Researching Important Purchases

There's nothing worse than shelling out big bucks for something that just didn't work the way you wanted it to. This has happened to me with a couple of cordless phones and even my current mattress. Where do you, dear readers, get advice on important purchases? There are sources -- some free, some for a fee -- that review products and stores. You can even get reviews of service companies. But who do you trust? Do you believe companies that say they offer unbiased reviews? How much weight does a comment posted on affect your buying decisions? I know I won't buy a product that has two or three bad reviews. Do you trust that researchers were completely thorough in their analysis of a certain product? Or does the advice from a friend or neighbor hold the most weight?

I have often found myself following in the footsteps of my father who rarely makes a big purchase without consulting Consumer Reports, the product review magazine owned by the Consumers Union. The monthly magazine, which charges $26 for a one-year subscription, reviews and ranks all kinds of products, from cars to diet plans. They ban advertising in the magazine as a way to remain unbiased. But the magazine's research was questioned in January 2007 when it had to withdraw its findings on child safety seats. It has since updated its report based on more accurate testing.

ConsumerSearch, a company owned by since 2007, provides ratings of reviews done by companies like Consumer Reports and J.D. Power & Associates, as well as recommendations on the best products based on all available research. The site covers everything from bathroom scales to tax preparation software. So, say you're in the market for a clothes dryer. ConsumerSearch will give you a ranking and description of reviews done on clothes dryers. Then the site will give you a list of recommended models based on these outside reviews. You'll also have access to their own report on dryers, as well as a list of price comparisons and where to buy. By the way, it's all free. For that you'll have to deal with some advertising on the site.

And then there's Checkbook, another magazine that offers reviews of everything from local plumbers to doctors. The reviews are compiled from questionnaires on consumer experiences with local businesses. The magazine, which charges $34 for a two-year subscription, also offers in-depth advice on how to make decisions on big purchases like a mattress or a lawn-care service.

You can also check the Better Business Bureau for complaints about local companies. The free service works as a neutral third party in disputes between a business and an unhappy customer even though businesses can be paying members of the bureau. As a consumer you can request a report on a business that will show if it's ever received a complaint, a one-word description of the complaint such as "service issues" or "product quality," and whether it was resolved. The report I recently looked up for a plumbing company I plan to use lacked any details about a "service" complaint it received in the last year. It only showed that the dispute had been resolved.

Angie's List is another service that provides input on local home service companies like landscapers and handymen. An $82 one-year subscription gets you detailed reports on other people's experiences with those companies.

So, where do you seek advice on purchases big and small? Who does the best research out there? How important are reviews in your purchasing decisions? Post a comment below.

By Tania Anderson |  April 10, 2008; 3:00 AM ET General Interest
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I've found Cook's Illustrated (magazine) to have very thorough and unbiased reviews for food and cooking-related items. However, you have to subscribe to the magazine or website to access them.

Posted by: Will | April 15, 2008 3:40 PM

I subscribe to Cook's Illustrated for food and kitchen-related reviews and Consumer's Report for all other.

Posted by: Little Red | April 17, 2008 12:46 PM

I swear by Consumer Reports. My Dad, too. In the 50's he worked for them and I have never been disappointed by any product rated well by them. Also, any produst with the Good Housekeeping seal has proven to be as advertised for all the years I have been around.

Posted by: Kathleen Mihok | April 17, 2008 8:27 PM

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