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How to buy a sofa

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Experts dish on the most important seat in the house

A brightly lit living room with a light beige sectional, black accent chair, and light blue framed landscape painting. Carlos Chavarría

Buying a sofa is tricky. It will likely be one of the largest pieces of furniture you own, which makes it both an instant focal point in a room—and one of your most expensive purchases.

With that in mind, you could likely use some buying advice. We turned to the experts for words of wisdom, because, as Dallas interior designer Joshua Rice says: “[I] look at more sofas in three months than you will probably look at in your lifetime.” Here’s what we learned. —Mary Jo Bowling

Before buying a sofa, what should I consider?

The designers we interviewed agreed that when it comes to purchasing a sofa, you really do get what you pay for.

To ensure you’re getting something with a baseline level of acceptable quality, interior designer Annie Elliott recommends that you spend at least $1,000. Anything less means that the manufacturer probably cut corners that may result in buying another new sofa much sooner than you thought you would.

If you’re trying to budget for a sofa as part of furnishing your entire living room, prepare to allocate 15 to 30 percent for the sofa, according to Elliott. However, there are diminishing returns on the quality of a sofa at a price of about $3,000. If you found the perfect sofa for more than that, go for it. But you can get a quality sofa that will last for less.

“I don’t [think] this is where you should cut corners and go for the cheapest piece you can find,” says Lee Kleinhelter, Lee Kleinhelter Interior Design.

In addition to cost, designer Arthur McLaughlin of Arthur McLaughlin + Associates notes that comfort should be paramount. “It needs to look great, but if it’s not comfortable it really doesn’t work. Remember: A sofa is not just something to look at; it’s piece that you use every day. So don’t sacrifice comfort—you can have that and style,” he says.

Amanda Teal of Amanda Teal Design notes that different sofa styles are better for different functions. “If it is in a room where you watch television, make sure you have a lower arm and you are able to curl up and get comfortable.” Or, if the sofa is going in a room where you entertain a lot, she adds, “a taller arm you can lean on while chatting with a friend might be more appropriate.”

A dark gray sofa with a low back and two light gray cushions sits in the middle of a mostly monochromatic room. Sarah Dorio

Sofa styles are vast. How do I choose one that won’t date?

When it comes to staying power, many designers agree that bold or trendy isn’t necessarily the best option.

“In general, I recommend staying away from bold colors or patterns—and there are going to be a lot of people who hate their Millennial Pink sofas in about five years,” quips Joshua Rice, founder of Joshua Rice Design.

“In fact, I shy away from anything that immediately appeals. If I find something instantly attractive, I file it away for a few months to see if I actually like it, or if it was just appealing to my sense of novelty.”

Designers we interviewed advise sticking to classic shapes and clean lines in addition to neutral colors for flexibility. “You can change out pillows, rugs, and accessories as your tastes change but your sofa should be more timeless,” says Heidi Caillier, Heidi Caillier Design.

Read McKendree

When buying a sofa online, what do I need to know beforehand?

The experts we talked to say that, ideally, it’s best to try before you buy when it comes to sofas. When that’s not an option, several suggested beginning remote research by obtaining a fabric sample.

“Fabrics often look very different in person than they do online,” says Caillier. “And make sure to do a stain test on the sample to see how easily it cleans.”

Eva Muller Bradley and Alicia Chung-Lichtenstein of studio HEIMAT suggest that surrogate furniture can also help determine if an online purchase will fit.

“Consider measuring the most comfortable seat in your home, then comparing it with the sofa you are interested in buying. If the website doesn’t have those dimensions, contact customer service to find them,” they say.

If she can’t give a sofa a sit test personally, designer Courtney Webster looks to those who have. “Reviews are helpful in learning about other people’s thoughts on comfort and durability,” she says.

And, after all of that, Rice suggests making sure there’s someone in your corner before clicking the purchase tab. “When things go bad with online orders, they tend to go really, really bad, so you need to make sure there is a reliable customer support to help resolve potential problems,” he says.

A brightly lit sitting room with a small table on the left, a wooden chair with tan cushions, a blue leather couch with pin-tucked cushions, and a blue easy chair in the foreground. A stack of books sits on a gold coffee table in the center with a monster Gieves Anderson

Measuring whether a sofa fits through the door can be tricky. Do you have any tips?

The experts we talked to say that a tape measure is your best friend when making sure a sofa can get through the door. As McLaughlin put it: ““Don’t just eyeball a door jamb or passageway when you’re dealing with a large sofa.”

And you when you measure, designers point out that you want to look carefully at passageways to make sure you are gauging the distance at all points—for instance, taking into account the width between molding and lock sets and ceiling and door heights.

For the sofa itself, it’s important to measure width, depth, and height. “Measure the square dimension as well as the height of the sofa to see if that will get into the space. If you’re in an elevator building, make sure the ceiling of the elevator is tall enough to accommodate the sofa when you stand it up inside,” McLaughlin says, noting you can sometimes gain a few critical inches by temporarily removing a sofa’s feet or base.

Caillier sometimes relies on an online resource. “Restoration Hardware has a really helpful guide for determining what measurements will fit through doorways, around corners, etc. We use that to help us understand what will fit in tricky spaces (it works for non-RH furniture as well),” she says.

That said, sometimes a dress rehearsal and creative thinking is called for. “I’ve done everything from mocking up the furniture with cardboard boxes to see if it can make it up the stairs to calling the piano mover for an estimate on lifting a piece through the window,” says Marcelle Guilbeau of Marcelle Guilbeau Interior Design.

A light brown leather chair in the center of a sunny living room. In front of it sits an old wooden trunk serving as a coffee table. Heidi’s Bridge

Which sofa fabric types are the most kid-friendly, pet-friendly, and will generally stand up to the wear and tear of life?

Most interior designers say using outdoor fabric inside is a smart and increasingly stylish option. “I don’t believe a look should be compromised because it’s in a high traffic area,” says Kleinhelter. “Usually indoor-outdoor upholstery is the most durable, and it’s often so soft and supple you’d never know that’s what it is.”

Several designers mentioned Crypton and Perennials as outdoor upholstery brands they rely on.The designers also cited mohair and leather as durable options. “But, keep in mind, leather will wear more with use,” says Webster. “If you aren’t open to a ‘worn-in’ look, this is not the choice for you.”

A gray-green sofa sits in front of a window in a rustic living room. There is a wood stove to its right, and a slab-wood coffee table and two black chairs facing it. Ball & Albanese

How do I keep my sofa in good condition once it’s in my home?

Many of the designers named Fiber-Seal and Scotchguard as commercial fabric protections they use on sofas. (“We’ve had everything from chocolate syrup to raspberry jam stains removed from sofas because we use these treatments,” says McLaughlin.) And many designers noted that green options are increasingly available.

Basic maintenance will also help your sofa looking sharp. Bradley and Chung-Lichtenstein say: “People and pets tend to have favorite spots on the sofa. To avoid indentations and worn spots, alternate and rotate seat cushions. Depending on the material, an occasional sweep with a vacuum keeps things fresh. If you have a dark sofa, pulling the shades in the morning will slow fading. Finally, giving the back cushions love by reshaping them with your hands every once in a while helps them keep their form.”

It’s a lot to think about, but keep in mind this could be a long-term relationship. As Rice says, “If you buy a quality sofa, you could be lounging on it for the next decade.”

Jeff Andrews provided additional reporting for this story.