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Must-Know Appliance-Buying Tips

A major appliance is a major purchase. Be smart before you shop with these often-overlooked tips

Learn From Others' Mistakes

I know one sadder-but-wiser home cook who won't shut up about her pricey gas range making an annoying click click click…click click click… when the burners are set on low. Well, others suffer so you won't have to. Your friends will be all too willing to share their appliance-related delights and bitter disappointments. Invite yourself over to kick the tires of their new front-load washer, induction cooktop, or stainless-steel microwave. Ask if which features please them most, how often they've had to call for repairs, and what they'd do differently if they could do it again.

Never Make an Impulse Buy

Admit it—you almost bought a car once because it had really great cup holders. You can avoid similar behavior in an appliance showroom by making a list of your priority features ("energy efficient," "lifetime warranty"). Staple it to a list of competing showrooms and Web retailers so you can comparison shop for the best model with the best combination of features at the best price. Wait for a sale if you can; they say fall is the best hunting season because showrooms are trying to clear space for next year's models. Whenever you go, ask a friend with a level head to come along.

Above All, Know Thyself

Just because you watch Top Chef doesn't mean you are one. If, fact is, you live on leftover pizza, you won't be happy with a fridge that's so narrow the box has to go in vertically. One dessert maven I know nearly bought a trendy bottom-mount freezer, which would have required constant bending over to dig for the butter-pecan. Then there was the guy who brought home a supersize washer—hey, it was on sale!—before realizing he lived alone and owned only five days' worth of calculator

Read the Fine Print

Don't even look at that seductive touch-pad-temperature-probe-microwave-option-three-way-stove-and-bottle-washer without first reading the instructions. If you find yourself unfolding a sheet of paper more delicate than a 17th-century map, with type so small you can't read the words after "CAUTION," or you find you are lost in the programming instructions on page 43 of the owner's manual—in Spanish—keep looking. This is not your perfect appliance.

Make Sure You Don't Destroy the Foyer

You'd be surprised by how many otherwise intelligent people place orders for appliances that won't fit in their allotted space—assuming their new fridge, washer, or whatever doesn't get wedged up against the ceiling of the foyer. Appliance salespeople are full of stories about savvy customers who fail to note that the only way to access the kitchen is up a set of steep stairs, through a narrow doorway, and down a hallway that takes a sharp turn before dead-ending in a spot too small for its hoped-for purpose. Bring a map to the showroom with every single angle and dimension. If the salesperson seems to be not paying attention, ask for her home phone number so you can call at midnight to go over the measurements one more time.

Never Fall for a Pretty Face

Another friend of mine found herself snapping up an entire suite of appliances because she loved the way their handles matched. Sure, you love those sexy grates and cunning knobs (see "Never make an impulse buy," previously). But when the electronic ignition on the range blows, leaving you with no way to cook on the day before Thanksgiving—or the icemaker quietly springs a leak, covering the floor with an inch of water, you will no longer recall that magic moment when you fell in love across a crowded showroom floor.

Listen Carefully

Never compare models without comparing decibel levels. One serious home cook I know just had to have a commercial-kitchen range hood. It's so noisy he can't bear to turn it on.

Get the Right Size for You and Your Cooking Equipment

Appliance cavities come at different heights and in different sizes. If you like to use your microwave as a second oven, make sure it can hold your Pyrex baking pans. A new range should be big enough inside to accommodate your favorite roasting pan—with plenty of head room for the turkey. (Not sure? Take a 20-pound bird with you when you go shopping.) Watch out for ranges with low-slung ovens (perhaps built that way to allow for a thick cooktop with fat designer knobs) and for front-loading washers pitched so low they require a pedestal (i.e., extra space) to save your aching back.

Do a Door Inspection

Fridge doors can open on the left or right, so resist a deal on a floor model if the door opens on the wrong side (or ask if the door can be rehinged). And by the way, does that door stick so firmly only Superman can open it, tempting you to leave it open while you finish making dinner? Sticky doors may help save energy—and keep you on your diet—but after I'd yanked open my new fridge one time too many the handle came off in my hand.

Ask What Else You Need to Buy

Major appliances can be awfully needy. Cooktops that throw off impressive amounts of sizzle, smoke, and steam require equally dazzling exhaust fans. A high-rpm front-loader that really knows how to spin-dry clothes may also rattle a room, especially upstairs, and require reinforcement of the floor. Dryers need to vent properly; it's best to figure out how you will be venting your sweaty new giant before you lug it home.

Measure Three Times, Buy Once

As long as you are taking down dimensions (see "Make sure you don't destroy the foyer," previously), stop to consider how your new appliance will interact with its surroundings. Measure that counter-depth fridge's proposed parking space, then measure the fridge—again; "counter depth" may mean "except for the thick door and its beefy handle." Look behind your existing gas range; if the gas pipe protrudes, your new range may protrude too. And watch out for a fridge or front-load washer whose door opens so wide it blocks traffic, causing frustrating delays while some family member contemplates the contents of the produce drawer or the loss of a dear sock.

Prepare for Repairs

Never buy a major appliance without asking for the names and cellphone numbers of people who can service it. Service varies by brand and location. Maybe you read about those poor rich people who bought status-y European appliances for their vacation homes, only to discover that Euro appliance repair people dwell exclusively in the city.

Get Ready to Haggle

Many dealers will match the lowest price offered by the competition. If the price still seems high, see if you can negotiate a deal by buying more than one appliance at a time. When all else fails, ask for free delivery and installation or a free extended warranty. Incidentally, extended warranties are rarely worth paying for—but you probably already knew that.