7 Ways to Judge the Quality of a Living Room Sofa Before You Buy It, According to Experts

published Apr 1, 2020
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Credit: Carina Romano

There’s nothing worse than spending money on a living room sofa you love, only to have it fall apart on you in a year. Not only do you feel bamboozled, but now you also have to start the stressful shopping process all over again. With experience comes knowledge, but most of us can’t afford to burn through a couple of sofas just to figure out what quality looks and feels like. With that in mind, we asked designers what they keep in mind when picking out a sofa and how to avoid buying a dud. The best part? All of this advice can be used for online furniture shopping, since so many people are buying sofas sight-unseen (other than on their screens) these days.

Know the Difference Between Fabrics

If you haven’t done a lot of couch shopping before, you might feel overwhelmed with the number of fabric choices and figuring out which one is the best for your lifestyle. Ginny Macdonald of Ginny Macdonald Design, who is launching a furniture collection with Lulu & Georgia later this spring, broke it down for me. 

According to Macdonald, natural fabrics like linen, cotton, and wool are beautiful and softer to the touch. The down side? They’re not as easy to keep clean, especially if you have pets or children. “But when these natural materials are mixed with a manmade fiber, like polyester or acrylic, they maintain some of that softness, and the durability increases.” Good to know and something to look out for, especially if you like that bright and airy, white or cream living room look that’s all over Instagram.

Fully synthetic fabrics, on the other hand, might be enduring and plush but they often run the risk of looking a little cheap. If you want something that can last longer, opt for solid fabrics instead of prints. Save the patterns for decorative accent pieces instead. 

If you’re more of the lives-and-snacks-on-the-couch type or if you have a troop of kids and pets, a poly-blend or performance fabric is probably your best bet, according to Amanda Lydy of Lydy Designs. These types of fabrics, often labeled as “performance velvets,” “ultrasuedes,” or “microsuedes,” are typically more forgiving in terms of staining and everyday wear and tear, as opposed to pure linen, which will not hold up to as much. “Texture helps disguise soiling and pet hair, so it will keep your sofa looking fresh,” Lydy adds.

You might also consider leather or even vegan leather, depending on your preferences. While these finishes can be expensive, they tend to wear well and will look good for years to come.

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Note the Rub Count

Always ask about or search for a sofa’s rub count, which is a number determined by a machine that runs back and forth over the fabric until it wears down. This is essentially how durable upholstery is, so it’s an important figure. For residential use, a 20,000 rub count is the industry standard, but the higher the number, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

If you can go take a look at the sofa you’re interested in IRL one day, all the better. “You can tell if a sofa isn’t the best quality if it ripples or if the seams are pulling, which tends to happen with mass production,” says Macdonald. But the rub count should be a good indicator of quality if you’re buying online without seeing—or sitting—on it.

Credit: Eron Rauch

Learn the Difference Between Fills

If you don’t want your couch to sag within a year, pay attention to the fill. There are three main ones in retail sofas, and they usually come in a combo. “Foam is the cheapest but will hold its shape the longest and is available in a variety of density levels, which can equate to softness,” notes MacDonald. A soft foam fill will end up breaking down over time, though.

Instead, Macdonald recommends looking for a foam wrapped in trillium, which is a man-made alternative to feathers. Not only will that provide you with firmness, but it’ll feel much cushier, thanks to the wrap. 

Lydy also suggests looking for a dacron-wrapped foam cushion if you plan to spend a lot of time on your sofa. “The center foam core will provide stability, and the dacron will keep the shape,” she says. “If you love the look of an overstuffed cushion, ask for a down ‘crown-wrapped’ within the dacron. You’ll still have the sturdy mid-layer, and the down peak as well.”

If you can’t find much information about the cushions, Alessandra Wood, Modsy’s VP of Style, says to back away. “If a retailer doesn’t give any details on their cushion construction, and the sofa is a lower price point, then the cushions probably are not great,” she says. Read reviews to see how cushions hold up over time, and always ask the seller if they have a warranty on cushions. And if you find your sofa cushions uncomfortable or in need of repair, you can always alter them with extra foam.

Ask the Right Questions About the Frame

If you don’t want your sofa frame to snap on you in the middle of a Netflix marathon, here are the technical details of what you should ideally be looking for: “Frames constructed from 5/4″ and 6/4″ solid and laminated hardwoods, 8-way tied spring systems, double dowels for sturdy, long-lasting joints, and cut corner blocks at each corner, for where the greatest stress occurs,” says Linda Dooney, Principal of LAD Interior Design. It’s entirely possible that the description you are looking at of a sofa online won’t list these details, but you should live chat or email for specs to get as much information as possible about the sofa in question.

Avoid particleboard or plastic and opt for solid wood or plywood frames—the latter is extremely durable and offers resistance to wear and tear. “Frames made of steel or hardwood, with reinforced joints, are built to endure frequent use,” says DWR’s Director of Merchandising Noah Schwartz.

Credit: Kate Keesee

Choose Stores With Fair Return Policies

If you’re shopping for a sofa online, make it a priority to look for retailers with reasonable return policies. The last thing you want is to be stuck with a buy that doesn’t work with your needs. 

Make sure you’re doing business with a company that’s going to be there for you before and after your purchase. Most big boxes, home decor stores, and direct-to-customer furniture brands have decent return policies for online orders. Check with each individual retailer for specifics. Joybird, for example, offers full refunds on items up to one year after the purchase date. Some retailers, such as Interior Define, offer a 60-day policy. Burrow and Article have 30-day policies. Keep in mind that most companies will charge a return shipping and restocking fee, so be sure to read the fine print before you click to buy.

Don’t Forget to Measure

It goes without saying that measuring a space for a piece before buying is always a good idea. But don’t forget the overall dimensions of your room in that equation. Even if the sofa you want fits, will you be able to walk comfortably around it? Is there room for additional seating or a coffee table once you’ve put the piece in place? Will the sofa fit through your doorway—or up the flight of stairs in your apartment building?

“Everyone wants a sectional sofa, but they can be limiting on how you can arrange a room,” Lydy says. Instead, the designer recommends pairing a deep sofa with a matching upholstered ottoman to give yourself a bit more space and flexibility.

Credit: Sylvie Li

Pick Something with Detachable Cushions

Designer Monika Ross always recommends sofas with loose cushions to her clients and advises them to rotate said cushions at least once a month. “Front to back and then flip-flop them, and it’ll add years to the sofa,” she says.