Please Take a Seat How to take the anxiety out of shopping for a sofa or upholstered chair
By Nellie Huang

(MONEY Magazine) – It took Sharon Greenwald one year to build her Briarcliff, N.Y. house--and another six years to furnish it. "You want to do it right," she says, "and if you put a deadline on yourself, you are going to make mistakes."

Why is shopping for furniture so complicated? That's easy: It's not something we buy often--sofas get replaced only every seven to 10 years--so we aren't familiar with how to shop for it. And it's expensive. All told, "furniture is an anxiety-ridden purchase," says Mitchell Gold, president of Mitchell Gold, the North Carolina manufacturer whose goods are sold through catalogues and in stores like Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn.

Knowing how to shop for a piece of furniture can remove some of that anxiety. In this story, the first in a series, we'll uncover upholstered furniture--we'll talk mostly about sofas, but the same principles apply to upholstered chairs--and tell you how to make sure you get what you pay for. (See "What You Need to Know" on page 125.)


Does it matter where you shop? Definitely. Especially when something goes wrong. Three years ago, Phil and Emily Ginsburg purchased a two-piece sectional from the San Francisco store Zonal Home Interiors. When it arrived, however, it was in three pieces. The store took it back and ordered another sectional for them, and threw in a loaner--"a really nice leather sofa that we actually contemplated keeping," says Emily--until the new one came in.

The lesson: Stick with reputable, established furniture stores. You will find knowledgeable salespeople there who have been in the business for decades and can answer all of your questions.

Factory shopping is not the same thing. Should North Carolina beckon, don't go. Any potential savings will dwindle once you've factored in travel and shipping costs. And many popular sofa makers, like Lee Industries and Mitchell Gold, won't sell to a person coming in off the street. Those that do are probably selling "seconds"--samples with slight irregularities--or everybody else's rejects.

What's more, you don't have to go there to order direct from the factory: Many independent shops, like North Carolina Furniture Showrooms in New York City and Chapanian's Carmichael Furniture in Carmichael, Calif., will do it for you. Just call with an item number and brand name.

Buying a sofa on the Net is trickier. Pictures can't show scale. Plus, you really should sit on a sofa before you buy it. But Jackie Hirschhaut, spokeswoman for the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, says the Web can be an "oasis of resources." Most major manufacturers and stores have sites.

What about department stores? You'll find everything from a one-of-a-kind antique to a run-of-the-mill low-end sofa. But department stores are notorious for inflating their prices. That said, stores with inflated prices are more likely to bargain. Lauren Tyler furnished some of her Stamford, Conn. home with pieces from Bloomingdale's. She got at least 10% off every time by asking, "Can you work on this [price] for me?"

Wherever you shop, you're likely to find a manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) on the tag and be told that you're getting a discount from that price. Don't take that claim too seriously. The MSRP, says one North Carolina manufacturer, "is a sales tool for people on the floor."


Most furniture stores hold sales twice a year--in January or February and in July or August--just before the new collections hit the stores. (New designs appear in April and October in High Point, N.C. but hit the stores months later.)

Look for good-weather sales too. At George Smith (which has showrooms in New York City and Los Angeles and carries $10,000 sofas handmade in England), floor samples go on sale for 40% to 50% off in May and November, leather floor samples in March and September. "If you do January," says sales associate Keira Smith Schwarz, "bad weather can ruin the sale."

And if you see something you love but can't afford, cozy up to a sales person and ask her to call you when it goes on sale. Says Kathryn Mirbaba at Ethan Allen in New York City, who has worked for 23 years in furniture sales: "Every item goes on sale two to three times every 12 months. I call my customers if I know there's a piece they want."


You can spend $8,000 or even $12,000 on a sofa, and maybe you will--but you don't need to. For $2,000 to $4,000, you can buy a well-made sofa that will last seven to 10 years, provided that Buffy and Timmy don't use it as a trampoline (then you're looking at three years, tops, before the fabric rips). On the other hand, a $1,000 sofa probably won't be very comfortable after five years or so.

"By and large, it's just like a car," says Russell Bienenstock, editor of Furniture World magazine. "A Volkswagen Golf will get me to the same place as a new $60,000 Mercedes. One will get you there in style. One may be worth it, the other may not be. It's a judgment call. But there are quality differences too."

Handmade sofas, like the Dapha line from Kohler Co. or a George Smith piece, will run you about $8,000 and up. They are usually made the old-fashioned way, with coiled springs that are tied with string in eight different positions (see the photos on page 125). And there are expensive sofas--$5,000 to $7,000--with high design but average construction. Picture those sleek sofas at Maurice Villency; most don't have eight-way hand-tied springs.

A lower price point--say $2,000 to $3,000--requires cutting costs. Instead of eight-way hand-tied springs, some manufacturers use a sinuous wire spring suspension system. Stiff cardboard instead of wood shapes a roll arm of a sofa, and less expensive fabric is nailed or tacked on, not hand sewn.

At the low end, under $1,000, you'll get plastic legs screwed into the frame instead of wooden legs that are part of the posts or bolted into the frame, and perhaps lower-density-foam cushions.


Whatever the price, make sure you get your money's worth. The key elements: the frame construction and suspension systems, cushions and fabrics.

Frame and suspension. Make sure you are getting a hardwood frame--maple, poplar, ash or engineered hardwood--that's been kiln-dried and corner-blocked (in each corner of the frame, near the legs, an extra piece of wood joins the two side rails). With most sofas, you can feel for the corner block.

As for suspension systems, much has been said about how eight-way hand-tied spring-up systems are superior to any other kind. "It's a sacred cow in the industry," says Professor C. Thomas Culbreth, director of the furniture manufacturing and management center at North Carolina State University. But not all eight-way hand-tied spring-ups are built the same way, and the sinuous wire system will last just as long.

Cushions. There's a different cushion for nearly every sofa design available--and many come with upgrade options. Some manufacturers, like Ethan Allen, even have secret recipes.

The trick to finding the best cushion? Sit on it. "You'll know right away when you sit in it if you prefer an all-down cushion," says Gene Ogden, the upholstery buyer for Pottery Barn. In our sit tests, spring-down (springs embedded in a foam core, then wrapped with a layer of down and feathers) and standard cushions (foam core with a polyester batting wrap) proved the firmest, with down-and-feather or fiber-down (down-blend wrapped foam cores) slightly less firm. An all-down-and-feather seat is the cushiest. Put any of those cushions on a sofa bed, and they feel considerably firmer.

Fabric. Fabric can make up 40% to 45% of the price of a sofa, so it pays to be value-oriented when it comes to the upholstery. The key issues: price and durability. Silk, at $100 a yard, is more fragile than a tightly woven cotton at $10 a yard. Also, stripes or patterned fabrics will cost you more than a solid because patterns have to be matched by hand at every seam, which takes more time and more fabric (25 yards for a sofa vs. the typical 18 to 20 yards).

Which fabric is best depends on where the sofa will be and the use it will get. For a sofa in a quiet living room, almost any upholstery-grade fabric will do. The family room sofa needs extra attention. What works best? Any tightly woven fabric, such as mohair, the stuff that used to cover train seats; it "wears like steel," says Schwarz of George Smith. Other options: an Ultrasuede that can be spot cleaned with a sponge, a tightly woven linen (especially printed linen) or cotton, and synthetics and synthetic blends with viscose or polyester.

What does not work? Blends with 50% or more rayon, which tend to pill and stretch, and chenilles without an acrylic backing, especially those that have been prewashed; they are soft and can literally fall apart at the seams, says Robin Bartles, the purchasing manager at Lee Industries.