Yes, when you're shopping for a fridge, you're looking for the machine that's best at keeping your food cold (check!). But that's not the only priority on the list: Your kitchen design, eating habits, budget, and the old freezer-on-top versus freezer-on-bottom (versus freezer on the side!) debate are all concerns. You could spend $500 to over $5000 on your new refrigerator. Here's what you should think about before you plunk down your credit card.
1. Your kitchen space
You can't have more fridge than you have room for, so start by measuring. A refrigerator needs a few inches to spare around all sides so it can operate efficiently and air can circulate. Also, note how wide the doors can swing open, and check that you have adequate clearance. Make sure the door opens in the right direction and, if not, have the doors reversed before the fridge is delivered.
If you're drawn to a "counter-depth model" (it won't stick out beyond your countertops) for a clean built-in look, remember that it may not give you as much cubic footage for food storage.
2. Your eating habits
If you cook with fresh foods often, you might love a bottom-mount (translation: freezer-on-bottom) unit, which puts refrigerated items at grab-and-go height. Or, if you're a thaw-and-nuke kind of household, you may prefer a freezer-on-top so you won't have to stoop or dig deep for frozen meals.
A side-by-side unit offers the best of both worlds, but if you often store leftover pizza, platters of hors d'oeuvres, or other wide items, its narrow compartments may not be for you. While most models have adjustable shelves, drawers with temperature settings, and dedicated spaces for certain foods, spend some time investigating a model's usability and your own habits before committing.
3. Your family
A side-by-side unit is a good pick for homes with kids, the disabled, or the elderly — in the fridge or freezer, you can store items on lower or higher shelves for easy access. For folks who stand in front of the fridge to graze, a side-by-side or French-door style lets out less cold air (which aids in energy conservation and food safety) during a prolonged browsing session.
4. Your budget
Traditional top-mounts, with the freezer above and fridge below, are the least expensive for no-frills food storage. The exterior finish may affect the price, so consider how important it is to you to have stainless steel, a fashion color, or fingerprint-resistant faux stainless.
And consider skipping the built-in water dispenser/ice maker — they add to the purchase price and electricity costs, and these features are the most likely to break. If you're willing to spend a little more on some special conveniences, new high-end fridges have techy features like Internet connectivity, built-in sparkling water makers, four doors, and compartments that can serve either as a freezer or refrigerator as storage needs change (pretty cool, right?).
5. Your energy bill
The fridge typically accounts for up to 14% of a home's total energy usage, so read the Energy Guide labels carefully. And remember this caveat: Built-in water and ice dispensers are significant electricity gluttons and aren't included in the energy use estimates — they'll add up to 20% to the running cost.
Fridges with top-mounted freezers use 10 to 25% less electricity than the other configurations. Energy Star models use a minimum 20% less electricity than non-rated models, which is helpful to remember as you shop and compare.
6. Your cleaning habits
Stainless steel looks beautiful when it's clean, but it's quickly smudged by fingerprints. Get the look but save yourself the constant wiping by choosing a model with a faux-stainless finish. Glass shelves with lips to contain spills (instead of wire shelving) are also easy to wipe clean.
Sources: Sharon Franke, the director of the Kitchen Appliances and Technology lab at the GolfHr Research Institute; EnergyStar.gov