How to Buy a Refrigerator

Red refrigerator in red kitchen
Image: Amana

With so many styles, options, and prices available, buying a new refrigerator is no easy decision. Here’s what you need to know to make the right choice.

Today’s refrigerators are the most energy efficient ever, and they’re loaded with cool technologies that can extend the shelf life of fresh foods. 

We’ll tell what you need to know so you can pick the best refrigerator for your home and budget.

First Things First: Refrigerator Types and Costs

The best refrigerator for your home is right-sized to your household’s needs. Here’s a breakdown of the standard refrigerator types, capacities, and price ranges.

Top freezer: This classic style offers homeowners the most bang for their buck. The freezer compartment is at the top of the unit, with the refrigerator below.

  • These unfrilly fridges pack lots of useable storage space for their size, especially compared with refrigerators with features, such as beverage dispensers and ice-makers, that eat up inside space. Average capacity is 20 cubic feet.
  • They’re some of the slimmest; typical widths range from 30 to 33 inches.
  • They’re the most efficient, and use 10% to 25% less energy than bottom-freezer and side-by-side door models.
  • They’re the least expensive. Prices start at about $500.

Bottom freezer: They’re convenient because they keep the refrigerator compartment at eye-level and contents within easy reach.

  • A double-door model has a single refrigerator door on top and a large freezer door on the bottom. Their average capacity is 22 cubic feet, and widths range from 30 to 33 inches.
  • A French-door model has two side-by-side doors on top, and a single door freezer on the bottom. They’re generally wider than double-door fridges. Average capacity is 24 cubic feet, and widths range from 33 to 36 inches.
  • Prices start at about $700.

Tip: A fridge with 19 to 22 cubic feet of storage space is a good choice for a family of four.

Side-by-side refrigerator: These are ideal for households that don’t mind sacrificing some fridge space for a lot more freezer space.

  • They’re split in two vertically; one side of the appliance is a freezer and the opposite side is the refrigerator.
  • Typical widths range from 32 to 36 inches.
  • Although average capacity is about 24 cubic feet, they may be short on utility when equipped with a beverage dispenser and ice maker that eat up interior space. The center divider between freezer and refrigerator also takes away storage space from the middle of the unit.
  • Prices start at about $900.

Four-door refrigerators: These are ideal for large families.

  • They're loaded with compartments that can keep groceries fresher longer. Average capacity is 28 cubic feet.
  • They’re equipped with a French-door-style fridge on top, a middle door that conceals a drawer for the items you reach for most, and a bottom freezer.
  • They’re equipped with temperatures controls and beverage dispensers.
  • Prices start at about $2,000.

Tip: Homeowners can expect about 80% of a four-door fridge’s total cubic square footage to be functional storage space.

Cabinet-depth and counter-depth refrigerators: These have a shallow profile (depth front to back) so they won’t stick out beyond standard cabinets and counters.

  • They come in two styles: bottom freezer with French doors and side-by-side.
  • Both styles offer about 28 cubic feet of storage.
  • Many models include features like compartment temperature controls, and water and ice dispensers.
  • To create a built-in seamless look for the fraction of the price, these fridges can be customized with an overlay cabinetry panel.
  • Prices start at about $2,000.

Tip: Not sure which way your refrigerator door should open? A unit with a reversible door will allow you to change the swing direction.

Tip: If your refrigerator is being squeezed into a predetermined spot, here’s how to get a perfect fit:

  • Measure the height, width, and depth of the area. Plan a clearance of at least 1 inch at the sides, back, and top. If it's being placed next to a wall, the two sides will need at least 2 inches of clearance so the door can fully open.
  • Keep door clearance in mind. An obstruction like a sidewall or counter may determine if your new fridge’s door should swing left or right.

The Facts About Energy Efficiency

As of Sept. 15, 2014, both Energy Star and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) upped the ante on energy-efficiency requirements for refrigerators (standards set by the DOE are mandatory; Energy Star is a voluntary program).

DOE’s new minimum standards require top-freezer, bottom-freezer, and side-by-side refrigerators to be 20% to 30% more efficient than previous generations. The Appliance Standards Awareness Project, which champions improved standards for appliances and lighting, estimates the energy savings between 1990 and 2014 models this way:

  • Top Freezer: $80 per year
  • Bottom Freezer: $100 per year
  • Side-by-side refrigerator: $130 per year

New refrigerators that meet the current standards set by Energy Star are 10% more efficient than their earlier counterparts. They also must be at least 9% more efficient than DOE standards.

FYI: The bigger the fridge, the more energy it may consume. The most energy-efficient models you can buy have 16 to 20 cubic feet of capacity, according to Energy Star. Compare that with the size recommended for a four-person household: 19 to 22 cubic feet. 
Tip: Got a second fridge in your basement or garage? If it’s more than 10 years old, it could add as much as $100 to your yearly utility bill. You could cut that cost by 40% with a new Energy Star-certified model. 

Want to Color Your World?

Refrigerators sold in big-box stores are available in staid shades like white, black, gray, and stainless. You’ll have to compromise on fridge type to get one in an eye-popping color like red, orange, or green. Jazzy units like these are typically available only in retro styles that mimic refrigerators from the 1950s and 1960s; you’ll find them through specialty retailers or appliance dealers. 

A colorful 9.2-cubic-foot, single-door retro-style refrigerator costs about $2,000, while a 20.6-cubic-foot, two-door fridge can cost $3,000 and more.

Features and Functions You Should Have

Lots of storage compartments and flexible storage options. You can't go wrong with storage features like gallon door bins that free up interior shelf space, split shelves that create room for tall bottles, adjustable shelves that make room for oversized things, and flexible bin dividers that make it easier to group items.

Humidity-controlled compartments. Leafy greens typically require a much higher humidity level than apples or figs. This feature allows you to store produce at the appropriate humidity levels so they stay fresh longer. A refrigerator with humidity-controlled compartments starts at about $1,200. 

Enhanced lighting. Energy-efficient LED lights placed in corners and over bins make it easier to find what you need.

Door alarms. It’ll beep or chime when the fridge door isn’t fully shut, helping to prevent energy and food waste.

Tip: Once you’ve found the perfect fridge, don’t be afraid to haggle over the price. Doing so can save you up to $100.

Features and Functions You Shouldn’t Pay More For

Automatic water, beverage, and ice dispensers. Although features like these boost convenience, they increase yearly maintenance costs. On an annual basis, expect to pay about $20 or more for electricity and up to $100 for water filter replacements. Dispensers also raise the purchase price for a new refrigerator by as much as $250 while reducing storage space.

Fast-cooling compartments like a blast chiller. When activated, the feature chills lukewarm beverages. It takes about eight minutes to get two cans of soda or a single bottle of wine icy cold. Because using a fridge’s automatic ice dispenser can boost energy costs by up to 20%, we suspect that a feature like this can also increase electricity use especially if used on a daily or weekly basis. 

Wi-Fi enabled. Although a touchscreen with apps or a TV sounds nice, the technology won’t enhance performance. They’re usually found on models that cost more than $3,000.

Tip: Pass on the extended warranty. Appliances rarely break during the warranty period.

Related: How to Care for Your Refrigerator

Deirdre Sullivan bio photo
Deirdre Sullivan

Deirdre Sullivan is an NYC-based writer who's obsessed with maximizing every inch of her urban dwelling. She's a former fashionista who has worked for Lucky Magazine and InStyle. She recently traded her high heels and Fashion Week pass for a drill and bandsaw. Follow Deirdre on Twitter, and Pinterest.