Consider reading the manual or instructions before buying

By Anthony GiorgianniConsumer Reports

A New York woman was left dumbfounded when she discovered that the storm door she had purchased was so difficult to put together that she'd have to pay a professional $200 to do it for her. And a Consumer Reports staff member was disappointed after buying a $100 electronic activity tracker only to find out that it transmits data to the iPhone, not to the Android phone he owns.

You can avoid these kinds of post-purchase regrets by reading the product manual or instructions before buying that new car, appliance, computer, or other expensive or technologically complex item. Such documentation increasingly is available for download from manufacturer websites (typically in pdf format). Since you'll need to read it anyway after the purchase, why not do so before buying and possibly avoid some disappointing surprise and the feeling that you wasted your money?

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What you find could make the difference between whether you buy a product, choose another model or make, or forgo the purchase. It can also be a sobering counter to the advertising hype or sales pitch that took your attention away from all the not-so-stellar details you'll wish you had known about before you handed over your credit card and lugged that monstrosity home.

Just thumbing through the manual or instructions can remind you of all those things you meant to ask about before you got googly-eyed over the prospect of owning that latest, greatest new gadget. Or it may make you think of questions to ask.

A specifications page in the manual can help you determine whether that refrigerator is too big for the space you have for it or whether that home theater receiver can work with a record turntable without your having to buy additional equipment.  

Reading the manual or instructions also can help you plan your purchase. Do you need to buy special cables for that new TV? Did you remember to hire a plumber to install a water line for the ice maker that comes with your new fridge? Will you have to purchase a separate, external drive if you want to read or burn CDs or DVDs with that new laptop?

Of course, reading the manual or instructions isn't the only way you can find out what extras you'll need, and it's just part of the research you should do when considering a major purchase. But it could be the piece that makes the difference.

What to do

Here are some of the things you should look for when going through the manual or instructions.

Warranty and technical support. Often the manual is where you’ll find the written warranty. Find out exactly what it covers, what it excludes, and how long it lasts. What do you have to do to file a claim? Who pays if you have to return the product to the manufacturer, and who covers the cost of shipping it back? Does the manual include a list of service centers that you can call or take the product to for repairs? If so, is there one near you? How do you go about getting technical support? Is there a toll-free phone number? Is the warranty transferable to subsequent owners?

Readability and accuracy. Evaluate the manual or instructions. Are they well-organized and easy to read, especially for items that have lots of features, require assembly, or that otherwise aren’t easy to set up or use, such as computers? Is it likely that you'll find whatever you're looking for in the manual? Is there a table of contents or index?

Features. Confirm that the item actually has the features and capabilities you want. For instance, does that washing machine have automatic dispensers for bleach, detergent, and fabric softener or an extra rinse cycle if you're sensitive to detergent residue? Does that new oven come with a control lockout, a recommended feature if you have small children, or a cook time/delay feature that lets you select when cooking starts and ends?

Compatibility.  Does that software work with your Mac or PC? Will that elliptical exerciser fit in your basement with enough clearance for you step to up on it without hitting your head on the ceiling? Does that new car run on regular fuel, or will you go broke feeding it premium?

Installation, assembly, and setup.  Does the product require installation, assembly, or setup? If so, can you do it yourself or will you have to pay someone? Maybe after reading the manual or instructions, you'll realize that you were crazy thinking you could install that garbage disposal yourself. Perhaps you don't have the technical savvy to set up that wireless router and the computers, printers, and other devices you'd like to connect to it. If the manual or instructions leave you in doubt, try a web search to see how well others did. Our tests of closet organizers found the installation instructions on several models to be unclear or wrong. Perhaps with further research you'll find that someone has posted a YouTube video to help you overcome the documentation's shortcomings.

Maintenance. What kind of maintenance does the product require? Just as with installation and setup, can you do it yourself or will it require a professional? How much does the maintenance cost? For example, does that new car have a timing belt instead of a chain, requiring you to spend hundreds of dollars every 100,000 miles or so to replace it (or possibly risk destroying your engine, as one of our staff members did)? Does that new smart phone have batteries that can be replaced only by the manufacturer? What if your new product contains lightbulbs, belts, or filters? Can you change them yourself? Are replacements widely available, or must you buy them from the manufacturer at astronomical cost?

Accessories, subscriptions, and other add-ons. Find out what additional items you may need to purchase to get that product to actually work or provide the advanced functions or performance you need. Plan to mulch or bag your grass with that new riding lawnmower? Figure on spending another $50 to $500 for a kit. And what about subscriptions? Sure, that car maker heralded the ability of its high-tech communications system to provide live traffic and weather, but don't count on it unless you're willing to pay extra to subscribe to the service that delivers the info.

Of course, the manual probably won't tell you the cost of extras, installation, or maintenance. But it can clue you in on what to research further before buying—that is, unless you're planning o use a crystal ball instead. But that probably comes with a manual, too!

— Anthony Giorgianni

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