Know Before You Buy

Upholstered furnishings for your home should suit your personal style. Follow these guidelines so the purchase is a perfect fit.
Sarah Jernigan

Buying upholstered furniture is not always easy. Sure, you can go into a store, pick out a sofa, and have it delivered. But will it fit your room? Is the floor sample fabric all that's available? And don't forget the kids--will the fabric and cushions hold up to their wear and tear?

Selecting quality upholstery should be a deliberate process, much like purchasing a car or home computer. Once you analyze your needs and educate yourself, even nonexperts can separate quality furniture from the rest.

Although many upholstered pieces look the same, they are not all equal. There are so many options available that it can become confusing. Size, construction, wearability, cost--these factors, in addition to personal comfort and style, should be given serious thought before shopping. Consider the following criteria so your purchase reflects your style, your family's needs, and your ability to shop smart.

CONSTRUCTION
Manufacturers mass produce quantities of upholstered furnishings. Not all are made the same. Reputable manufacturers have visible labels identifying construction methods and any fabric warnings. The highest quality furniture is made with coil springs that are hand tied to a hardwood frame with eight knots per spring, commonly called eight-way, hand tied. This system of coils rests on jute or synthetic webbing.

SCALE
A chair and a half that looks great in a warehouse showroom may overwhelm your living room once it arrives. Measure the dimensions of your room and existing furniture, and write them down, or better yet, sketch a simple floor plan. A formal drawing isn't as necessary as an understanding of the size of space with which you are working. Even if measurements confuse you, a salesperson should be able to decipher basic room dimensions and help you make an informed selection.

ECONOMICS
Furniture prices not only vary with manufacturer, but also depend upon the fabric grade, construction, and type of cushion. Sometimes the delivery charge greatly increases the final price. This is especially true of mail order. Ask what the sticker price includes first, and then consider the options. You might find that a chair ordered with a fabric other than the floor sample is less expensive. A cushion upgrade may also be worth the additional fee.

FABRIC OPTIONS
The fabric sample rack may overwhelm, but it's worth the effort to consider what choices are offered for a particular style. Some fabrics are fashioned for durability, others for decoration on seldom-used pieces. Know how your new piece of furniture will be used. A sturdy canvas or chenille may not be necessary for a bedroom chair, but would be ideal for a frequently used family room sofa. Bring a paint and/or curtain fabric swatch so you can compare how well your existing decor will work with any new items.

PERSONAL COMFORT and STYLE
Sit on your selections before you finalize the purchase. The floor samples are meant to be tested. Mail order is a fun way to shop, but if you care how firm or how soft an item is, you may want to personally test it first. Otherwise, returning the item could be a nightmare.

No one should ever buy a mattress without lying on it first. The same goes with sofas and chairs. Cushions depend upon the various types of fill. Another factor is style or shape. For example, the arms on the sofa may be too high to rest your head when you recline. If you nap every Sunday on the sofa, make sure your new one will be comfortable when using the armrest as a pillow.

FIND A REPUTABLE RESOURCE
Overall, the best way to buy a good piece of furniture is to start with well-known retailers. They will have salespeople who are not only knowledgeable about their product, but also happy to answer your questions and supply alternatives if the perfect piece is not immediately on hand. If they can't answer your basic questions, go to someone who can. Investigating local retailers may not be as convenient as the popular mail-order catalogs, but when you're still enjoying your sofa 10 years from now, you will be glad you made the effort.

SHOPPING SMART
  • Ask the salesperson questions. Is there a warranty? What about a delivery charge? Can I have accent pillows made from the same fabric?
  • If mail order is your only option, check on the return policy and what you are responsible for should the item arrive damaged.
  • Make no assumptions. Remember this is a business deal, and you are making an investment. Get everything in writing--from the sales/order receipt to the date of delivery.
  • Know the general measurements of your room and any furnishings you intend to keep. Take dimensions with a measuring tape, and then keep these numbers in a notepad for handy reference so shopping will be that much easier.
  • Consider your home's access. Will you be able to get that sofa up four flights of stairs to your apartment? Maybe a pair of chairs and an ottoman will work better in your first home. Delivery and placement may be half the battle if you move often.
  • Personally check the construction by feeling the underside of the frame. Coils and webbing are recognizable to the touch. If tension is present, it's a good bet the piece is made well. Ask if the frame is kiln-dried hardwood too. That's another positive quality.