Furniture was never high on my list of priorities. I made it to my mid-20s with roommates’ couches and sleeping on hand-me-down mattresses from my parents. But then I moved out of state and was forced to furnish a house. I spent six months scouring every furniture store and garage sale within a 50-mile radius of my house.

 

Image: Watching television (© Corbis)Now I’m in the market for a new couch and a couple of armchairs, so I’m back in the furniture game. This time, however, I’m not searching just price. I’m looking for quality as well.

I’ve talked to furniture sales reps, interior designers, even a craftsman who makes furniture. Here’s what I learned about getting the best quality at the best price:

What to look for

1. Know your wood types. Wood furniture falls into three categories:

  • Solid wood furniture is typically more expensive than other types and looks great, but can be susceptible to scratches and water rings.
  • Veneers have an inexpensive wood base covered by several thin layers of better-quality wood. Because of the cheaper core, veneers aren’t as expensive as solid wood pieces.
  • Particle board and composite wood pieces are made from a combination of wood pulp, plastics, and resin, basically the scraps of the furniture world. These are the cheapest type of wood furniture and can look decent, but won’t hold up for decades.

2. Check drawers and cabinets. Open the drawers and cabinets. Make sure the drawer pulls all the way out, latches properly, and then shuts evenly. Make sure doors open, remain in an open position, and shut solidly. Check the handles and knobs. They should fit tightly and not jiggle or turn.

3. Avoid nails and glue. Look for wood joined at ends and corners, not glued or nailed in. Known in the manufacturing world as wood joinery, these pieces are studier and can take more weight. Check out “Basic woodworking joints”  from Wood Magazine to see examples.

4. Consider your lifestyle. Let your lifestyle determine what colors and fabrics you choose. For example, I have a large, hyper dog constantly climbing on the furniture. If I brought home a white suede couch, it would be torn apart and stained in minutes. If you have kids or pets, stick with dark colors and stain-resistant tough fabrics like linen or tweed.

5. Be realistic about colors. I once bought an orange corduroy armchair at a furniture outlet store. At the time, my house was decorated in orange, blue and white, and I thought I’d love those colors forever. As it turned out, “forever” was about a year. I got so sick of the bright orange I sold the chair for a fraction of what I paid. Learn from my mistake: Stick to neutral colors for your bigger and more expensive pieces. Save bold colors for décor pieces.

6. Inspect the legs. The legs should be heavy, made of wood, and jointed to the frame of the sofa or chair, not nailed. Plastic, rubber or metal legs don’t look as nice, can tear up your floors, and won’t hold up as well. Same goes for nailed-in wood legs. If you’re spending more than $1,000 on a sofa, look for one with a fifth leg in the middle. It provides extra support. You won’t find them on many cheaper sofas.

7. Check the springs. If you like firm sofas, look for one with traditional coiled springs. If you want a softer feel, go with zigzag coils. Before you buy, take off the cushions and press down on the base of the sofa. The coils should push down and spring back into place immediately.

8. Test the cushions. Look for firm cushions with a removable cover matching on both sides. Firm cushions hold up better over time. Fully covered cushions cost a bit more than ones with the pattern on one side and a plain white or tan backing, but they’ll last longer and wear evenly if you can flip them over every few months. Find removable covers that are easily washable

How to buy for less

9. Buy at the right time. Furniture prices fluctuate throughout the year. You’ll get good deals around Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but if you want the best deal, wait until the Fourth of July or even Christmas.

10. Don’t rule out used furniture. You can find great deals with secondhand furniture as long as you inspect it carefully. You’ll obviously look for rips, stains, tears, water marks and scratches, but lift up cushions and look for stains on the inside of couches and chairs. Sit on it for as long as time allows to check for sturdiness and comfort.

11. Don’t buy it at all. While I wouldn’t recommend grabbing a stained couch from the side of the road, you’d be surprised how much good furniture is available free. For example, I recently picked up a free (and pretty awesome) kitchen table from Freecycle. Craigslist has a free section, and don’t forget friends and family. When they’re tired of something, they might be willing to give it to you.

12. Haggle. Some people enjoy negotiating, but I’m not a big haggler. It makes me uncomfortable and I’d rather wait for a sale than try to talk down a salesperson. But there are two purchases where haggling is essential — cars and furniture. Furniture has a big markup, so furniture stores have a lot of wiggle room. In my experience, they’ll knock off 10% to 20% if you ask.

If that doesn’t work, go for an extra: free pillows or free delivery and setup.