(Kevork Djansezian/AP)

Unlike buying most other big-ticket items, a lot can go wrong with appliance purchases.

If your new tablet doesn’t work, you can just return it and get a replacement. But you can’t easily tote your new defective refrigerator back to the store, plus most consumers need help with delivery and installation.

Unfortunately, the customer reviews that nonprofit consumer group Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org receives from local surveyed appliance purchasers indicate that delivery and installation are the most problematic parts of many transactions. Delivery crews too often damage floors and doorways, and workers frequently cause water damage and even floods by improperly installing dishwashers and washing machines. Screw-ups in the installation of gas appliances are common and nerve-racking.

Equally unfortunate, Checkbook finds most stores use fake sale prices to mislead their customers into believing they’re getting special deals when, in fact, appliances are on constant sale, and at most stores, buyers are paying too much.

Fortunately, Checkbook has identified some area stores that usually serve their customers well, and by using our simple shopping tips you’ll pay the lowest prices.

To help you separate the good stores from the not-so-good ones, through a special arrangement, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of local appliance stores free through Feb. 16 by visiting checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Appliances.

Start by deciding on the models you wish to buy. There are a few excellent sources that provide independent buying advice. Consumer Reports regularly evaluates appliances on quality issues, including reliability, and offers advice on the pros and cons of configurations, designs, features and options. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Star program provides lists and energy-usage data on certified appliances.

Salespeople can also be fantastic sources of buying advice — but only at stores that employ knowledgeable, helpful staff. Unfortunately, Checkbook finds this is an aspect of service for which many stores — particularly big national and local chains — rated low on our consumer surveys. Fortunately, several local stores received very high ratings from their surveyed customers for the advice they offer.

You want sound buying advice, careful and prompt delivery, and a trouble-free installation — but you don’t want to pay a steep price for them. Fortunately, you don’t have to. Checkbook finds highly rated stores often quote prices as low as, or even lower than, their low-rated competitors.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers checked prices at local retailers and online outlets for 26 appliance models. Our advice:

  • Don’t assume sale prices are low prices. The sale prices you’ll find at many local stores and on most websites probably aren’t special prices at all. Even if the sign says “Save 60 percent,” it’s probably meaningless and probably not a good deal.
  • It’s worth your time to shop around. For example, the highest price quoted by local retailers for a LG refrigerator (model LMXS30776S) was $3,695; the lowest price was $3,180 — a tidy savings of $515. For a Samsung washing machine (model WA48H7400AW), prices ranged from $685 to $1,063, a difference of $378. Because it is easy to obtain price quotes from salespeople at appliance stores and company websites, consumers willing to make four or five phone calls could save several hundred dollars.
  • Call or email stores to get price quotes. A bad-for-consumers policy of appliance manufacturers (and manufacturers of many other big-ticket items) is the use of “minimum advertised prices,” or MAP. Designed to boost profits for both manufacturers and large retailers by squelching price competition, these policies require retailers to advertise product prices at or above preset minimums. Because of MAP, you won’t obtain the best prices on most major brands of appliances from sales circulars and websites. But MAP policies don’t apply to prices quoted to customers in person, over the phone or via email. Stores — particularly independent ones — often quote appliance prices less than MAP to close a deal.
  • When calling or emailing stores, mention you’re contacting multiple stores for price quotes. At independent stores, our shoppers found informing sales staff that they were getting price quotes from multiple stores often spurred discounts, waivers of delivery and installation fees, or both. Getting big chains to be flexible took considerably more effort, but when our shoppers waited and waited and waited on hold to speak with appliance-department sales managers, they sometimes secured better deals.
  • You don’t have to pay more for superior service. We found stores that rate high on service were as likely to quote low prices as stores that rate low for service, and that the best prices usually weren’t offered by the big chains.
  • Don’t assume online-only retailers are less expensive than local stores. Although we often found low prices online, you can’t count on the Internet to deliver the best appliance deals. Our shoppers often found better deals — sometimes much better deals — at local retailers.
  • If you need delivery and installation services, nail down prices for that work along with prices for the appliances.

Be aware that some companies won’t install dishwashers, and others won’t connect appliances to gas lines. Some delivery personnel won’t do anything but move appliances into place and plug them in. If you buy from a store that doesn’t provide full installation services, and you aren’t comfortable with doing it yourself, you’ll have to hire a plumber or appliance repair service. Most reasonably priced plumbers charge around $100 to $150 to hook up washing machines, gas stoves or dishwashers. When comparing appliance prices, take these expenses into account.

Many consumers prefer to deal with stores that offer complete installation services, and with good reason. Our view is it’s better to have a single vendor responsible for making sure the appliance arrives in good condition and is properly installed. If something goes wrong, this arrangement eliminates disputes between the store and the plumber over who is at fault.

If you know your installation will be difficult or unusual, hire a trusted plumber to do the work.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor for Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org. Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. Checkbook is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings of appliance stores free of charge until Feb. 16 at checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Appliances.