Holiday shoppers can avoid disappointment later if they check store refund and lay away policies before they buy, consumer officials advise.

The Virginia Department of Consumer Affairs reports that consumers often mistakenly think a store is obligated to refund money when they return a purchase. In fact, stores are free to establish whatever refund policy they choose, the department said, making it important that consumers learn those policies before making any purchase. The department's current newsletter offered these additional shopping tips:

* Most large retail and department stores have very liberal refund policies, particularly during the holiday season. Smaller retail outlets often have more restrictive refund requirements, such as "All sales final" or "Refunds for store credit only."

* In some stores, the refund policies may be different for sale items and non-sale items, so ask beforehand which policy applies to your purchase.

* If there is no written return policy posted in the store or on the sales slip, ask the store manager to note the store's policy in writing on the sales slip for you.

The newsletter also advised consumers to read store layaway policies before signing a layaway agreement. "Find out the amount of any service charge, and the cancellation and refund provisions," the newsletter said. And remember that if you put an item in layaway and the item then goes on sale -- you may not be able to take advantage of the lower price because of the store layaway policy. Cordless Phone Tip

If you are thinking of giving a cordless telephone as a holiday gift, look for a model that has been modified to prevent possible hearing damage from the ringing mechanism or that doesn't have a ringer in the earpiece. That is the recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration, which has received more than 100 complaints alleging hearing damage from cordless telephones. Most of the complaints were from persons over age 60.

Consumers generally are accustomed to conventional telephones which automatically stop ringing when answered. But cordless phones have a switch which must be moved manually to a talk position. If the user forgets to flip the switch, the ringing continues directly into his ear, except with modified models. Auto Safety Hotline

Has there been a recall of my car? Have you had complaints about the safety of my car? What information can you provide me on the crash test results on cars like mine?

Answers to such questions are only a telephone call away for consumers who know to dial the hotline operated by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the Washington area, the number is 426-0123; in other parts of the country, the number is (800)-424-9393. Operators are on duty from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. On weekends and after hours on weekdays, a recorded message asks you to leave a name, address and any information request.

Hotline operators are trained to provide information about auto safety recalls and to accept consumer complaints, according to NHTSA representative Roslyn Kaiser. "They can tell you if there has been a recall, if there is an investigation, and they can send you a questionnaire to fill out for your complaint."

Consumers who want additional printed material will be sent a list of publications available on fuel economy ratings, odometer tampering laws, drunk driving and crash test results, Kaiser said.

The hotline was established in 1975 to deal with the growing consumer concern over automobile safety, and now fields an estimated 219,000 phone calls each year.