Sofa Secrets: Tips for Selecting a Comfy Couch

Whether you’re looking for the focal point of your formal living room or a new Netflix-central for the family room, picking the right sofa is important. Here’s how to choose a couch that will look and feel great through years of daily use. 

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April 27, 2017
By: Amanda Lecky

Photo By: Sammy Goh, for Homepolish

Photo By: Room & Board

Photo By: Betsy Burnham and Max Humphrey, Burnham Design; Photo by Tria Giovan

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Photo By: Regan Wood

Photo By: Photo Credit: Jenifer Jordan

Photo By: Sarah Dorio

Photo By: Room & Board

Photo By: Allison Corona Photography

Photo By: Rustic White Photography

Begin With a Budget

Spend an afternoon in a furniture store or browsing online and you’ll quickly realize that sofas come at all prices, from a few hundred to many thousand dollars. The good news is that you can get a great sofa at every level. “Quality is not necessarily indicated by price, contrary to what people may believe,” says Cindy W. Hodnett, Upholstery and Style Editor for Furniture Today. “You can find an affordable, high-quality sofa — and the exact opposite is true as well.” Part of what determines the sofa’s price is the type — a sleeper sofa, or one with “motion” capability or leather upholstery could cost more — but you should also consider how you’ll use the sofa when deciding how much to spend. “A sofa you plan to make the centerpiece of your living room in your dream-house might be worth more of an investment,” says Max Bar-Nahum, director of custom upholstery at Dr. Sofa, a furniture services provider that offers disassembly (and reassembly), upholstery, repair, and custom design and build. “On the other hand, if you know your tastes change often, you’ll be moving in a couple of years, or if it’s the sofa you’ll put in your playroom for your kids to hang out on, you might not want to spend too much over your budget.”

Choose the Style and Size

With your price range in mind, spend some time tooling around online to get a sense of the styles you like best. Sofa, loveseat, or sectional? With or without reclining functionality? Tight-back? Loose-back? Shallow seat or deep seat? Tufted? With nail-head trim or piping? And, measure your space carefully. If you’re completely redecorating or starting a room from scratch, use masking tape to mark the size of the sofa you’re considering on the floor, so you can get a sense for how much room it will take up. Or, draw your room to scale on graph paper or use a room-planning app to map out the furniture plan.

Buy From the Right Retailer

Whether you plan to buy online or from a brick-and-mortar store, the experts agree that it’s important to pick an established, reputable retailer with long-term experience in furniture. “You can buy a sofa on Craiglist or at some small corner furniture store, but you may not get the support you need,” says Bar-Nahum. “The salespeople at bigger stores like Crate & Barrel or Room & Board, for example, have training, so they know how to answer your questions — or find out the answer to something they don’t know.” Many furniture manufacturers offer customization options that salespeople can help you with, says Hodnett. “If you like a piece but really wanted some additional feature — nail head trim, or a different type of upholstery, or, for a sectional, a different configuration — they may able to offer something that will add value to you as a customer.”

Learn How It's Made

“There isn’t really one ‘best’ type of sofa,” says Hodnett. But as you shop you will come across a variety of different types, so it pays to learn the lingo. Here’s a quick primer, starting with the frame: All the soft and cushy stuff rests on a frame made of wood, metal, or composite. If the frame is made of wood, your best bets are kiln-dried hardwood (solid wood that’s dried to remove moisture content, making the wood less susceptible to cracking and warping) or high-ply plywood; particleboard is less durable. Metal is durable, and often found in lower-priced sofas. Composite frames are the least durable and typically lowest-priced options. In a wood frame, the joinery is important too: The frame should be glued and screwed together and the corners reinforced with blocks held in place with dowels, staples or screws. The sofa’s suspension refers to the mechanism that supports the seat: a system of metal springs or coils, or a web of fabric straps. Eight-way hand-tied springs — a network of individual springs tied in eight places to other springs and the sides of the sofa — are perhaps the gold standard of sofa suspension, offering firm but responsive support. If you like a softer (or lower profile) seat, you may be just as happy with a sofa that has a drop-in coil system or sinuous or “zigzag” coils. Webbing is typically used on less expensive sofas and may have a tendency to sag over time, says Bar-Nahum.

Understand the Upholstery

Most sofas are upholstered with foam wrapped in some sort of padding or “batting.” The density of the foam and the composition of the padding will determine the softness of the upholstery. “Denser foam will last longer and provide more support,” says Bar-Nahum. “We prefer ultra-high density or high-density clean foams.” Around the foam you’ll find batting made of polyester, cotton, or wool, or — the most luxurious choice — down or a feather-and-down blend. The higher the content of down in the upholstery the softer the pillows, and the more fluffing they’ll require to hold their shape. 

Pick Life-Friendly Upholstery Fabric

Match your sofa’s fabric to your décor, of course, but also to your lifestyle, say the pros. “If you’re buying a sofa that will sit in a formal living room you’ll use twice a year, you can go for a more delicate fabric like linen, but in a family room you’ll use every day that material probably won’t last very long,” says Bar-Nahum. “We’re seeing big growth in the numbers of consumers who are choosing performance fabrics for their upholstery,” says Hodnett, referring to tough, stain-resistant fabrics like Sunbrella and Crypton, among others. Once relegated to outdoor spaces, these fabrics have come a long way and today are every bit as soft and luxurious as standard fabrics. “They offer cleanability, durability, and fade resistance, and they stand up to busy households with kids, pets and guests,” she says. 

Sit, Bounce Wiggle and Crawl

The best way to judge the quality of a sofa — as well as its comfort — is to spend some time with it in person. Sit on it for several minutes. Try different positions: Lean against the arm to see if it digs into your neck or back uncomfortably; test each end of the seat, as well as the middle; bounce a bit on the seat to see how firm and supportive it is; stand up and see how much fluffing the pillows require after you’ve sat on them. Hold onto a corner of the sofa and wiggle the frame: It should feel solid and firm, with no give in the joints. Lift up one leg to feel whether the sofa is heavy and substantial or lightweight. Examine all the stitching and upholstery from top to bottom. “The fabric should lie smoothly across the frame, without puckering, and the seams and any decorative welting or trim should be tight and straight,” says Bar-Nahum.

Buying Online? Read the Reviews

It’s always better to see and feel a sofa in person, but if that’s not possible you can learn a lot from an online retailer’s customer service department and, especially, from customer reviews. “Take the time to do your research,” says Hodnett. “Read the specifications, which are usually listed with any product, and then call the company to ask any questions that aren’t explained in the product description. Order swatches of the fabrics you’re considering and look at them in your room, under different lighting conditions. And read all the reviews, looking for any red flags about comfort or durability.”

Measure. Then Measure Again.

Remember that in addition to fitting well inside your room and with your other furnishings, the sofa also has to make it through your doors and hallways. Ask the retailer for instructions on how to measure properly; many online sites have detailed instructions to follow. If you mis-measure, or want a sofa that’s too big to fit through the door, all is not lost: services like Dr. Sofa and others can disassemble your purchase and reassemble it inside the room — for a price, of course.

Ask the Terms

Before you commit to purchase a sofa, remember that there’s more to consider than just price. “When a consumer buys a sofa, I think it’s a good idea for her to think about how long this product will be used in her house, by her family,” Hodnett says. “When you look at the number of years a sofa is in use, it makes sense to spend more for a piece that might last longer or serve the household better. And if an individual is ordering online, shipping charges can add significantly to the bottom line. All of these factors could play a role in the purchase decision.” Be sure to ask what the shipping or delivery fee is, and whether the company provides ‘white glove’ delivery, which generally means unpacking and placing the piece in your room — not just dumping it at your front door in its original packaging. Find out the warranty terms (a one-year warranty on frame and upholstery under normal use conditions is fairly common, but terms vary) and, perhaps most importantly, the return policy. If you’re unhappy with the sofa — a strong possibility if you’ve ordered it online, sight-unseen — you may want to return it. Return policies vary widely, from three days to three months and beyond, so be sure you know the deal, as well as any return fees or restocking fees.

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