A couch or sofa is a significant furniture investment you may live with for decades, so spend some extra time doing your homework before buying. Style preferences are a personal matter, but when choosing a high-quality sofa, there are objective criteria you can use to ensure you're getting a good sofa.
Consider how you will use it, the space it will be in, and the style of the room. This comprehensive guide can help you tell apart good quality from shoddy construction and all the bells and whistles to consider before purchasing.
Is It a Couch or a Sofa?
In the U.S., couch and sofa mean precisely the same thing—a long, upholstered piece of furniture for sitting. Historically, the two were distinctively different. "Couch" comes from the French "couche," meaning furniture with no armrests for sitting, much like a chaise lounge today. Meanwhile, "sofa" comes from the Arabic "soffah," meaning a raised part of the floor, covered with rich carpets and cushions, used for sitting.
Before Replacing Your Couch
While couches can last years, they also suffer a lot of wear and tear over time—particularly in households with children or pets. Fortunately, there's plenty you can do to revive an aging couch. You can restuff couch cushions to help it feel plush and comfortable again, reupholster it to give it a whole new look (and replace worn, torn, or stained fabric), and even fix any sagging.
That said, sometimes it's more cost-effective to replace a couch. If your current sofa is damaged or otherwise beyond repair, a shape or type that doesn't meet your needs or style, or is simply too small, you'll want to start shopping around for a new one. If you don't have a sofa at all, purchasing one will give your living space a central gathering spot, so you should start the search as soon as you can.
Buying Considerations for a Couch
Make sure the size of the sofa doesn’t overpower the room or impede the flow of traffic. Measure the entire space, especially the wall against which you will place it before shopping. Measure the height, width, and diagonal opening of all doorways in your house, too, and have these numbers on hand as you shop for your sofa.
More than one sofa has been returned to the store because the delivery service could not get it through the doorway. Many couches have legs that can be unscrewed and removed to make delivery more manageable, and, in some cases, you can remove a door from its hinges to enlarge the opening enough to squeeze in a large couch.
Also, take into account the style of your space. Couches come in many styles, such as contemporary, mid-century modern, Scandinavian, Victorian, and more. Spend the extra time to narrow down your sofa options to match your style.
To keep your sofa looking its best, it is important to select the right fabric. If you have children or pets, you will, naturally, want a more durable and easy-to-clean material. Couches with high-maintenance fabrics, such as silk, are best for areas that are used infrequently. Microfibers are great in heavy usage areas, look attractive, and are easy to clean. Textured fabrics show less wear and tear than smooth ones, and leather is a good option if you are looking for longevity.
Like well-tailored clothing, patterns and stripes should match at the seams. Although it might not catch your eye right away, mismatched patterns or stripes will give you the sense that something is off. Stripes that match at the seams make a sofa look well finished. Patterns should be centered, and all seams and welts (piping) should run straight. Uneven welting and seams that pull to one side mean the manufacturer poorly-tailored the cover. Higher thread counts indicate a denser weave and more durable fabric with fabric upholstery.
There is considerable debate over which stuffing is best for sofa cushions. Many people like overstuffed couches or deeply cushy cushions. Polyurethane foam is the most common material used, but it is essential to find a balance between a firm foam that is long-lasting but may be too hard and a soft foam that is comfortable but may break down too quickly.
High-resilient (HR) foam is a step up from polyurethane, making for a comfortable and long-lasting cushion. Some experts recommend a hybrid cushion of HR foam wrapped in down and feathers, combining durability and comfort. Costly couches often use goose down mixed with feathers, but you will pay dearly for this luxury, and the cushions will need to be plumped frequently.
Upholstery fabric and cushions can be replaced when they get old and worn, but you can't consider a couch good unless it has a solid, quality inner frame. If your goal is to buy a good sofa, start by looking closely at the frame. Cheaper sofas may have frames made from particleboard, plastic, or metal, but a good-quality couch will have a solid hardwood frame—preferably a "kiln-dried" hardwood frame made of oak, beech, or ash. Pine frames are economical, but they often begin to warp and wobble within five years or so.
Pick a size that best serves your plans for your sofa—entertaining, relaxing, reading, whatever. Seats should be comfortable for all members of your family, and you should get a couch large enough to seat everyone in your household. Consider a larger sofa or pair your couch with easy chairs or additional seating if you entertain often. The golden rule with room proportionality is the couch should be about 2/3 the size of the wall it's going to be against. It shouldn't fill the whole wall, and it should have space on each side.
Another sizing consideration is the depth of the seats. Select deep or shallow seats, depending on your height. If you're buying a recliner sofa, make sure it is comfortable in all its positions. The couch back should support your back adequately with your feet flat on the floor and the backs of your knees just slightly forward of the lower seat cushion. And if you like to nap on the couch, lay down on the couch and see if it is long enough for comfortable snoozing.
Consider your current sofa or sofas you've used in the past, and what—if anything—you would like to add to it. Couches may have cupholders, reclining seats, built-in beds, replaceable covers, built-in storage, and other features to suit buyers' needs and add greater opportunities for personalization. Some have built-in coolers and plugs for charging devices. Knowing what you would most enjoy can help you sift through the array of features out there.
Types of Couches
Unlike a conventional sofa, sectionals are versatile and have multiple independent pieces that you may arrange in many ways. Sectionals commonly come in "L" or "U"-shape configurations that make for great cozy, conversational settings. This type of sofa makes sense for people who often entertain or have larger families. For added comfort, you can have reclining sectionals, as well.
A relatively recent development for sofas, modular couches allow buyers to pick a couch style and add pieces to build their ideal sofa size and shape. These couch building blocks can be added to, removed, and rearranged to make couches of various sizes and shapes. These versatile sofas are great for growing families and frequent movers; they can be broken down into smaller pieces, facilitating moving.
Sleeper sofas are an excellent option for small spaces or if you often host overnight guests. Sleeper sofas have built-in beds that fold out of the couch, typically with an included plush surface similar in width to a full-size mattress. Once notoriously uncomfortable, modern sleeper sofas have evolved to offer relatively comfortable sleeping surfaces.
Some couches will have seats—usually at either end of the sofa—with built-in recliners. These styles offer the same comfort and mechanism as reclining chairs but with the width of a sofa. Designed for people who like to kick up their heels at the end of the day, recliners save you the space of having an ottoman. Reclining sofas are also perfect for homes with a home movie theater or for people who have circulation problems, benefiting from resting with their legs up.
Buying a sofa that you can use both inside and outside works great for high-traffic spaces and convertible indoor-outdoor spaces. Outdoor fabrics have improved to the point where they are just as luxurious as indoor fabrics and offer ease in cleaning and sturdiness.
Technically a type of couch, a futon is an affordable alternative to buying a couch. You can purchase futons for about $300. You can buy the frame and cushion separately to give you more customization options. Futons consist of a convertible cushion and frame that can be laid flat to form a bed-type surface or propped upright to form a sofa. These dual-purpose space savers help make small spaces functional. They tend to have thick, sturdy wooden frames. Many futons lack armrests; however, you can find some with arms. Less expensive futons can also be fabricated of metal or steel.
You can expect to pay anywhere from $700 to $2,500 for a basic sofa. If you’re on a tight budget, visit clearance centers or ask for floor models. Sometimes, you can find good values at special sale events. You can always get a futon for about half the price of a traditional sofa.
Stylish sofas or couches with high-quality materials can cost several thousand, depending on the designer or retailer. Buy the best quality you can afford; you’ll live with your purchase for a long time. Depending on its level of use and quality, a sofa can last you anywhere from seven to 15 years.
Cost most often correlates directly to size: Smaller sofas cost less than larger ones. Various features can also increase the price—a sleeper or recliner sofa will typically cost more than a standard sofa of the same size and make.
You can find major furniture sales around Memorial Day, Presidents Day, and Labor Day each year in the U.S. Many companies also offer discounts around Black Friday and Cyber Monday. If possible, time your purchase around one of those dates; however, many people will have the same idea, so supply may be low, and you may experience delivery delays.
How to Choose a Couch
The various options for couches are practically limitless, and there's certainly something for everyone. The challenge is to find something that suits your taste, serves its purpose, fits in your space, and falls within your budget, which makes finding the perfect sofa no small feat. To start figuring out what might work for you, ask yourself these questions:
How Will You Use Your Sofa?
Determining the kind of usage your sofa will get can help you select most of the other features you need. So, how will you use your sofa? Will it primarily be used for everyday activities such as relaxing, reading, or watching TV, or will it be used only occasionally in a formal setting? For a sofa you will use for relaxation, you'll want a deep and cushy couch with loose pillows. A formal couch can have high-quality upholstery or a sculptural frame; it's more visually interesting than comfortable.
Who Will Be Using It Most?
Pay attention to making your sofa fit your family. For instance, a taller person will appreciate deeper seating. If someone has bad knees, shallow seating and a tight back make getting up from a seated position easier. Households with pets or small children may prefer a sofa that's low to the floor; little ones can climb onto it with relative ease. If you have overnight guests frequently, a sleeper sofa might be a good option, especially if you don't have a separate guest bedroom.
What Does the Rest of Your Space Look Like?
To select a sofa color or fabric pattern, always consider any preexisting colors or patterns in the room. Go with an intense color if you want to make a bold statement, but if you do, consider buying a sofa with simpler lines. Neutrals work best in most rooms, especially small ones, but you can dress up your sofa with more vibrant colors and patterns in the pillows or add throws. A patterned fabric also works well in heavy usage areas to hide minor stains.
How Long Do You Plan to Stay Where You Are?
Depending on the couch you have, moving it can be a challenge. There's no guarantee your current sofa will even fit into your next home. Frequent movers should think about getting a modular sofa that can be rearranged as needed to suit every space they live in. Or, another option if you move frequently, consider a low-cost sofa that you won't mind donating or reselling when it's time to go.
Where to Shop
A couch is a large, pricey purchase. Many people prefer to see their options in person to make sure they like the feel and look of it before they commit. You want to avoid the hassle of having a large piece of furniture delivered, only to return it. Still, some people do not have the time or prefer online shopping. Online options allow you to order for delivery, sight unseen.
If shopping in-store, don't be afraid to ask questions. Qualified sellers at furniture stores should be well-versed in what makes (or breaks) a great sofa, and they should be able to answer all your questions and help you find the perfect fit. They can also help you customize your purchase. While shopping, take your time, try many different types, and closely inspect these features:
Evaluate the Frame
The legs of the couch should be either integral parts of the frame or held on with screws or dowels. Avoid a couch if its legs are only glued on.
An easy test for solid frame construction is to lift one front corner or leg of the sofa off the floor to a height of 6 inches or so. If the other front leg doesn't quickly rise off the floor too, it's a sign the frame is twisting and weak. Avoid a sofa that visibly twists or creaks during this test.
Ask About the Joinery
Although the method by which the frame parts are held together may not be immediately evident, the salesperson or the printed technical specifications should have this information. Look for frames joined with wooden dowels, double wooden dowels, wooden corner blocks, or metal screws and brackets. Never buy a sofa that is only assembled with staples, nails, or glue, although these materials may be used as supplements to provide additional reinforcement.
Test the Arms
A sofa with a good hardwood frame assembled with dowels or corner brackets should be a quality piece of furniture, but it is still a good idea to forcefully test the arms of the sofa to make sure they are very tight with no give or wobble when you lean on them. In a family with active children, the most common area of failure on a couch (other than the upholstery) is the arms. Avoid any couch that isn't rock-solid.
Consider the Springs
The springs that hold up the cushions on a couch come in three levels of quality. The least expensive (and least durable) options don't have springs and only use webbing or mesh. Avoid these couches if your goal is a quality piece of furniture.
Most couches use serpentine springs—sinuous pieces of snaking wire that span the gap between frame members. These offer good support, but they may sag over time if the metal isn't heavy-gauge.
Luxury sofas are usually fitted with eight-way hand-tied springs, which may be very comfortable but expensive. Some experts dispute if hand-tied springs are much more comfortable than good serpentine springs, so try couches out that have both and judge for yourself.
Feel the springs through the upholstery. Good springs should be firm and spaced close together for good support. You should not notice too much give when you sit on the couch.
Feel the Padding and Cushions
The frame and all the corners of the couch should be well padded. Run your hand over all corners to make sure you can't feel the edges of the frame through the upholstery. If you can feel the frame, the upholstery may wear down quickly, and your couch will not be very comfortable to use.
Seat cushions should be firm and resilient and fit snugly within the sofa frame. The cushions should regain their shape after you press down and let go. A cushion that stays put when you press down will be flattened in no time, end up looking unsightly, feeling uncomfortable when you sit on it. Cushions that do not fit snugly will also lose their shape quickly, and the edges will start looking unsightly.
Test the Operating Mechanisms
Reclining or motion furniture is generally more expensive, and you are paying for a functioning, smoothly-running mechanism. If your couch is a recliner or sleeper, make sure to operate the mechanism repeatedly and aggressively to make sure it runs smoothly and easily. Don't overlook any mechanical glitches or rough operation you notice—these quirks will only become more pronounced after repeated use in your home.
Evaluate the Upholstery
If there are any buttons, check to see that they are sewn on securely. Loose buttons will come off and quickly get lost.
Look for the UFAC Tag
For fire safety reasons, look for the gold Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC) tag, indicating that the sofa manufacturer certifies that it has been made in accordance with UFAC methods. The UFAC was founded in 1978 to make upholstered furniture more resistant to ignition from smoldering cigarettes. UFAC claims that household fires have gone down considerably since they put these standards in place.
If you are buying a couch online, do your research. Read reviews and all the product information you can find. Take advantage of a virtual assistant or go through all the question and answer features of the site. If possible, look to see if a nearby showroom has the type of couch you're considering. Try it out in person if you can.
Once you've decided, be aware of the return policy and delivery options. Some companies offer white glove delivery, where a delivery team brings the item into your home and sets it up for you. Some companies even offer the removal of your old couch. Some ship the couch to your door, and the rest is up to you. Select the best delivery option for you and your space, and always make sure that you have the option to return the couch if it's not what you hoped for.
Where to Buy a Couch
Most large furniture retailers sell couches. Some newer companies also sell couches online, and you can often find sofas at yard sales, estate sales, and other secondhand shopping opportunities. You have plenty of options: The key is to find that perfect balance of style, function, comfort, and price.
How do I know if I need a new couch?
While couches—especially well-made ones—can be repaired to extend their lifespans, most are not made to last forever. If your couch is sagging, looking worn, uncomfortable to sit on, or damaged, and you don't want to put the time and effort into fixing it up, or it's beyond repair, it's time to purchase a new one.
How do I get rid of my couch?
Used or old couches can be resold, donated, or hauled to a landfill, depending on their condition and quality. Dispose of your old couch responsibly. If at all possible, reuse or recycle it before tossing it. Also, check if your city or town offers free pick up for large items. Regulations vary depending on your location. If all else fails, hire a junk hauler to remove it for you.
How do I clean a couch?
You should care for couches regularly and according to their material. Couches with fabric upholstery have different cleaning instructions than leather couches. Follow the manufacturer's instructions. If you purchase a used couch, clean it thoroughly before using it.
UFAC. Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC).