ( “Many of today’s fridges are taller than they used to be.”

Type: Fridges come in three main configurations: side-by-side, top-mounted freezer, and bottom-mounted freezer, which includes the newer French door style-two opposing half doors.

Top-mounted freezer

The most economical fridges are the top-mounted freezer models. These largely basic machines offer the most storage capacity for the money, with models falling in the $500 to $700 range. If you’re tall, especially, you may not appreciate bending over every time you need something from the more heavily trafficked fridge.

Energy efficiency: What these models lack in convenience they make up for in energy efficiency. Compared with side-by-side fridges, even those bearing the Energy Star ( seal, top-mounted fridges consume about 10%-25% less electricity thanks to their straightforward design. The difference can add up to about $14 per year.

Reliability: As an added bonus, fridges in this class require the fewest repairs. Their basic design, coupled with the fact that few if any are outfitted with troublesome water dispensers give them solid reliability ratings as a class. The most likely component to cause trouble is the automatic ice maker.

Bottom-mount freezer

Bottom-mount freezers, including the popular French door style, are near the top of the fridge price pyramid. Both the single-door and French door configurations offer the convenience of a fully accessible upper fridge compartment above a roomy pull-out drawer freezer. Most bottom-mount freezers start at $1,000 and climb from there. French door models start at around $1,200 and climb even higher.

Energy Efficiency: Like top-mounts, bottom-freezer models are among the most energy efficient in the group. Typical Energy Star models consume 16% less energy than their side-by-side Energy Star counterparts, saving you more than $15 per year, estimating 11 cents per kilowatt hour. Although considered bottom-mounts, French door-style fridges behave more like side-by-sides when it comes to efficiency. Having two doors where there’s normally one decreases overall efficiency, raising average annual operating costs by about $10.

Reliability: According to Consumer Reports (, bottom-freezer types tend to experience more repair issues than top-freezer models, particularly in units with automatic icemakers.


Because side-by-side fridges feature a pair of tall, slender doors, they require much less door-swing clearance, making them a good choice for tight spaces. These models also offer equally convenient access to portions of both the freezer and the fridge, making them a good compromise between top freezers and bottom freezers. Expect to pay between $1,000 and $1,500 for most models.

Those narrow doors may save clearance space, but you’ll have to sacrifice horizontal shelf space in return, especially in the freezer. The slender compartment means that wide items like pizza boxes and sheet pans likely won’t fit.

Energy Efficiency: Side-by-side fridges consume more electricity than both top- and bottom-mount configurations (discounting French). Most Energy Star models cost approximately $60 per year to run compared with roughly $45 for those in the other categories.

Reliability: Because it’s difficult to find a side-by-side fridge without a through-the-door water-and-ice dispenser, these models tend to suffer more repairs. These components have a less than stellar track record. Worse, the dispensers can increase the appliance’s energy consumption by as much as 20%.


As with most appliances, more features correlate to a higher price. You’ll pay a little more for adjustable shelves, conveniently placed compartments, and fully extending bins and baskets. You’ll also shell out more for sleek designs and stainless steel. In most cases, you won’t have to pay extra for well-lit interiors, easy-access temperature controls, and reasonably quiet operation.

Top-of-the-line models with individually controlled crisper drawers, digital fingertip controls, and whisper-quiet operation will cost you well above $2,000.

Expected maintenance/repairs: The fan and condenser coils on the rear of the machine need to be vacuumed periodically. Door seals should be checked for tightness and replaced when loose, cracked, or torn. Water filters may need replacing. Icemakers are notorious for needing repair. The compressor can blow, requiring replacement.

Where and when to shop: It’s best to shop where salespeople truly understand the product, such as an independently operated retail appliance store. Shoppers at big box stores may find themselves dealing with an employee from another department. Also, independent shops may have more latitude to offer free delivery, installation, and haul away.

Because appliances don’t adhere to a model year like automobiles, there’s no best time to buy them. Always keep a look out for sales, specials, and tax rebates (especially for energy-efficient models). And use sites like BizRate (, PriceGrabber (, (, and Shopzilla ( to compare prices.

Finally, some appraisers say new appliances are money well spent. In his market, Mike Neimeier, a certified residential appraiser in Cleveland, Ohio, says a homeowner is likely to recoup between 75% to 90% of the cost of new appliances when reselling the home within a couple of years.

Douglas Trattner has covered household appliances and home improvement for, DIYNetworks, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. During the 10-year stewardship of his 1925 Colonial, he’s upgraded almost every household appliance. After lengthy deliberation, he recently replaced an aging top-load washing machine with an energy-efficient front-load unit.

Reprinted from HouseLogic ( with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®
Copyright 2009.  All rights reserved.