I actually call this a “couch”, as you probably do, but in the interior design world, it’s a sofa. I met a Canadian in 5th grade who called it a Chesterfield, which I happened to remember because it was such a fancy term for a couch. Turns out a Chesterfield is actually a particular style of couch rooted in furniture history, but we’re not going into that kind of depth in this post because each and every one of you would have glazed-over eyes and maybe even fall out of your chair.
So the question is (from the comments), “How do I choose a couch?”. I might be inclined to say “google it,” since there are actually thousands of articles that explain it better than I ever could. But I’m going to assume this question is asking me how I choose a couch rather than formal instructions for the perfect way to choose one. And if you want it to be more scientific, it’ll require more time, and you could end up seeing tons of “Huggies” and “refinance now” ads to make up for the unpaid blog-writing time. So here goes.
Get A Good One
This seems obvious, but let me explain. There are tons of venues for buying a couch. You can go to a multitude of furniture stores that have huge sales and financing deals painted on the windows; you can go to a “classy” place with tons of rooms set up with nice-looking furniture and eager salespeople; you can go to a stand-alone store like Pottery Barn or West Elm; you can go to TJ Maxx or Target or online at Walmart; you can go to Home Depot and get really nice-looking patio furniture that is cheaper than a regular couch but looks similar; you can go to Craigslist or Goodwill. The prices range, obviously, from next-to-nothing at Goodwill to thousands upon thousands of dollars at Restoration Hardware and high-end design places I’ve never heard of.
So what most people do is buy the prettiest-looking couch they can find that’s not outrageously expensive (or else the husband wins an buys one he supposes to be comfortable but is not-so-pretty). It looks new and nice, especially compared to what they had. Places that have options like this are HomeGoods, furniture stores with lots of financing deals, Target, Macy’s, World Market, chain furniture showrooms, etc. Anything that regular people would think was affordable.
Not the best idea, people.
You are free to, and we won’t judge. But in my opinion, this is the biggest waste of money there is when it comes to furniture. Most often, this furniture is smoke and mirrors. The manufacturer spends money on making it look designer-y with a nice-seeming fabric and the newness is the draw (and the price). The problem, though, is that this furniture is made for looks only and is not built to be comfortable or good-looking for long. What you are paying is much higher than the actual quality, though at first it seems like a great deal. And to boot, all the financing deals actually indicate that the store has a huge profit margin. That means that you’re paying for nicer furniture than you’re getting. Note: I don’t consider Ikea to be in this category. More about that later.
What gets you a better couch: wait for it…you’re not going to like it…
Get a well-made one. You can pay full price if you can afford it, or get one that’s on sale, a floor sample, secondhand from Craigslist, or from a nice thrift store (usually not Goodwill), or an estate sale. Our local thrift stores (ReStore, Graceworks, etc) often have expensive, brand-name furniture that’s barely used, as do estate sales, and you could get a $3000 couch for $500 or less.
Our own couch was actually a floor sample at Pottery Barn, and was $3000 if you ordered it, but we got it for less than $1000 as a floor sample. If you don’t know if it’s a good brand, look under the cushion and google it to find out what the original prices are. As far as good new sofas, you’re looking for words like “kiln-dried hardwood frame” and “8-way hand-tied springs” and stuff. Pottery Barn typically has well-made ones, as well as Restoration Hardware (which are really not cheap). Regular furniture stores are hit or miss (unless they advertise tons of financing, and then they’re always a miss), because they often sell multiple brands. Some of those brands are good and some are not. Usually the highest-priced ones are the best brands, though Pottery Barn tends to have really well-made ones that aren’t as expensive as some junk ones.
If you have more time than budget, look around for awhile for floor samples, on Craigslist or a Facebook page for selling, and get a couch worth quadruple what you paid, not one-fourth of what you paid. We also go to the outlet version of expensive stores, so if you have a Pottery Barn Outlet or Restoration Hardware Outlet nearby, that would also be a great option.
And if you do decide to resell it, your nice couch will get you back much more than trying to resell a couch from Target, which basically loses most of its value once you use it for a few months, partially due to the sagging cushions with rump prints, wear spots, or ripped vinyl.
Here’s an example: I got this contemporary/modern couch from ReStore for $280 for a teenager-area design project we’re working on. It was originally handmade in North Carolina and would be in the $3000s for original price. It was barely used, is extremely high-quality, and very comfy.
Make Sure It’s Comfortable
This seems obvious too, but for women it often isn’t. For men, it is. When going to a furniture store, often women pick the one they like best without even sitting in it, and the men find the ugliest one, put the recliner footrest up, and insist that he has found The One.
There are a lot of options online that look amazing, but there is one problem. You can’t test them out. I have never actually bought a couch online for this very reason. I think sitting in it and checking the quality and comfort is of utmost importance. That does eliminate a lot of options, though. If you want to buy one online, make sure it has reviews and that it’s from a good place. If the reviews says it’s comfortable and well-made, it probably is. If not, don’t get it or you’ll be miserable for the entire process of sitting on it, realizing you’re really dumb to have ignored the reviews, trying to sell it on Craigslist, getting a quarter of what you paid, and then starting over.
If you go to a furniture store, sit on the couch how you normally would (lying down, sitting with your leg over the edge, whatever). If they threaten to kick you out, just tell them you’re following expert instructions on choosing furniture. Unzip the cushions and make sure the inside is dense foam wrapped in thick polyester or down and covered in muslin. If you see foam at all, it’s junk. Usually if they see you unzipping cushions they assume you know what you’re doing and will treat you better anyway, so don’t worry.
If you’re a vintage-loving person and you want to have vintage furniture, make sure your husband thinks it’s comfortable or you might ruin your marriage. I knew someone a few years ago who had the coolest-looking furniture. She invited us over for dinner one night and upon sitting with them in the living room for a couple hours, we discovered why the husband was miserable. He didn’t have a decent place to sit down. For everyone’s sake, have at least a couple comfortable places to sit in the house. Dave thanked me profusely on the way home that night for not insisting on having cool but awful furniture.
Before any husbands who are reading this think they just won the furniture-choosing battle, not so fast. Just because your dream couch is a recliner sectional with speakers, cupholders, back massagers, and a little pocket for your Cheetos doesn’t mean it’s comfortable either. Lots of them are basically made out of cheap pebbled vinyl with marshmallows inside, and you’re going to be sore once your game is over. ‘Nuff said.
Careful with the Fabric
You probably already know that it’s smarter to buy neutral when we’re talking couches. There are some exceptions, but not many. One is if it’s vintage and you’re going for a funky, boho look. Another is if you’re really gutsy and want a show-piece room, and have the funds to change the whole thing when you get sick of it. If you’re into patterned upholstery, side chairs would be a good option instead of a patterned couch.
Our couch has loose pillows that are not sewn into the back of the couch, so I put a colorful blanket/quilt/piece of fabric on the back for color and pattern. If you get a neutral couch, you can easily change the throw pillows with the seasons or anytime. If you get a colored or patterned couch, you have to be a lot more talented when choosing pillows in order to get them to coordinate.
I like natural fabrics (cotton, linen, wool) for upholstery and choose them over a cheap synthetic like polyester. There are lots of blends with mostly natural fibers and some synthetics mixed in, and that’s okay too. Synthetics aren’t breathable and can smell bad over time, so if you have a dog, your polyester couch fabric can make your couch (actually your house) stink. Just a warning. Feel free to make the salespeople earn their keep and by asking them what the fabric is made of and what the properties of that particular blend are. Sometimes it’s for performance and sometimes it’s just to be cheap.
What about Slipcovers?
My first experience with slipcovers was with Ikea ones. This turned me off to slipcovers for about ten years. I’d read magazines about how the featured homeowner loved her white slipcovers because she could throw them in the wash anytime and it was the easiest thing ever. So we got a white couch at Ikea, just before our first baby was born.
As a new mom, I thought it was really important to follow all the baby-directions like give your kid a certain amount of “tummy time” (aka unnatural fussing and flailing) and to give them some diaper-free time because of their poor, dear little skin.
So one day, I decided to hold my little month-old bundle of joy in a blanket on the couch, diaper-free (because of how inhumane it is to put a diaper on a baby). As I was holding his sweet little self and watching a show on TV, he started his poo-grunts and before I knew what was going on, he had squirted a swath of yellow newborn poo all over the white slipcover cushion.
“For such a time as this”, I thought, as I realized how easy and awesome it was that I could take off this white slipcover and wash it, just like the grown-up, designer mommies do. The only problem: this Ikea slipcover apparently wasn’t meant to be put back on the couch by a regular human. It was like a serious cushion smack-down and wrestle-fest to get the thing back on. I learned two things: 1). Diaper-free time for a baby is a load of crap (no pun intended), and 2) Slipcovers were a lie and a half. They don’t go on without fighting them for a few hours, which resulted in the seams pulling and the zippers coming open at the opposite end when they’re fully zipped.
(To their possible credit, all Ikea slipcovers may not be this ridiculous. I just speak from experience with the two that I have owned and the one that I helped a client put on).
Several years later, though, I bought a Pottery Barn slipcovered couch at the Outlet store. The slipcover was well-made and big enough to go on easily. So I changed my opinion about slipcovers. I trust them if they’re from a quality place and not if they’re not.
*If you do get a nice slipcover for somewhere and then happen to sell your house and not find one right away, don’t put the slipcover in a storage unit. At least not in hot, humid Tennessee summers, which will steam-shrink your slipcover daily at no charge.
There are also other options like reupholstering vintage items or reupholstering what you already have. That is a good idea if you love the shape and/or comfortableness of a couch, and you’d rather do that than buy a new one. Often you can get a new one (or better used one) for the same price or less than reupholstering, but if you do have a quality one, go for it. It’s expensive to reupholster because the labor and fabric are both expensive. But if you’re really brave, you could buy drop cloths and do it yourself.
So I shouldn’t go to Ikea?
Good question. I’m actually for Ikea. I still think you’d get way more for your money if you got a great deal on an expensive couch, through floor models, second-hand stores, estate sales, Craigslist, or whatever. But if you’re unwilling to wait or you think that’s too much work, I think Ikea is your next-best choice. For whatever reason, their furniture is higher-quality than the places discussed above that have inexpensive but overpriced furniture. The thing with Ikea is that there is the price/quality balance is more in your favor than if you go to World Market, Target, Ashley-type furniture stores. The furniture at Ikea isn’t the highest quality but its price is more similar to its value. I don’t feel like you’re overpaying at Ikea. But still, you might find a floor sample at Pottery Barn that costs the same, so that would still be my top choice for a good deal.
Just be careful if you decide to do diaper-free time with your baby on the couch.
How to Make Yourself Feel Better if you Just Bought a Cheap Couch
I am pretty sure some of you are crying right now, and others are unfollowing and others are trying to figure out if they can return their TJ Maxx special. Let me tell you a story that might give you hope. My mom bought a couch in the summer of 1994. It was a horrifying little loveseat with a bold, fat plaid fabric in jewel tones from one of those furniture stores that’s heavy on the financing and light on the quality. I’ll have you know that that ugly little couch, made of cardboard and batting, has been going strong for over 20 years. Several years ago, she invested in a discount-store slipcover and it looks just fine. It’s actually comfortable, too.
Why is this? It surely doesn’t have 8-way springs and I know the cushion is bare foam. I really have no idea. Maybe she was just lucky that this little beauty lasted so long (or, come to think of it, maybe not). But it can happen. Some couches can be total crap and last for years. They may never get rump prints or dog smells or saggy cushions or wobbly legs or back-support issues. So enjoy what you have, and for goodness’ sake, get something made out of a God-made-and-approved material next time. You’re welcome.