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How to Buy a Refrigerator

Everything you need to know to find the perfect fridge for you.

How to Buy a Refrigerator Credit: / Matthew Zahnzinger

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Chances are, if it's time to buy a new fridge, it's been quite a while since you last did so. If you need a refresher on all the details you need to keep in mind when shopping around for a replacement refrigerator, you've come to the right place.

Measure Twice, Buy Once: Before you start shopping, make sure you know what size machine you're looking for.
Types of Refrigerators: There are fridges for all types of kitchens.
What Else Is Important?: Price, performance, design—everyone's equation is unique. Decide what you care about in a refrigerator to find the right one for you.
How to Buy: Tips and tricks for getting the best deal on the refrigerator you want
Care, Cleaning, and Service: Keep your machine running like new.

Measure Twice, Buy Once

When it comes to fridges, size matters.

Shopping for a new refrigerator can feel overwhelming, with so many different brands, types, and models to choose from. But before you even begin to consider those factors, you have to do one very important thing: measure your space, and figure out what size fridge you can actually fit in your kitchen.

Height, width, and depth are all important. Unlike other kitchen appliance categories, there aren't really any standard refrigerator sizes. In terms of width, most full-size fridges fall in the 30 to 36-inch range. Some types of fridges (more on that below) are typically wider than others, but virtually any style can run the gamut of height and depth. Knowing what you can fit is absolutely essential.

You should also consider where your refrigerator will be positioned in your kitchen, and how the door will affect foot traffic and kitchen accessibility. Most modern fridges have reversible doors, but if you're in the market for a French door or side-by-side, make sure you have room to open both doors.

Finally, measure to make sure the refrigerator you buy can actually squeeze through all the doors on the way to your kitchen. It might fit perfectly in between the range and countertop, but it's no good if you can't get it through the front door of your house.

What Kind of Fridge Do You Want?

Knowing is half the battle.

Once you know how big a refrigerator you need, it's time to consider what layout will best suit your needs. Unlike dishwashers, fridges come in a variety of configurations that offer real advantages and disadvantages in day-to-day use. There are four main types, which we'll detail below.

FRENCH DOOR: French door refrigerators are generally regarded as the most user-friendly option, and also consistently top our performance charts. But you'll pay a premium for these big, stainless-steel beauties: Quality French door fridges rarely fall far below $2,000 and can range far higher. In recent years, the vast majority of our highest-scoring fridges have been French door models. If budget and space aren't a problem, you should probably be looking at a French door fridge.

TOP FREEZER: Fridges with the freezer up top tend to be the most affordable. However, their design typically sacrifices some storage capacity and convenience in exchange for the low price. These models also tend to be low-tech and less efficient than other styles. Nonetheless, they are very common and rarely exceed $1,300. If your budget is around a grand, your options may be limited to this category.

SIDE-BY-SIDE: These refrigerators had their heyday during the 1980s and early 1990s, when Americans went crazy for frozen food. Today, they've largely been replaced by French door models that offer more space and put fresh foods at eye level.

Side-by-sides typically offer extras like in-door ice makers and almost always come in an optional stainless-steel finish. If freezer space is important in your household, you should definitely give them a look. Be aware, however, that they're more susceptible to temperature fluctuations than other configurations—and that their narrow compartments may not fit wide items like pizzas and cakes.

BOTTOM FREEZER: Single-door bottom-freezer refrigerators are relatively rare these days, since the market has largely moved on to French door models. However, they're slightly cheaper on average than their successors, and offer better freezer performance than the cheaper top-freezer fridges. Aside from freezer performance, the main reason to get a bottom-freezer model is to put more of the fridge compartment at eye level. Apartment-sized fridges often come in a bottom-freezer configuration, especially on the high end of the price spectrum.

What Else Is Important?

Price, performance, design—everyone's equation is unique.

PRICE: Depending on what style of fridge you're buying, prices can vary widely. Typically, you're going to need to spend at least $800 to get a decent refrigerator, and to get a French door model with all the latest bells and whistles you may be spending more than $3,000. Built-in models can go for upwards of $10,000.

PERFORMANCE: As with price, refrigerator performance is heavily dependent on type. The configuration of the doors and freezer compartment has a direct impact on temperature uniformity—the most important quality in a fridge. Poor consistency and uniformity can lead to spoiled food, or unpleasant textures and flavors.

Some machines fare poorly when it comes to long-term temperature consistency. Others struggle with spatial consistency—the change in temperature between the top and bottom of the fridge. Some crisper drawers can't maintain the right humidity levels to preserve fruit or vegetables. Our in-depth reviews provide details on how each machine fares.

In most cases, these performance variations are subtle, but that doesn't mean you should disregard performance as a whole. For example, if your household eats a lot of fruits and vegetables, you should be on the lookout for fridges that feature independent temperature control in the crisper drawers.

EFFICIENCY: Energy efficiency is closely related to performance, and also to fridge size. French door refrigerators typically use more energy than other types, since they also tend to be larger. But the difference in energy costs between a huge French door fridge and a standard top-freezer is usually only in the tens of dollars per year. We recommend looking for the Energy Star logo when shopping, but it's generally not worth obsessing over efficiency numbers.

Efficiency is about more than just operating cost, however. Consider the long, long fossil fuel burning–trip that your winter strawberries took to get from field to fridge. If your refrigerator can keep them from rotting for one or two extra days, so you eat them instead of throwing them out and buying more, it can add up to a big net savings for the planet.

DESIGN: Fridge design isn't just about picking white, black, or stainless steel. Design is a huge factor in the functionality of the machine—perhaps more so than any other appliance.

Fridge design isn't just about picking white, black, or stainless steel.

For example, the design and usability of the shelves determines how much food you can actually fit inside the fridge. The handle and position of the freezer determines how accessible the overall machine is (a real concern for individuals with mobility concerns). And then, of course, there are aesthetic concerns like finish, dimensions, and paneling.

Though most refrigerators are purchased in a specific finish, usually to match other appliances in your kitchen, there's another type for those with larger budgets and more exacting requirements. Panel-ready fridges are designed to blend seamlessly into your cabinetry, employing custom panels that cover the doors. These machines usually run in the ballpark of $8,000 to $10,000, and are produced by a select group of upscale manufacturers.

Virtually all panel-ready fridges are also built-ins, meaning they are designed to be tightly enclosed in cabinetry, with a flush fit and no visible gaps. They're massive, and usually come in manufacturer-specific sizes. For this reason, you may end up locked in to a single brand if you design your kitchen around a specific model. A counter-depth fridge is a good way to achieve this look for less money.

Kenmore Elite ice-maker

FEATURES: Depending on how much you’re willing to spend, your new fridge might come with lots of bells and whistles, or it might not even have an icemaker. While the presence of, say, a coffee maker shouldn’t be your top priority, extra features like turbo freezers and hot water taps can be quite alluring. Just make sure you’re not sacrificing performance for a Blast Chiller, or some other novelty.

Icemakers are important, sure, but what about the compressor or the evaporator?

It may also help to get technical and check out the hardware powering the fridges you're considering. Icemakers are important for many buyers, sure, but what about the compressor or the evaporator?

Most machines have a single compressor and a single evaporator, which works fine for most circumstances. Some machines (usually in the price range of $1,800 or higher) have a dual evaporator, which helps reduce odor transfer and better maintain temperatures. Even fewer machines have two evaporators and two compressors (one for the fridge and one for the freezer). This is basically like having two fridges in one, and promises unparalleled temperature control and consistency.

How to Buy

Get the best price on your new fridge.

If you’re serious about getting a great deal, you’ll probably want to check out both online and in-store listings. You can use’s comprehensive product search feature to flag a few refrigerators that interest you. Under each review, the “Shop Now” option provides an up-to-date list of the retailers who are selling a given fridge, alongside pricing data.

In your research, take note of the MSRP of each model, and check to see if any sellers—Amazon, AJ Madison, Home Depot, etc.—currently have the refrigerator on sale. Even then, the retail price is not the full sum of what you can expect to spend. There’s also the cost of delivery, installation, and haulaway of your old fridge. Depending on your state, you may also have to pay sales tax—a cost that may or may not be applicable to online purchases.

Don’t skimp on shipping and installation, and do your due diligence before your buy. Unless you plan to install the fridge yourself (which is usually pretty easy) you'll need to hire a professional, and you don't want to be doing that at the last minute. Too many buyers overlook the delivery or installation process and end up paying more than necessary.

Care, Cleaning, & Service

Keep your refrigerator running like new.

Proper care for your fridge begins and ends with you—it’s not simply a matter of setting and forgetting. A fridge need to be cleaned and maintained, just like any other machine.

While you need not lose any sleep over it, do try and remember to clean the interior on a regular basis. Wash out the water taps, wipe down the shelves, don’t stack food like a game of Jenga, and—perhaps most importantly—throw out old food when it goes bad.

Baking soda works well to remove nasty odors, but so do coffee grounds or a cotton ball soaked in vanilla extract. But don’t stop there! The gaskets easily accumulate germs and mold, so be sure to wipe those rubber liners down from time to time. And the crisper drawer—that’s actually one of the most attractive spots for germs in your entire home.

If you have a fridge with a built-in icemaker or water dispenser, you should also keep an eye on the water filter. If your water or ice starts to taste funky, change it out.

Last but not least, make sure your refrigerator is properly ventilated. Don't enclose it too tightly in cabinetry or push it right up against the wall. Most modern fridges don't have exposed coils, but for older or less expensive models, you may want to dust back there from time to time. You should also clean underneath your machine periodically—you never know what you're going to find down there, and obstructed ventilation equals poor performance.

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