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How to Buy a Couch

By: Amanda Lecky

Whether you’re looking for the focal point of your formal living room or a new movie-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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Photo: Sammy Goh, for Homepolish. From: Justin DiPiero.

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.”

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Photo: Room & Board

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.

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

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.”

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Photo: Wayfair

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.

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