Dirty laundry: Here's how to buy the best washer and dryer for your money

All washing machines aren't built equally. Here's how to get the best bang for your buck.

Granted, laundry isn’t glamorous. But let’s have a little fanfare for washers and dryers. They’re the hardest working machines in the house, yet we relegate them to the basement while polishing and parading the kitchen appliances before dinner guests.

It isn’t fair. When your stove or fridge breaks down, takeout pizza is a phone call away. What happens when your laundry facilities hit the skids? I’ve yet to hear of a service that delivers clean underwear to your door.

Unless you’re particularly earthy and plan on doing all your laundry by hand, you’ll probably invest in a washer and dryer at some point. Even apartment “lifers” are cutting their ties to the local Laundromat with tidy new machines made just for tight spaces.

But if you think the selection process is easy, think again. These big white boxes are, in fact, feature-packed feats of engineering, and you’ve got to decide which features are worth paying extra for. Do you want a basic top-loading washer, or a Euro-style front loader? How big should it be? Would a gas-powered dryer work better in your home than an electric one?

Taking the plunge successfully means taking some time to consider how much machine you need. Parents with young kids and people who dirt-bike as a hobby are likely to be more demanding on their washers and dryers than a couple of empty nesters or a singleton with a dry-clean-only work wardrobe.

Look at the volume of laundry you’re generating, how often you do the wash and how much dirt you need to eradicate. Those factors will determine whether you should buy the high-capacity, heavy-duty model or you’d be happier with a compact set. Generally, a compact 1.7- to 2.3-cubic-foot-capacity washer is perfect for a single person; 2.1 to 2.5 cubic feet will do for a couple; and a family needs 2.7 cubic feet or more.

Whatever size you choose, always buy as close to the best as you can afford. If you spend a little more, you’ll get years of freedom from aggravating breakdowns, expensive repairs and emergency trips to the coin laundry across town.

Maytag and Whirlpool are the two manufacturers with the best reputations, according to Douglas Kane, who carries at least nine different brands at the County Appliances store he and his brother own in Toronto. These companies make their washers with porcelain-coated steel tubs, while General Electric and Frigidaire make cheaper models with plastic tubs.

Although plastic tubs don’t rust like steel tubs can over time, they don’t have as many drain holes, so they can’t extract water as well during the spin cycle ? and your dryer has to work harder. That added strain means bigger energy bills and a shorter lifespan for both components.

According to the experts at Consumer Reports Online, the best blend of quality and economy comes from Kenmore, the house brand of Sears department store. For hundreds of dollars less than Whirlpool or Maytag, many midrange Kenmore models boast those sturdy metal-and-porcelain washtubs.

Plus, Consumer Reports says Kenmore’s dryer model 6893 is the best at sensing when your clothes are dry. (Be sure to check these features before you buy: Kane cautions that the quality can vary from year to year since Kenmore doesn’t manufacture its own products. Instead, Sears buys washers and dryers from other companies, then sticks a Kenmore nameplate on them.)

Expect to pay at least $700 for a reliable top-loading, American-made washer, plus $500 for a dryer ? not necessarily its mate. According to online product ratings from the U.S.-based Active Buyer’s Guide and Great Britain’s Goldfish Guides, the best washers and dryers don’t always come from the same manufacturer.

Smart shoppers will take full advantage of these Web sites, which offer free, unbiased product profiles to give you a better idea of which washing and drying options you need. (Just remember that some models aren’t available in Canada.) Click the Washer Decision Guide while you’re logged on to the Active Buyer’s Guide and the site will take you though an electronic questionnaire to pinpoint the features, capacity and price point you’re looking for.

At the end, you get a list of recommended manufacturers and models that match your needs. For a small fee, you can access best-to-worst ratings from the experts at Consumer Reports Online.

Just about any washer will clean your clothes; what you pay extra for are durability and added features. Economy and mid-priced washers have three standard fabric cycles: a vigorous regular or cotton setting for sturdy, hard-to-clean laundry, such as whites; a cycle for permanent-press fabrics; and a delicate cycle.

Make sure the model you choose allows you to tailor the water temperature for washes and rinses separately. Fancier models may add a couple of special settings, such as a “hand wash” cycle for unmentionables heretofore treatable only with a Woolite-laced soak in the bathroom sink.

Front-loading washers are the current rage among experts and consumers alike, even though they can cost $300 or $400 more than the finest top-loaders. What’s the attraction? Besides that sleek Euro look (Europeans have been using front-loaders for decades), they use less water (up to 3,000 gallons less in a single year) and they’re gentler on clothes.

These machines use gravity to circulate a load of laundry, whereas top-loaders use an agitator at the centre of the tub to do the job. The agitator uses extra energy, and the friction it produces can really beat up fabrics, even on the gentle cycle. Another plus with front-loaders is their ability to extract more water out of clothes, faster, so your dryer has less work to do.

Bottom line: you save time and money on your hydro bill. Just make sure your floors are secure before you buy one. If they’re not balanced precisely, front-loaders tend to bounce around, which makes them a poor choice for some duplex apartments and upper-level laundry rooms.

If you live in an apartment or condo, there are additional considerations. First off, most apartments don’t have a drainage system that can accommodate 20 gallons of water per load, or the 220-volt outlet necessary to hook up a full-size electric dryer. Unless you want to spend a mint on retrofitting, make your choice between the Whirlpool compact or GE Spacemaker series.

These washers and dryers weigh less and measure a slim 22 to 23 inches across (compared to a 27-inch full-size model). Some models are even portable, so those who don’t have the luxury of a basement or dedicated laundry room can roll ’em out when duty calls, then tuck ’em away when they’re done. The Italian manufacturer Equator makes a portable all-in-one washer/dryer system that Tim Hill raves about.

“You can hook it up permanently or roll it up to the kitchen sink, and the dryer needs only a standard 110-volt outlet,” says Hill, a salesperson at Home & Rural Appliances in Toronto. But at $1,800, the Equator is definitely a higher-end option. Whirlpool’s portables are a comparative bargain at $1,100 for the pair.

For compactness plus the ability to launder a whole lot of clothes in one shot, consider a double-decker setup like the Maytag Neptune Super Stack or GE’s extra-large capacity Unitized Spacemaker; washer and dryer together take up only 27 inches of floor space. Stacked systems are generally more expensive ($2,800 for top-of-the-line Maytag and $1,650 for GE) but their water conservation features will take a little of the sting out over the long run.

Consult your landlord before you invest in a washer and dryer of your own ? especially if your unit isn’t metered separately for utilities. Landlords aren’t too keen on having tenants run up the collective hydro bill, and it isn’t easy to hide the consumption of 40 or more gallons of water a week. My friend Julia is thinking about building a wooden façade for her two new acquisitions so her landlord won’t notice them when he makes his rounds.

Finding the right clothes dryer is a little less complicated. Your biggest decision is how to power your appliance. Unlike washing machines, which are all electrically powered, dryers can be juiced with either natural gas or electricity: just choose the model you prefer.

In the same way haughty home chefs swear by gas ovens and stoves, finicky launderers love gas dryers for their energy efficiency (they cost almost 70% less to operate than electric) and gentle heat (they tumble dry with moist air, which helps clothes last longer).

Though a gas machine costs $30 to $50 more to buy, you’ll recoup that money in the first year of use. The only catch is that if you don’t have a gas line running to your laundry area, you’ll have to pay your gas company to install one, which can get pretty pricey. Most people end up with an electric model for that reason.

Look for a dryer with a wide front door for easy loading and unloading, as well as a lint trap with handy access for removal and cleaning. A model with a moisture sensor can tell when clothes are dry more accurately than one with a thermostat. That means it will shut off sooner, saving you money on energy and wear and tear on your clothes.

There’s no need to invest in a new washer or dryer if you have an old one that can be fixed. According to Steve Brannan of Brannan’s Appliance Repair Ltd. in Toronto, that avocado green number hidden in the cellar of your resale home may have more promise than a shiny new model.

“I just fixed a 10-year-old dryer that will give 10 more years,” he says. A new machine, on the other hand, might last only about six years. What gives?

Brannan says today’s washers and dryers “don’t seem to be as well-built as they used to be. I see drums in dryers that are made out of really, really thin tin; they used to be made of steel.”

So take Brannan’s advice: if you can doctor it, don’t dump it.

Keep it clean

Protect your laundry-room investment with an extended warranty

Even though the cost of buying a new washer or dryer usually includes a one- or two-year warranty covering all parts and labor, you should spring for an extended service contract as well. There’s an unwritten clause of Murphy’s Law that says something is bound to malfunction the day after your original warranty expires.

Without extended coverage, you’ll spend $100 or more just to get a repair person to your house; meanwhile, about $100 per machine takes care of any and all repairs for four more years.

There are two extended-warranty plan options: you can sign up with the manufacturer (Kenmore, Whirlpool and GE are three that let you buy a plan online) or deal with the appliance shop or department store where you buy your machines. The latter will likely offer quicker and more convenient service.

When you’re shopping, compare machine prices and warranty packages at one or two small neighborhood retailers and a large chain like Sears Whole Home or The Brick. Independent shops might not be able to match the delayed-payment credit plans offered by the big boys, but they’ve usually got the best bottom line.