The Complete Guide on How to Buy a Sofa

updated Nov 15, 2023
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Buying a sofa is more or less like finding a home. The search can be long and tedious, requiring you to sift through listing after listing until you land on one that checks all the right boxes. And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll happen upon the one. Either way, it’s an investment and an item that will go on to not only inform the aesthetic of your living room but also stand as a focal point that ties all of the elements of the space together. 

Before you set out to purchase a sofa, there is a whole host of factors to consider, from the aesthetic to the practical. To start, think about what’s most important to you. “For me, it’s comfort,” says Decorist designer Linzie Merchant. “I like to entertain guests, most of the time in a casual setting, which might look like a movie night on the sofa with popcorn and wine or just sitting around in comfy clothes catching up on life with old friends. Form follows function, so ultimately, if a piece of furniture doesn’t function for the use it’s intended for, it has failed.” 

With the influx of online retailers and DTC brands, buying a sofa sight unseen has become more and more common. So how does one ensure they’re sourcing the right piece? After all, reviews can only reveal so much. Arming yourself with the knowledge of the components that comprise a quality sofa will help you differentiate a durable, long-lasting piece from a short-lived one. Here’s what you should know. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

What to Consider Before Buying a Sofa

Sofas serve a multitude of purposes. They’re a crash pad for lazy Sundays and a companion for Netflix marathons. They’re also a room’s center of attention and a spot for showing off graphic throw pillows and chunky knit throws. Before you purchase a sofa, there are a few key details to consider to help you find a piece that not only lasts long but also gets ample playtime. 

1. Type of Sofa 

First and foremost, decide what type of sofa you want for your space. The most common options are:

  • Traditional: This is the standard three-seater found in many homes.
  • Sectional: Exactly as it sounds, this sofa is divided into sections that can be arranged to suit your space.
  • Sleeper: A true workhorse, a convertible sofa bed is ideal for those who lack a proper guest room or bedroom.
  • Loveseat: Designed to seat two people, a loveseat is perfect for studio dwellers and those tight on square footage.

    Pro tip: Measure the area the sofa will live in to help narrow your search.

2. Your Lifestyle

After choosing a sofa type, ask yourself how the sofa will be used, says Chairish co-founder and president, Anna Brockway. Consider:

  • Who will be spending the most time on it?
  • Do you want a plush and comfortable sofa for daytime studying and family TV viewing?
  • Or does your household need a firmer sofa that has more support?

“These questions will help decide the sofa’s shape, height, and comfort level,” says Brockway, who also recommends factoring in the intended long-term use and the types of fabrics that will be conducive to your timeline.

3. Your Budget 

Set a price range and research across a wide variety of brands and retailers to find the perfect piece (see our Best Places to Shop section below). Keep an eye out for promo codes and flash sales, and don’t forget to account for shipping and white-glove delivery fees (and return policies!). Also consider vintage. “In many cases, vintage furniture costs 70 to 80 percent less and is often actually better made,” says Brockway. “Choosing a vintage sofa will also bring character, uniqueness, and style to a room, and that is priceless.” 

Choosing a Sofa Style

Picking out a sofa is all about striking a balance between your lifestyle and aesthetic. Loungers should seek out deep-seated options, while traditionalists might go for a classic Lawson. Though there is a seemingly endless stream of possibilities out there, here are some of the basic sofa styles to know. 

  • Mid-Century Modern: This is your quintessential sofa from the ‘60s. Think clean lines, rectangular shape, bare tapered legs, and a tufted back.
  • Lawson: A tailored and streamlined sofa that dates back to the early 20th century, the Lawson features rolled or square arms that are roughly halfway down from the back cushions. 
  • English Roll Arm: Tucked arms, bare legs, and soft curves are the hallmarks of the English roll arm sofa. Versatile enough to live among a variety of decor styles, this one is all about deep-seated comfort.   
  • Chaise: Somewhere between an accent chair and a loveseat is the chaise lounge. It’s long enough to lie on and comes with a short backrest and a singular arm.
  • Settee: Although they can be confused with loveseats, settees are distinguished by a straight, high back and at least four legs. They’re more likely to be found in a bedroom or hallway versus the living room. 
  • Tuxedo: Streamlined and boxy in shape, the arms of a tuxedo sofa are an extension of the backrest, which results in a uniform upper build. It has one large cushioned seat and no back cushions. 
  • Chesterfield: Rolled arms combined with tufted accents are what lend the Chesterfield its distinct look. You can typically find this one upholstered in leather with nailhead detailing. 
  • Camelback: This aptly titled traditional sofa features a curved back that resembles the slope of a camel’s hump—sometimes it’ll have two. Camelbacks typically have bare legs, rolled arms, and no cushions.

Selecting a Sofa Fabric

The fabric you choose for your sofa is as important as its shape and style. “This is one key aspect that will determine its durability and longevity,” says Decorist’s Merchant, who recommends surveying the entire array of fabric options to find what best suits your lifestyle. Here are some common options:

  • Performance: When it comes to kids, pets, and frequent spillers, performance fabric is a no-brainer. These materials are manufactured or treated to prevent stains and are typically water and oil resistant.
  • Wool blend: Wool is highly durable and great for hiding stains but tricky to care for. Wool and synthetic blends are easier to clean and resist pilling. 
  • Linen: Linen upholstery is all about aesthetics, so naturally, it’s pretty high-maintenance (read: it requires professional cleaning). Not only will it soak up stains, but it’s also prone to wrinkles and does not wear well. 
  • Leather: Durable and easy to clean (just wipe with a damp cloth), leather is a foolproof choice for those with families and pets. But be mindful of the type of leather: Full grain and top grain are the most durable and highest in quality, whereas aniline leather is untreated and susceptible to scuffs. 
  • Velvet: Synonymous with luxury and offered in rich jewel tones, velvet can be made from a variety of materials, including silk, which is smooth, shiny, and delicate, and synthetics, such as polyester or rayon, which are highly durable and more affordable.
  • Natural fibers: Silk and cotton are common natural fibers used for upholstery. Silk can be sensitive to daily wear and tear as well as sunlight, so it’s not ideal for an everyday piece. Cotton is relatively more resilient and durable, especially when featured in a blend. 
  • Synthetics: Often used for affordable or performance pieces, synthetics are made to emulate a natural fiber such as acetate (imitation silk), chenille (cotton like), faux leather, and microfiber (an extremely fine polyester). 

Buyer beware: “Be extra mindful of colorful and boldly patterned fabrics,” says Merchant, “as these are often flashy coverups for the quality of the material.

Measuring Your Sofa and Entryways

The magic formula: Make sure either the depth or width of the sofa is smaller than the width of your doorway — and allow wiggle room for packaging. 

“Remember when Ross’ sofa broke in two on ‘Friends,’ as the gang tried to pivot it around the stairwell?” says Brockway. “Measure not only where the couch will end up, but also the spaces it’ll go through to get there.” Stick with these tips, and you’ll be fine:

  • Pinpoint the right size sofa: The sofa should fill the room, not overwhelm it. Pay attention to the back height in relation to the ceiling height, and the number of cushions for the number of people you’d like to accommodate. 
  • Measure once: Check out the sofa’s dimensions on either the product listing online or the store’s tear sheet. Ask how the sofa will be delivered and if it comes with additional packaging. Compare those measurements to the height and width of the inside of your doorway and halls. 
  • Measure twice: “Consider the route your sofa needs to travel, and measure everything from your elevator to your hallway and door frame,” says Article’s former product development manager, Nicole Hunt.   

If you just so happen to measure incorrectly (hey, we’re all human!), go ahead and call the couch doctor.

Checking the Sofa’s Construction

Poorly made sofas will serve their purpose, but live with one long enough and you’ll notice how the upholstery fades in color and texture and the cushions lose their shape or density. Having a basic understanding of the components that comprise a well-built sofa will help you invest in a piece that can withstand daily wear and tear. Here are the major checkpoints to review before you buy.

1. Frame

Natural wood is the most solid and sturdy frame material, while MDF (medium-density fiberboard) is the least reliable and more likely to fall apart. 

2. Joints

The components that keep the frame together are also significant. A sofa solely attached by dowels or glue won’t be as sturdy as one with a mix of the two and/or the addition of screws.

3. Suspensions

Springs are what give your sofa bounce and comfort—or a lack thereof. The main types are:

  • 8-way hand-tied: A series of metal coils supported by a layer of either twine (tied on) or additional metal. According to Decorist’s Merchant, this is the best, but it usually comes at a higher cost. 
  • Sinuous springs: These are more common and feature S-shaped springs that run up and down the depth of the sofa. 
  • Webbed suspension: This is a more affordable option that can have a hammock-like support system crafted from natural fibers. Pirelli webbing, on the other hand, is made from rubber and a durable alternative.

4. Cushioning and Fill

When it comes to a sofa cushion, do you prefer firm? Sinkable? Both? That’s where fill comes in. Some sofas feature a mix of two, one for the backing and the other for the cushions. Here are some common fill types:

  • Goose or duck feather down: Down-fill sofas are higher end, plush, and luxurious. Down cushions must be rotated and fluffed regularly to preserve their form. 
  • Fiber fill: This is a synthetic insert that’s usually combined with either foam or down to make it less firm and more affordable, respectively. 
  • Foam: Convertible or sleeper sofas often feature a high-density memory foam mattress or cushions. Foam fill typically feels more firm and it’s a great material to use to revive an old, sagging couch
  • Spring coil: These cushions usually come with a down fill and are built into the sofa. They require less fluffing versus a regular down cushion and hold their shape better over time. 

5. Upholstery

When settling on a fabric, durability and ability to withstand daily wear and tear is essential. The Martindale rub test is a good indicator of fabric quality, notes Article’s Hunt. In the test, a machine is used to simulate natural wear by repeatedly rubbing fabric with excessive force to see at what point it starts to break down. The higher the rub count, the more durable the fabric. “You’ll want something that can withstand 25,000 rubs or more,” says Hunt.

Best Places to Shop for a Sofa

Ready to find your dream sofa? Here are some of our favorite spots to shop.

If You’re Looking for a Deal

  • Wayfair— Wayfair makes finding a budget sofa all too easy. Their selection is meticulously classified by type (sofa, loveseat, convertible), style (modular, curved, reclining), color, material, and even depth. 
  • AllModern— Wayfair’s sister site AllModern has a wide range of mid-century modern pieces, but there are also a handful of contemporary twists on classics.
  • Joss & Main— There’s a common myth that tufted leather sofas are pricey indulgences, but online retailers like Joss & Main, another Wayfair sister site, are really busting that myth with their very affordable options.
  • Walmart— Walmart’s extensive collection is conveniently categorized by color, style, and material, and even features options to sort by width, cushion fill, and back support.  
  • Home Depot— With the ability to sort by style, shape, and even frame, shopping for a sofa on Home Depot is all about getting down to the nitty-gritty of what you want.
  • Amazon— Amazon isn’t just a one-stop destination for grabbing cleaning supplies and home essentials—they also have an elaborate furniture section, including their in-house furniture brands, Rivet and Stone & Beam.

If You’re Looking for What’s Current

  • West Elm— West Elm’s comfortable sofas lean toward mid-century modern and contemporary. You can buy a piece as is or customize it with a fabric of your choice. 
  • Urban Outfitters— UO takes trends and turns them into affordable buys that are perfect for a dorm or a first home. With a slew of modern and even traditional styles, you’ll find just about everything here, sleepers included. 
  • Anthropologie— Head to Anthro for gorgeous statement pieces that will totally elevate your space. You’ll find unique shapes, colorful upholstery, and playful touches like rattan details and fun patterns, as well as modern updates to traditional silhouettes.
  • Castlery— Castlery’s contemporary line includes everything from cozy, woven sofas to jewel-toned velvet ones. Their ethos is all about creating affordable pieces that stand the test of time.  
  • Albany Park — This under-the-radar site carries a variety of stunning offerings that are easy to move and arrive at your front door in practically no time, including the editor-loved Kova sofa
  • Edloe Finch — Albany Park’s sister site, Edloe Finch similarly offers fashionable yet original sofas and sectionals in a few select styles and upholstery options.

If You’re Looking for Custom (Without Paying for It)

  • Inside Weather— Inside Weather is proof that customizing your dream sofa shouldn’t be equivalent to putting a down-payment on a home. Select a silhouette and choose your cushion shape, pillow detailing, size, and even arm style. 
  • Interior Define— Build-your-own never looked this good. Choose from over 80 different types of fabrics, over 20 leg styles, and whatever size, color, and shape you please. Can’t make up your mind? Go with one of their amazing stock pieces. 
  • Burrow— An editor favorite, Burrow carries a set number of sofa styles you can customize by color and configure by shape. The brand’s modular pieces arrive in boxes and are not only easy to assemble but can also move with you from home to home.  
  • AllForm— Another editor favorite, AllForm specializes in custom modular sofas. You can choose everything from the shape, number of seats, fabric, and leg finish, plus you get a 100-day trial period to make sure you love it.
  • Lovesac — The brand behind some of our favorite beanbag lounge seating also makes giant, cloud-like modular sofas called Sactionals. They have an array of durable and customizable covers, sizes, and styles, including wedge seats for a curved sofa, rolled arms, and storage seats.
  • Homebody — This environmentally-conscious, California-based furniture startup carries just one main sofa style called The Couch. It’s available in a handful of upholstery options and customizable sizes, from a two-seater to a U-shaped sectional. No matter which configuration you go with, it’s sure to look contemporary.

If You’re Looking for the New Classics

  • Industry West— Industry West’s sofas are designed with comfort in mind. Choose between a streamlined settee or a luxe leather pick with a contemporary-cool finish. Their modular sofa system can be built out piece by piece. 
  • Apt2B— Apt2B is all about simplicity and sophisticated design. Their modern sofas are streamlined and come in a variety of colors and materials—funky graphic prints included. 
  • Kardiel— Kardiel takes on modern and mid-century styles with contemporary materials and is the closest you’ll get to the real thing. Keep an eye out for their major sales.
  • Design Within Reach — Here, you’ll find designer models with designer prices to match. But if you’re looking to splurge on the sofa of your dreams, we have no doubt you’ll find it among their ultra-stylish offerings.

If You’re Looking for Something One-of-a-Kind

  • Floyd— Featuring quality materials and cozy fabrics, Floyd’s sofa can be configured as a two-seater, three-seater, or a three-seater with a chaise, and comes in five colorways. 
  • abc carpet & home— This iconic NYC retailer carries the full gamut of styles with a contemporary spin. Think a neon green settee or a hot pink, velvet upholstered tuxedo couch. But don’t fret, they have the traditional ones too. 
  • Arhaus— Socially conscious brand Arhaus carries stylish pieces featuring craftsman-built frames, durable performance fabric, and sustainable, eco-friendly materials. The majority of the sofas are contemporary in build but you can find a few old-school styles as well. 
  • Benchmade Modern — Our Best List editor took advantage of their custom sofa service and described the process as incredibly easy and satisfying. Choose among countless size, configuration, and upholstery options.

If You’re Looking for Tradition

  • One Kings Lane— From camelbacks to English roll arms, One Kings Lane is the purveyor of all that’s classic and chic. And while tradition is a prominent theme, you can find a few unexpected twists on timeless models. 
  • Horchow— With brands from MacKenzie-Childs to Jonathan Adler, Horchow is all about tradition with a glam twist. Head here for tuxedo, Chesterfield, and camelback styles.   
  • Pottery Barn— If you want something old school, Pottery Barn is the place to go. The retailer offers a slew of classic forms and shapes, which you can customize to your style. 
  • Raymour & Flanigan — According to one of our contributors, Raymour & Flanigan is the place to find your dream sofa, and we couldn’t agree more. Here, you’ll find homey models in every shape and form that’ll never look outdated.
  • Ashley — You can always count on finding a good deal on a high-end sofa at this legacy retailer. Their massive selection features many family-friendly sofas that you’ll be excited to pass down.
  • Grandin Road — If you’re after a beautiful transitional piece outfitted in high-quality fabric, this should be your go-to destination. Check out their slipcovered sofas in particular if you’re partial to the coastal design aesthetic.