Why an Undercounter Fridge May Set You Back $1K — And How to Get Around It

updated May 5, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

When we drew up plans for renovating the basement, I told our contractors I wanted to install a compact under-counter fridge in the basement’s mini kitchen. I figured I could just shove in a standard compact dorm fridge, which can be found for as little as $150 new. I just wanted a fridge big enough to store basics for houseguests as well as water and fruit and milk for the kids while they hung out in the playroom. Boy was I in for a surprise…

Turns out that undercounter fridges are ridiculously expensive — starting at about $1,000! Why? Well, I did a little research; unlike standard freestanding dorm fridges, which vent heat out the back, proper built-in fridges are vented out the front. Like all appliances, refrigerators expel heat — and if you want the fridge to fit snugly with the adjacent cabinets, you need the heat to come out the front. If I were to use a standard dorm fridge I would need to ensure a 2-5 inch clearance on each side for proper ventilation.

So, my cabinets and countertops were installed and there was this empty space waiting to be filled by a compact fridge. But my budget was maxed out and there was no way I could afford a $1,000 built-in refrigerator! So, my contractors, A&C Contractors, decided to try a short cut. They would get a narrow cheap white fridge and ensure there was space around the back area where the heating coils were located. They installed a thin piece of white plywood above the fridge to close the big gap between the fridge and the countertop. We tested the fridge out this week and it does not seem to be overheating and works fine. While it does not look perfect, as a legit built-in would, it is a great placeholder until I stumble across a fabulous deal on one of the more pricey undercounter models!

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Sure, the special undercounter fridges vent out in the front, but why on earth does this fact make them $800-plus more expensive than the basic compact fridge? Hmmm.

(Images: 1. My basement kitchen/Catrin Morris 2. A true undercounter built-in compact fridge, which is flush against the cabinets and countertop, from McClurg.)