If you're in the market for a new washing machine this year, you now have something else to think about: import tariffs.

President Trump slapped steep tariffs on imports of washing machines and solar panels this week after U.S. manufacturers complained that they are being hurt by foreign competition. The tariffs will affect such well-known brands as Samsung and LG, which have produced washers that, historically, have tended to perform well in Consumer Reports' testing.

“Over the past three to five years, LG and Samsung have been driving washer innovations, more than other brands,” says Mark Allwood, a senior market analyst at Consumer Reports.

For 2018 imports, the U.S. will impose a 20 percent tariff initially, then 50 percent.

But the overall impact of the new tariffs is far from clear. LG, for one, has told retailers that there may be some price increases, though it won't say when or by how much.

Among the many factors clouding any predictions: foreign makers have been shipping a lot of washers to the U.S. in anticipation of the tariffs, some foreign brands are now (or will soon be) made in the U.S., and there's uncertainty over what domestic makers will do about their own pricing. 

MORE ON WASHERS

Still, the immediate reaction was that the tariffs are likely to have a negative impact on consumers. So if you're thinking of buying a new washer, you might want to do it sooner rather than later.

Goldman Sachs, for instance, is forecasting an 8 percent to 20 percent increase in the price of a new washing machine in the next year, depending on how much of the tariff is passed on to consumers, according to CNBC. The tariff also includes machine parts, which could drive some costs higher for domestic manufacturers as well, the story says.

"This calculation assumes that tariff costs will be partly absorbed by international suppliers and/or offset by other operational or supply chain initiatives, which would impact the flow through from tariffs to domestic pricing," Goldman analyst Samuel Eisner wrote on Tuesday.

Petros Mavroidis, who teaches trade law at Columbia University and consults with the World Trade Organization, says tariffs on imported consumer goods can also affect selection and innovation.

“They definitely increase prices,” says Mavroidis. “And some goods might stay out of the market because they have been priced out.”

Mavroidis also suggests that the U.S. action could trigger even more tariffs. 

“Protectionism leads to more demand for protectionism, and provides companies with the wrong incentives—to demand protections instead of improving their products,” he says.

It's unclear when, or if, prices will actually rise, however. For one thing, shipments of foreign-made washers more than doubled in November from a year earlier, the Wall Street Journal has reported. That suggests some importers were stockpiling washers ahead of any tariff, so any price increase probably wouldn't happen right away. 

And even then, the impact may be short-lived. South Korea-based Samsung and LG have already begun shifting manufacturing to the U.S. Samsung recently began production of washers in its Newberry County, S.C., plant, its first in the U.S.

And John Taylor, senior vice president of public affairs for LG, told CR that by next January, virtually all LG washers for the U.S. market will be built in Clarksville, Tenn.

What to Do Now

Whatever your strategy on pricing is, our advice remains the same: Zero in on models that did well in our washing machine ratings, then compare prices online before you head to the store. 

Typically, laundry appliances go on sale on long holiday weekends, such as President’s Day and Memorial Day, but (if you can wait) November remains the best time of year to buy.

If you'd prefer an American-made machine, GE, Maytag, Speed Queen, and Whirlpool washers are manufactured domestically. 

Manufacturers Differ on Impact

U.S. manufacturers supported the president's move.

“This is a victory for American workers and consumers alike,” says Jeff M. Fettig, chairman of the Michigan-based Whirlpool Corporation, on the company’s site. “By enforcing our existing trade laws, President Trump has ensured American workers will compete on a level playing field with their foreign counterparts, enabled new manufacturing jobs here in America, and will usher in a new era of innovation for consumers everywhere.”

Not everybody agrees.

“Unfortunately this will mean higher prices for consumers and fewer selections,” says LG’s Taylor.

He adds that it’s too soon to say how much prices will increase, and that this could affect dryers, too. Because most shoppers prefer to buy matching washers and dryers, fewer washers could also result in fewer dryers to choose from.

“Today’s announcement is a great loss for American consumers and workers,” says a spokesperson for Samsung. “The tariff is a tax on every consumer who wants to buy a washing machine. Everyone will pay more, with fewer choices.”

What's Behind the Tariffs

The tariffs were imposed not because of unfair trade practices by other countries, which is normally the case, but because U.S. manufacturers said they were being hurt by foreign competition.

“This is an unusual trade law, rarely used,” says George Slover, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports. "It allows a challenge to imports based solely on the imported product making it too hard on the U.S. manufacturer. No unfair trade practice or other wrongful conduct needs to be alleged or shown."

Annual shipments of washers to retailers steadily increased from 7.3 million in 2012 to 9.7 million in 2016, according to data from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, a trade group. The U.S. International Trade Commission found that imports started to sharply increase in 2012, and steadily increased, and domestic manufacturers’ financial performance “declined precipitously.”

Late last fall, the commission made recommendations to the president in its “global safeguard investigation.” Trump slapped steeper tariffs on the washers than the ITC had recommended.