Choosing a Refrigerator
Cheap refrigerators are fairly basic appliances. For the most part, forget about LCD displays, freezer drawers, and adjustable-temperature compartments. Some inexpensive models may even force buyers to forgo a stainless-steel finish or an ice maker. But those who can do without a lot of extras will find that the best refrigerators under $1,000 garner high marks from owners for temperature regulation, available storage, and value for the dollar.
Refrigerator Brands.Maytag, GE, LG, Amana, Whirlpool, Frigidaire, and Kenmore are all well-known brands that are represented in the cheap-fridge market. A recent study by J.D. Power found that LG gets the nod on overall customer satisfaction for top-freezer refrigerators and GE comes in second. Samsung and LG both sit atop the rankings for side-by-sides, but those models are typically priced beyond our $1,000 ceiling. In a recent Consumer Reports survey of brand reliabilty, LG also took top marks, with 84 percent owner satisfaction. Samsung and Kenmore followed at 82 percent and 81 percent, respectively.
Types of Refrigerators and Best-Rated Refrigerators.With so many models in contention, we homed in on several good buys in each of three styles: top-freezer, bottom-freezer, and side-by-side. French door and counter-depth refrigerators start at about $1,000 and climb quickly from there. High-end built-in fridges can command up to $10,000.
Generally speaking, among conventionally sized refrigerators, top-freezer models are the least expensive, starting at about $500. Our top pick is the spacious and efficient LG LTCS20220W (starting at $810), followed by the GE GTS18GTHWW (starting at $539), a reliable model for consumers who just want the basics. The top-freezer Frigidaire FGTR1845QP (starting at $719) landed on our "think twice" list because it suffers from complaints about water leaks and frost, despite a frost-free billing. Build-quality problems plague the Insignia NS-RTM18WH7 (starting at $540), a top-freezer model that might have otherwise sufficed for small kitchens.
Side-by-side and bottom-freezer models start at about $800. The best cheap side-by-side refrigerator we found is the Frigidaire FFSS2614QP (starting at $799), which has a larger capacity than many comparably priced models. The Whirlpool WRS322FDAW (starting at $899) is a well-regarded side-by-side that's ideal for smaller kitchens. The Kenmore 50022 (starting at $800) seems plenty spacious on paper, but the interior design proves inefficient for many users.
Rounding out our top picks are the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW (starting at $899), an Energy Star-rated bottom-freezer refrigerator with wide shelves and three crispers, and the Amana ABB1921BRW (starting at $809), one of the least expensive bottom-freezer models and a magnet for frugal shoppers.
Price aside, the configuration of the kitchen may knock certain refrigerator styles out of contention. Top- and bottom-freezer models require more door clearance than side-by-side or French door models, which are better suited to galley kitchens and layouts with a center island. For kitchens with a tight footprint, another option may be the LG LTCS24223W (starting at $989), a top-freezer refrigerator with a handle-free design.
A related consideration is the allocation of space between the refrigerator and freezer compartments. Top-freezer and bottom-freezer models offer two-thirds fresh to one-third frozen storage. The split in side-by-side refrigerators, like the Frigidaire FFSS2614QP or Whirlpool WRS322FDAW, may be similar or closer to half and half.
Top-freezer models, like the LG LTCS20220W and GE GTS18GTHWW, are best for users who are heavy consumers of frozen dinners and treats and prefer to keep frozen food at eye level. If demand for fresh food is high, a model with a freezer drawer at the bottom, like the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW or Amana ABB1921BRW, might be more appealing and convenient. Both designs boast refrigerator shelves that are wide enough to accommodate large platters, bowls, and pizza boxes. The narrow shelves in side-by-sides work for some families but not others. Regardless, side-by-side models are top sellers because they can provide more total storage capacity in small kitchens.
French door refrigerators combine a convenient split door, like a side-by-side model, with wide shelves that keep fresh food at eye level, like a bottom-freezer model. Unfortunately, French door refrigerators generally soar beyond the Cheapism price range. The Samsung RF18HFENBWW (starting at $1000) is a notable exception. It's small for a French door refrigerator but one of the least expensive out there -- and it's counter-depth for a seamless, built-in look.
Most refrigerators come in white, black, and stainless steel, with some available in bisque, graphite, silver, or platinum. Standard white refrigerators are typically the cheapest; a stainless-steel finish may tack on a premium of $100 or more. One disadvantage to stainless steel is the endless battle against fingerprints, while white and bisque show dirt more easily than black.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Refrigerator Reviews: What We Considered
Which low-cost refrigerators are the best? That can be hard to discern even from reviews. Consumers often post comments after owning a refrigerator for only a short period, and there is often disparity between testing-site recommendations and user feedback. Refrigerators also are revamped or renamed frequently, so by the time a model has accumulated a respectable number of reviews or undergone formal testing, it already may be near the end of its run.
Still, reviews on several sites pointed us to cheap refrigerators that perform well in home use. We looked at expert sources including Consumer Reports, The Sweethome, Reviewed.com, and CNET, where reviewers test the products and are more comparative and systematic than consumers in their analyses.
User reviews are worth considering, however, as they provide a snapshot of real-world conditions, and also because budget models rarely attract the attention of expert testers. A good example of this is the Amana ABB1921BRW -- a basic bottom-freezer fridge that buyers commend but experts ignore. We found that consumers are particularly satisfied with models that are reliable, regulate temperature consistently, and provide adequate storage space. One area of discontent with low-cost refrigerators is noise; a notable number of reviews grumble about annoying dings or odd sounds.
Capacity.Experts recommend purchasing a fridge with capacity of 4 to 6 cubic feet of fresh storage for each adult in the household. Budget, top-freezer models typically provide total capacity (refrigerator plus freezer) of 14 to 22 cubic feet. The handle-less LG LTCS24223W offers a market-leading 23.8 cubic feet, well beyond most other top-freezer models. At the other end of the spectrum is the Whirlpool WRT314TFDW (starting at $495), with only a modest 14.3 cubic feet. This compact refrigerator is an efficient fit for a garage and might also appeal to consumers looking for an apartment-size refrigerator.
Bottom-freezer refrigerators run larger, generally boasting 18 to 25 cubic feet. In the Cheapism price range, however, the offerings cluster at the lower end. Our top picks, the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW and Amana ABB1921BRW, offer 18.7 and 18 cubic feet of storage, respectively. Most buyers consider this sufficient, saying the convenient design helps maximize the available storage.
Side-by-sides offer a little more capacity for the money: Our top pick, the Frigidaire FFSS2614QP, boasts 25.5 cubic feet while the runner-up Whirlpool WRS322FDAW has 21.2 cubic feet. But consider how usable the space is. Some comments we found dismiss the side-by-side Kenmore 50022 for too much freezer space devoted to the ice maker while Reviewed.com deems the cavity and freezer shelves too narrow.
Storage.For the most part, reviews indicate that buyers are happy with the storage space in budget-priced refrigerators. The 20.2-cubic-foot LG LTCS20220W finds favor with users for spacious shelving, as does its larger sibling, the LG LTCS24223W. The latter also has a dedicated deli drawer, a feature reviewers on Home Depot.com particularly like. Consumers are thrilled with the three drawers in our top-ranked bottom-freezer model, the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW; one or two drawers is more typical in this price range.
Door storage can also increase, or decrease, a refrigerator's appeal. Space for gallon-size jugs in the door is a popular design feature on Amana ABB1921BRW because it frees up the wide shelves for other items. On the Insignia NS-RTM18WH7, the deep in-door bins for quick-access storage attract complaints in some reviews at Best Buy.com, which describe them as flimsy and prone to breaking.
Like the Kenmore 50022, the side-by-side Whirlpool WRS322FDAW draws some complaints for limited freezer space due an ice maker that hogs real estate in a section that is already narrower by design.
Extra Features.Frills aren't expected in this price range -- don't look for fancy add-ons like a wine rack, quick-freeze drawer, or LCD display -- so reviewers are often pleasantly surprised by little extras such as upgraded lighting or shelving. Some entry-level models feature wire shelves instead of glass, but even the cheapest model we researched, the Whirlpool WRT314TFDW, confines wire shelving to the freezer compartment. Glass is preferable because it's more stable and limits spillage.
Interior lighting in the refrigerator section is standard, but some models go one better with lighting in the freezer, as well. Of the models we recommend, the side-by-side Frigidaire FFSS2614QP provides incandescent lighting in both compartments, and the LG LTCS20220W and Whirlpool WRS322FDAW come with LED lights in both spots. Users seem to prefer brighter LED lighting over incandescent, according to reviews, and LED bulbs last longer.
The models in the lower half of our price range often lack ice makers, although most can be fitted with compatible ice makers at a later time. Refrigerators priced closer to $1,000 typically come with ice makers, and some even have in-door ice and water dispensers. That's the case with all the side-by-sides on our list. This "bonus" isn't without its headaches, however. Not only can the ice maker take up significant space, but some owners of the Whirlpool WRS322FDAW complain that ice is more likely to end up on the kitchen floor than in a cup. More concerning, consumer and appliance experts report that refrigerators with ice makers tend to have more problems than those without. Still, many reviewers like this convenience and are willing to pay a little more for it.
Temperature Regulation.The primary function of any refrigerator/freezer combo is keeping fresh food cold and frozen food colder. Indeed, most consumers seem pleased with the climate control of the inexpensive models on our list. Our favorite side-by-side and top-freezer models, the Frigidaire FFSS2614QP and LG LTCS20220W, respectively, draw high marks for overall performance but only ho-hum assessments for temperature uniformity. We found no expert temperature tests for our preferred bottom-freezer model, the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW, but reviews on Home Depot.com express few complaints in this regard. The more expensive French door Samsung RF18HFENBWW rated highest in expert tests of the models we researched for this performance factor.
Notably, one side-by-side we researched, the Kenmore 50022, receives less-than-glowing scores from the experts. Testers at Reviewed.com found too much temperature fluctuation, freezer temperatures that run a tad high, and a loss of humidity in the crisper drawers. One top-freezer model that's also consigned to the bottom of our list, the Frigidaire FGTR1845QP, draws fire for excessive ice buildup in the freezer, as noted in user reviews posted on retailer AJ Madison's site. An expert from CNET also faults the model for drawers and door storage that tend to run warm.
Noise.Budget-priced refrigerators often are dinged for noise. The sound is merely the compressor cycling on, but loud or unusual noise may signal a problem such as a poorly functioning compressor, insufficient insulation, or an overactive ice maker. Although more than one user chides the noise police -- noting that a refrigerator is a machine, after all -- two of our top picks, the Frigidaire FFSS2614QP and Whirlpool WRB119WFBW, are subject to more than a few noise complaints. Close to 70 reviews on BestBuy.com knock the Frigidaire for this irritant, with several mentioning clicking or knocking sounds from the ice maker and others reporting that the hum of the compressor is too noticeable. One owner of the Whirlpool WRB119WFBW grouses in a review on HomeDepot.com that this side-by-side has turned his home into an "industrial environment."
Unless noise complaints are especially frequent, take them with a grain of salt -- what is loud and jarring to one reviewer is a quiet drone to another. Buyers who are particularly concerned about noise can look for models that have been vetted by experts for quiet operation. Our No. 1 top-freezer pick, the LG LTCS20220W, fares quite well in this dimension, according to testers. Two models that stand in the higher reaches of our price range, the Samsung RF18HFENBWW and LG LTCS24223W, also score excellent marks for humming along softly.
Energy Efficiency.An energy-efficient refrigerator is environmentally friendly and can lead to significant cost savings over time. Refrigerators with Energy Star certification -- those that generate energy savings of at least 20 percent over the minimum federal standard -- often cost slightly more up front but yield savings in the monthly utility bill that should eventually offset the higher price. Additionally, consumers may be eligible for rebates from the local energy company just for buying an Energy Star appliance.
Among the best low-cost models we researched with Energy Star certification are the top-freezer LG LTCS20220W and LG LTCS24223W and side-by-side Whirlpool WRB119WFBW. The Insignia NS-RTM18WH7 also comes with an Energy Star, but that may be one of the few things that recommends it.
Warranty.The warranty coverage period on most cheap refrigerators is surprisingly short -- many come with limited warranties of just one year on parts and labor. Some manufacturers offer longer warranties on the sealed systems within these appliances (compressors, evaporators, condensers, etc.). Both the LG models we researched and the more expensive French door Samsung unit have warranties that cover the compressor for up to a decade. Whirlpool guarantees the compressor and all parts of the sealed refrigeration system on the WRB119WFBW model for up to five years.
Consumers worried about purchasing a model with the standard one-year warranty should breathe a bit easier knowing that the average lifespan of a refrigerator these days is about 10 to 14 years. While some models, like the Insignia NS-RTM18WH7, seem to have bins and plastic parts more prone to breakage, reports of full meltdowns are fairly rare. There are also several steps consumers can take to help to maximize the life of a refrigerator.