The Ultimate Guide To Buying A Couch, According To Design Experts


Investing in a high-quality couch is a substantial commitment, especially in an era dominated by fast furniture trends. However, based on my extensive testing of 18 couches over almost 5 months, I can confidently affirm that well-crafted sofas still exist. The best couches boast durable performance upholstery, cushions crafted from a blend of materials for both softness and support, a meticulously constructed wood frame and suspension system and a timeless style that transcends fleeting trends.

Whether you’re navigating showrooms for hands-on testing or prefer the convenience of shopping from home, the decision-making process remains consistent, and it’s not one you should rush. Take the necessary time to contemplate your sofa requirements, establish your budget and gather comprehensive information before making a well-informed purchase. With this in mind, I’ve outlined couch buying guide, from the most effective suspension systems to the key elements contributing to a luxuriously comfortable sofa. Be assured that with the right choice, your couch should endure at least 15 years of lounging, working and gathering.

Let’s address a common misconception right off the bat: There’s no difference between a couch and a sofa. While historically these terms may have carried different meanings, they are now used interchangeably. However, it’s worth noting that there are various styles of couches and sofas, so it’s essential to evaluate which suits your lifestyle best.

A three-seater couch is the most common and widely used type. Its versatility makes it suitable for various spaces, as it lacks an L-angle or chaise lounge, allowing easy pairing with armchairs, ottomans or coffee tables.

Love seats closely resemble standard three-seaters but are designed for two people. Originating in the 17th century, these were often S-shaped to accommodate women’s fashions at first and later to encourage intimate conversations between couples, earning them names like conversation benches, kissing benches, courting benches or gossip chairs. Today, love seats are ideal for small spaces, mudrooms, entryways or the foot of a bed.

Unlike the typical college dorm futon, sleeper sofas prioritize comfort whether you’re seated or lying on the mattress. These sofas feature built-in beds that can be folded in and out, and while they were once pretty uncomfortable, modern designs have significantly improved their comfort. Sleeper sofas are practical for small apartments, offices doubling as guest rooms and short-term rentals accommodating extra guests.

Sectionals come in multiple pieces and are designed to seat more people than a three-seater sofa. The common configurations include an L-shape (ideal for room corners) or a three-seater with one or more chaise lounges for leg stretching. While some may find sectionals visually dominating, their sprawling comfort is unmatched, making them perfect for large families or frequent entertainers.

Similar to sectionals, modular sofas consist of multiple pieces. However, unlike fixed sectional configurations, modular sofas allow for flexible arrangements. Delivered in multiple boxes, they are connected with heavy-duty clips and can be expanded over time with individual pieces.

Determining your budget is a crucial first step when considering a couch purchase. On average, a three-seater sofa falls within the range of $800 to $3,000. Customization, premium materials and intricate construction processes can contribute to higher costs, with some exceptional couches reaching above $5,000. While sofas in the $500 to $700 range exist, for a lasting investment, it’s advisable to save up or explore secondhand options.

Prioritize precise measurements before committing to a couch. Ensure that the sofa of your choice can fit through doorways, navigate stairs or elevators if you live in an apartment and move comfortably through hallways. When placing it in a room, strike a balance — avoid overpowering the space while ensuring it doesn’t appear too small. Consider taping out the sofa’s dimensions on the floor or walls to assess the fit with existing furniture. (Some brands like BenchMade Modern will even send you a free printout of the actual couch for accurate measurements.) Account for potential issues such as blocking cabinet doors or mismatching scales with other furniture.

Tailor the configuration of your couch to the flow of the room and your family’s needs. “People love to hate sectionals,” Eva Higby, founder of interior design firm Higby Design, says, “but for families, they can’t be beat because they create connections and allow family members to lounge together and enjoy Netflix.” Plus, they can be great for couples: One person can sprawl out on the chaise lounge while the other takes the main part of the couch. But if you’re sectional-averse, Higby recommends placing two sofas perpendicular to one another. And if you frequently entertain guests, a combination of a sofa and chairs can create a welcoming conversation area.

Depth is often overlooked but crucial when selecting a sofa, as it significantly impacts comfort. While trying out a couch in person is irreplaceable, you can make an informed decision based on existing furniture. According to Higby, aiming for an interior seat depth of 24 inches and an overall depth of 40 inches on average is a good starting point. For those who enjoy lounging, a deeper overall depth of 42 to 43 inches may be more suitable. To find your ideal depth, measure comfortable armchairs and sofas, considering the heights of individuals in your household.

With the rise of direct-to-consumer online furniture stores, there’s a variety of delivery options to consider. While delivery and placement in the intended room have traditionally been standard, many companies now ship sofas in one or more boxes to your doorstep, with varying assembly requirements. Before making a purchase, carefully review the delivery method details to schedule a convenient delivery time or arrange assistance for sofa assembly.

Style is a crucial factor, as a great couch should endure trends and remain a fixture in your home for years. Isy Runsewe, founder and designer of Isy’s Interiors, notes that she’s seen a resurgence of two very different styles: traditional (like the English roll arm or Chesterfield sofa) and modern (such as the curved, soft shapes from Italian designers Mario Bellini and Gaetano Pesce). “While it’s easy to think these may be short-lived trends,” Runsewe says, “it’s clear that both modern and traditional styles have been on the scene for decades.” Christy Spearman and Kate Duffy of Duffy Scott Interiors agree that these are “modern classics.” Higby suggests looking for cleaner lines, square cushions, arms around 6 inches wide and a lower sofa back (ideally 28 to 32 inches high) for a sofa that transcends trends. The goal is to avoid overpowering the space, creating a grounding element without overwhelming it.

The abundance of upholstery options may seem overwhelming, but narrowing down your couch needs can simplify the choice. Opt for fabrics that withstand years of lounging, spills and cleaning while ensuring softness and comfort. Furniture designer and upholsterer Nicole Crowder recommends tightly woven, heavyweight fabrics with a low pile such as velvet, suede, chenille, cotton-linen blends and polyester blends. Fabrics with rub counts between 50,000 and 150,000 are generally the most durable. If you’re concerned about stains or frequent washing, consider a couch that can be reupholstered or slipcovered in the future.

For families with kids or pets, choose fabrics labeled as “performance,” which are designed to resist stains, withstand high-traffic areas and wick away moisture. Higby recommends looking for fabrics with stain guards woven into the yarns, and considering couches with removable covers for machine-washing.

Various cushion fill options exist, including foam and synthetic fiber, foam and down, down and synthetic fiber, and just down. Solid or shredded foam offers support but can be dense, while fiber- or down-filled options are plush but may lack support. “In theory, I love down,” Crowder says, “but it’s hard to maneuver in the seat because there’s no support, it’s hard to get out of and it can look a little lumpy on the sofa.” And “all down cushions molt,” add Spearman and Duffy, so “you’ll always be vacuuming up tiny feathers.”

The ideal choice often involves a blend of materials. Consider your lifestyle when choosing cushion fill. My top pick, the Interior Define James Three-Seat Sofa, offers multiple cushion fill options: a firm multilayer foam base with a rounded down blend top that requires periodic cushion fluffing, a soft multilayer foam base wrapped on all sides in a down blend that requires frequent cushion fluffing, and a medium-soft multilayer reversible foam seat wrapped in down alternative fiber that requires minimal cushion fluffing. I chose the down alternative and foam cushion, because I prefer a tailored look, don’t want to frequently refluff and happen to be allergic to down feathers, so it was a perfect fit for me.

Upholstery and cushions can be replaced, but a high-quality frame and suspension system are crucial components of a well-made couch. According to Crowder, a simple way to tell how a couch is built is to see how heavy the frame is. “Couches shouldn’t be impossible to move,” she notes, “but they shouldn’t be something you can push over with one hand.” Kiln-dried wood frames are preferred for durability and stability, with engineered wood being a good option for those seeking flexibility in furniture changes. Pay attention to the type of joinery used, with interlocking options like mortise and tenon or dovetail being the strongest and longest-lasting.

The suspension system, responsible for holding cushions while providing bounce and support, is another critical factor. An eight-way hand-tied construction is considered the ultimate in spring suspensions, offering flexibility, durability and support. While this may not fit every budget, a well-constructed sinuous spring frame can still be durable with proper care, according to Higby.

Buying a couch online — and loving your purchase — is certainly possible, but it does require a bit more investigative effort to make the right decision for you. When buying a sofa online, thorough research is key. Start by meticulously reading every detail available, as companies can use broad terms like “linen” or “leather” that may represent blends or synthetic materials. Be skeptical of brand copy and descriptions, and focus on the fabric composition rather than just the name.

Customer reviews and photos on websites are invaluable for getting a real-world sense of how a sofa looks in different lighting and over time. While these experiences provide insights, they may not present the full picture, as brands can filter out negative reviews. Supplement your research with independent reviews from blogs and reputable publications like Forbes Vetted.

Companies are generally allowed to write anything they want about their products, and it’s best to have a healthy dose of skepticism when reading brand copy and descriptions. For example, some fabrics are marked as “linen” or “leather,” but in reality, they can be linen blends, polyester fabric that’s meant to look like linen or synthetic leather. This isn’t inherently bad, but if you’ve got your sights set on a specific upholstery fabric, be sure to read the composition of the fabric and not just the name.

Order fabric swatches, often available for free or a small fee, to choose upholstery wisely. Perform your own tests to check for fabric durability, ensuring it doesn’t pull or run when scratched with a fingernail, and conduct stain-resistance tests. Before finalizing the purchase, double-check the return or exchange policy, especially for custom or semi-custom sofas, as most have restrictions and may incur pickup and restocking fees. Taking these steps will help you make an informed decision and avoid potential disappointments.

Before undertaking any maintenance, consult the manufacturer’s guidelines specific to your sofa. Different fabrics may require unique care methods, such as using non-water-based solvents for cleaning. Even if a sofa has removable covers, they may not be suitable for machine-washing.

In general, rotate and flip sofa cushions regularly, ideally every week, to promote even wear on all cushions. Vacuum underneath the seat cushions to remove crumbs or lint. Deal with spills promptly to prevent stains from setting. Blot stains immediately with a damp cloth and dish soap. For tougher stains, consider hiring a professional or investing in a portable upholstery cleaner like the Bissell Little Green. If possible, keep your sofa out of direct sunlight to prevent fading over time. If your sofa begins to pill, use a fabric shaver periodically to gently remove the pills and maintain a smoother appearance. In short, always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and recommendations for the specific care and maintenance of your sofa.

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