Read These Tips Before Buying a Couch

A Floral Sofa Adds Interest

A couch (or sofa as I’ve  come to call it) is a big purchase and these tips will help you make a smart decision on both style and quality. Let’s talk about style first since that decision is made while you are still at home.  The quality portion happens while you are standing in the store with the piece of furniture in front of you.


1. Size. Style always starts with function. How will you be using the couch or sofa?  Does the whole family pile on or is this a space that is more formal for guests, so one or two will use it?  Is the room large or small and how much of it will be dedicated to the sofa? Will the sofa be used to watch television, gaze at the fireplace or talk to guests?  All of this can be answered by creating a floor plan. Just measure up your space, draw it on graph paper, determine your focal point (TV, fireplace or guests), and fit in the seating accordingly. You could need a loveseat or you might find out that a sectional better suits your home and your needs!

2. Fabric. Once the size and shape of your new seating is determined, it’s a good idea to start thinking about what it will be covered in. Again, think about function first.  Do you have children and pets?  Will food be consumed while sitting on the couch? How indestructive would you like your new furniture to be?  Leather is always stylish and wears and cleans up well but is on the expensive side.  There are new fabrics that mimic suede but are very strong and great when you have pets. I recently finished a lovely home where we used outdoor Sunbrella fabrics on the furniture because of frequent visits from grandchildren! The new fabrics are beautiful and you would never know they are made for outside! As for color, I generally go neutral with large purchases and accent with bold accessories.  However, if you are looking for something dramatic that will make a statement, a bold pattern or bright colors will do the trick.

3. Shape. Clean lines or rolled arms with a skirt? You can determine this by looking around at your home.  Are most of your furnishings simple and clean lined?  Then choose something contemporary.  If you have tufts and buttons and fringe, you probably need to stay with a traditional style. If your home is an eclectic mix of colors and designs, a couch that combines several styles (such as a modern shape with traditional accents) could be the perfect expression of your taste.

4. Pillow Back or Tight Back.


Sofas are either styled with removable pillows along the back, (Pillow Back) or the back of the couch is solid or with pillows are not removeable, (Tight Back). Generally, Pillow Back couches are considered more comfortable because they give way to you leaning and settling in but they do have their disadvantages. Pillow Back couches need periodic “fluffing”.  In other words, you need to fluff up the back cushions and arrange them so they are properly aligned for them to look their best. My cats have a tendency to sit on the back cushions creating a sway back look that is not appealing at all!

buycouch3So, if things that are out of place bother you, a Tight Back couch might be a better choice.

OK, now it’s time to think about quality.  I always ask the sales person to talk to me about the  quality of a piece and I keep these few tips in the back of my mind while they are explaining.


1. Hardwood frame.  Those sofas you see that have been around for 20 years…I guarantee you they are made out of hardwoods such as kiln-dried oak, ash, or beech. Soft wood, such as pine, is low-cost, but you can count on it warping or wobbling after five years. Stay away from frames made of particleboard, plastic, or metal as they just can’t stand up to everyday use. Check to see if the legs are actually part of the frame or at least held on with screws or dowels.  Glued on legs won’t last.

Here’s something I learned when I was a young designer for testing the strength of a sofa frame. Just lift one corner of the sofa off the floor and once you’ve raised it about six inches, the other front leg should rise too. If it’s still touching the floor, the frame has too much give.

2. Solid joints. Wood frames aren’t all one solid piece.  They are made of a variety of pieces that are joined together.  As you can imagine, a frame is only as strong as its weakest joint.  You want to make sure the frame is joined with wooden dowels, double wooden dowels, wooden corner blocks or metal screws and brackets. Stay away from staples, nails, or glue.

3. Eight-way hand-tied springs. Working at a high end design studio spoils you.  I thought for the longest time that all sofas had “eight-way hand-tied springs.” They are very comfortable but also expensive and since I’ve learned that some experts feel they’re no better than serpentines.  Serpentines are preassembled units of snaking wire. They’re nicely supportive, but they can press on the frame or sag over time if the metal isn’t heavy. Feel the springs through the upholstery — they should be close together and firm. Stay away from sofas with no springs and are supported by webbing or mesh. Have you ever sat on the edge of a sofa and it squeaked?  This means the

springs are either hitting the frame or are not in the correct positions.

4. Polyester wrapped foam filling. There are so many different fillings for cushions that I think many times it is personal preference.  Do you like to sit straight up on the sofa, like my mom, or are you a sloucher like the rest of my family? There are a variety of different foams, low-density foam deteriorates more rapidly with constant use, polyurethane foam which  is a low-cost, easy-care cushion filling, high-density type foam can feel hard, and the High-resilient (HR) foam is slightly more expensive but more comfortable and long-lasting.

Polyester fiber is also inexpensive, but it flattens quickly. Just like the old fashioned but still used goose and duck feather fillings which are comfortable but clumpy. Goose down (the bird’s soft undercoat) mixed with feathers is considered the top of the line at just about twice the cost of foam. My problem with it is that it always looks messy and squished.  You have to constantly be plumping the pillows! There are compromises with a down-polyfiber blend.  This is less expensive, but it too flattens fast.

So, one of the best options is conventional foam wrapped in polyester batting.

5. Find Tough Textiles. Sofas for everyday use need durable fabric. Cotton and linen are winners (but watch out for loose weaves — they can snag). Also terrific: synthetic microfiber, which can mimic most fabrics and is stain resistant. Cotton and linen can be treated for stain resistance, but even then they aren’t as easy to clean, or as durable, says Kathleen Huddy, the GH Research Institute’s textiles, paper, and plastics director. Blends of natural and synthetic fibers tend to pill within a year. Wool and leather are handsome and strong but expensive. Silk is sleek but fragile. Fabrics with patterns woven in tend to wear better than those with printed patterns.

Tip: Ask the store for a piece of fabric larger than the usual swatch. Place it where the sofa will go. View it in natural and artificial light — and see how much you still like it after a few days.


It’s always best to purchase the best quality couch you can afford. In the long run, it will probably be less expensive to reupholster one that is of fine quality than it would be to purchase another one of equal quality years down the road.


Don’t forget the most important aspect of any upholstery purchase…it’s comfort!  People come in all shapes ans sizes, and so do couches!  Make sure to take the time to sit in a lot of couches before you make up your mind.  Remember beauty is only “fabric” deep and you want to make sure you’ve selecting something that will comfort you for years to come.

Also, after years of use, we all know that cushions loose some of their plumpness.  If you purchase cushions that have zippers, you could always add additional “fluff”.


Just received a note from someone reading this article and they mentioned that we should ask about the warranties associated with the couches we are interested and that makes great sense. I think you will find that there are different warranties on different parts of the furniture.  for instance, the frame may have a certain warranty, and the fabric something different.


To help your upholstered furniture last as long as it can, you need to understand how to keep it clean.  different types of fabric have different methods of cleaning.  Is this something you can do or must you have your fabric cleaned by a professional?

I hope these tips will make your shopping trip a little bit more comfortable and help you end up with the couch that is just right for you!



  1. Laura Rice says

    I wish I’d talked to you about this 13 years ago! Would have made my life a little easier. Another thing to consider is the size of the person sitting on the couch. I’m only 5’2″, and I need help getting out of many sofas due to my short leg length – so embarrassing!

    • Shari Hiller says

      Laura, that is a marvelous addition to the article and I’m going to go in there right now and add something about that! Thank you!

  2. Joan Gapinski says

    I loved this article as it was so comprehensive. I will probably be buying a new couch in the next year or two and would like to download this article for future reference but it does not seam to be set up for this. Is there something I could do to print it out? Thanks much, I love you two and have been watching your shows for quite a few years now. Keep up the great work. – Joan

    • Shari Hiller says

      Joan, great questions about downloading – I’ll have to ask my brilliant web guy – Josh. did you try just highlighting the article clicking on copy, and pasting it onto a word document? You can then shrink the text so it doesn’t take up as much space. Hope that works for you.

  3. Phyllis Bates says

    I, too, am planning on buying a new couch in the near future and will be printing this out to take with me.

  4. Cathy says

    Another thing to consider is the warranty or being able to purchase an additional warranty. I have a 10 year core insert warranty with 2 years on the fabric. This is the standard warranty for the product I bought.

  5. Cathy says

    Also wanted to add that a majority of the pillow back couches do not have a zipper on the bottom of the cushion. Some cushions are attached and some are loose back cushions. If you can purchase back cushions with a zipper it is worth the additional expense, especially when it comes to non supporting back cushions. For those that have zippers you can add some filling to fluff them up again.

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