Unlike buying most 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 the nonprofit Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org receive 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 clothes washers. Mistakes in the installation of gas appliances are common and nerve-wracking.

Equally unfortunate, Checkbook finds that many stores use fake sale prices to mislead their customers into believing they're getting special deals when, in fact, they're actually paying too much.

Fortunately, some area stores serve their customers well, and by using our simple shopping tips you'll pay the lowest prices.

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

Salespeople can also be fantastic sources of buying advice, but only at stores that employ knowledgeable, helpful staff. 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 surveyed customers for the advice they offer.

To help you separate the good stores from the not-so-good ones, Inquirer readers can access Checkbook's ratings free through June 30 by visiting www.checkbook.org/inquirer/appliances.

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 found that 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. Here are our findings:

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. At some stores, these sales never end.

It's worth your time to shop around. For example, the highest price quoted by local retailers for an LG refrigerator (model LMXS30776S) was $3,800; the lowest price was $2,834, a tidy savings of $966.

For a Whirlpool electric range (model WFE540H0EB), prices ranged from $736 to $1,216, a difference of $480.

Consumers willing to make four or five phone calls or manufacturer-website checks could save several hundred dollars.

Call or email for price quotes. A bad-for-consumers policy of appliance manufacturers 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 by email, and stores - particularly independent stores - often quote appliance prices less than MAP to close a deal.

Mention that you're contacting multiple stores for price quotes. At independent stores, our shoppers found that this 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.

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.

Most reasonably priced plumbers charge $100 to $150 to hook up clothes washers, gas stoves, or dishwashers. When comparing 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 that 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, that arrangement eliminates disputes over who is at fault.

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

See ratings of area appliance stores free of charge through June 30 at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/appliances.