January 2008
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Sofas: How to uncover value
People shopping in furniture store.
GO BEYOND LOOKS   Choosing a good sofa involves looking at fabric details and construction, not just appearance. See Size up furniture like an expert for the steps to follow.
You don't have to spend thousands of dollars to get a well-made sofa, our tests show. We also found that you may want to look beyond the traditional furniture store to find good values in upholstered furniture.

The best sofas don't necessarily come from a traditional furniture store, the kind that used to be a mainstay of Main Streets nationwide. Those stores now face severe competition from the likes of Ikea (gargantuan stores selling every kind of home furnishing), La-Z-Boy and Ethan Allen (manufacturers' stores), Rooms to Go and Value City (selling private-label and branded furniture).


How to choose

Your budget will help you decide where to shop--at a big-box budget retailer or one of the higher-end stores. Sizing up the stores provides a rundown of the different types of furniture retailers. You're likely to find the best quality at a traditional furniture store or a manufacturer's store.

In choosing the sofa itself, here are the basic points to consider:

Settle on a style. If you aren't sure whether you want a traditional style, something modern, or something soft and plain, don't go shopping until you've looked through catalogs and magazines or checked the Internet. Go to a Web site such as www.findyourfurniture.org, sponsored by the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, a trade group.

Consider comfort. The industry experts we consulted strongly advise sitting on a sofa before you buy. You can't do that if you buy from a catalog. It's a good idea to bring all the adults in the household on the shopping trip, so that everyone can gauge comfort. Short people may not like seats that are deep front to back. Tall people may have to slump to get comfortable in a low-backed sofa. The height of armrests and the angle of the seatback are the kind of details that matter to everyone.

Examine construction. In our tests, we tore apart sofas to see what's inside, and we built a machine to strain the back of each sofa until the frame broke. You can't do that to a floor sample, of course. Even so, there's plenty you can do when you're in the store. Size up furniture like an expert shows what goes into a thorough examination.

Focus on fabric. You may find that some stores offer a limited number of choices for upholstery fabric, while others have a much wider array. Whether you're looking at a few fabric options or a few dozen, you should keep these basic considerations in mind:

  • Match fabric and lifestyle. Silk and rayon aren't well-suited for rough-and-tumble use in a family room. Pets may snag loose weaves and embroidered designs. On the other hand, natural fibers like wool and cotton and manufactured fibers like nylon and polyester tend to hold up well. Tightly woven fabrics, such as twill or damask, generally wear well.

    For a sofa that gets heavy use, consider one that's slipcovered. It's easier and less expensive to clean.

  • Understand the price code. Fabric samples you see in many furniture stores carry a one-letter price code. The farther into the alphabet, the higher the price. The codes aren't uniform from one manufacturer to another, however. An “A” may denote fabric at $30 a yard for one brand, $25 a yard for another. Also, be sure your comparison-shopping covers like fabrics: denim with denim, brocade with brocade.

  • Check the cleaning codes and safety labels. For cleaning, W means you can use a water-based cleaner, such as mild detergent or upholstery shampoo; S, a solvent-based cleaner such as Afta; S-W means you can use either water- or solvent-based cleaners. X means the upholstery should only be vacuumed.

Flammability labeling tells whether the furniture complies with voluntary standards to reduce the likelihood of ignition from a smoldering cigarette, the most common cause of upholstery fires.

As we went to press with this report, the Consumer Product Safety Commission staff announced plans to develop a federal flammability standard that may be similar to existing California standards. It would require upholstered furniture to resist fire from a small open flame as well as from a smoldering cigarette.