What don't I know about furniture?
September 1, 2016 10:48 AM   Subscribe

All sofas look the same to me. Some are $800. Some are $4000. What am I not aware of (aside from the power of branding)?

For the first time in my life (uh, I'm 41), we are in a position to be able to buy real new furniture. Specifically, I want a sectional couch (a non-McMansion-sized one). I went to Ikea thinking hey, it's relatively inexpensive and the furniture is generally smaller-scaled. Aaaand sectionals of the size I want (5-seaters) are $1800 and up there. Yikes. I went Wayfair.com and some sectionals are $800 while others are $4000 or more. I went to Craigslist and furniture outlet stores are advertising new sectionals for $700-$1000. Outside of a few that are clearly "this leather sectional was deigned by Hermes, will seat 40 people, and also mix drinks for you" outliers, all of these pieces look more or less the same to me.

Is there a reason I should spend the extra grand and go with Ikea rather than Joe's Furniture Outlet Of Inner Exurbia? Is there some other source for well-made smallish-scale sofas that I'm not aware of? Literally the only furniture outside of a few bookshelves and end-tables I've ever purchased new is my son's nursery furniture, so I really have no idea where people buy their sofas and whatnot.
posted by soren_lorensen to Home & Garden (40 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
When we were buying a new sectional, we went to Ikea and I pushed on all the ones they had and all the sub-$1000 ones felt like the underlying structure would break if you did anything but gently sit down on it each time. We ended up going with a ~$1000 one from Raymour and Flanigan and I have no complaints. I have friends with Expensive Sectionals but that usually means either they're leather or brand-name.
posted by griphus at 10:52 AM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

We got a cheap sectional at Big Lots because it was exactly the shade of 70s-brown my wife was looking for, and two years in it's pretty much fine. It definitely felt a little flimsier than an expensive couch as we were setting it up, and if we had kids of couch-jumping age that might have given me pause, but it's just us and a dog right now, so it hasn't been an issue.
posted by Polycarp at 11:04 AM on September 1, 2016

Is there some other source for well-made smallish-scale sofas that I'm not aware of?

Room and Board is a step (or two) up from Ikea in quality, design, and (naturally) price. If you're looking something to have for a decade or two, I'd go with them. However, if you still have young children, I'd go with Ikea and replace it when your kids are old enough not to ruin good furniture.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:11 AM on September 1, 2016

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I'm looking for something well-made that is cheaper than Ikea because $2000 for a sofa seems bonkers to me. Room and Board is definitely off the table. (And I do have a 4-year-old, so jump-on-able is a necessary characteristic.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:17 AM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Its mostly about the internal construction and quality of the upholstery. You really can't figure that out from a picture.

Cheap couches are cheap and wear out quickly. There is a point of diminishing returns. I've never been a sectional buyer, but for Sofas I'd peg it somewhere around 1000-1500.

At that price point you should be able to get solid construction and decent build quality. I wouldn't buy a cheap sofa on the web, but I probably would buy one that I had physically sat on.
posted by JPD at 11:21 AM on September 1, 2016 [9 favorites]

Comfort and durability just like clothes. Oh and uh, status, like, you know, clothes. My feeling is if someone is judging me in my own house they will just not come back and we both win. Really really cheap couches WILL disintegrate though, especially if anyone in your family is large boned. I managed to create a dip in a $600 couch so intense that it became unsittable in only a single year of working from home. On the other hand, no couch, no matter how expensive, can sustain more than 2 regular childrens' childhoods or 1 HI-NRG child's. Get the Ikea one, imo.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:35 AM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's about quality of construction and comfort. But it's not rocket science, there's no huge factor you're missing (and you're right, branding is a huge part of it. Also you'd be surprised how much some people will pay for a couch with EXACTLY THE RIGHT LOOK). Frankly if you can go to "Joe's Furniture Outlet" to try them out by actually physically sitting on their couches and you don't mind them, then sure you can just go with one of those. Obviously this gives you a better idea of the comfort than it does of the sturdiness, but they are correlated, albeit imperfectly.

Also you should probably just accept that cheaper furniture will almost certainly need to be replaced sooner. Like, if the $2000 couch was going to last you 10-15 years and the $800 one breaks after 5, you're still ahead, right?
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:41 AM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I bought an Ikea Ektorp couch in 2005 for about $800 and apart from a few stains it is still in great condition (and I can buy a replacement cover for ~$100). I bought a medium-sized sectional from an outlet in 2011 for about $800 and by this year the seat fabric was heavily worn, the cushion padding had broken down, and the fabric had torn on the back, so we chose to replace it.
posted by cardboard at 11:44 AM on September 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Check out Macy's. I just found a great sectional there, that feels sturdier than cheap ones. And Macy's has sales all the time. I think ours was about $1500 after various sales. And it feels sturdy.

I don't trust an Ikea couch to last very long. But some of their products are great, so YMMV.
posted by hydra77 at 11:45 AM on September 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here were my criteria when I bought a couch last year:

1.) high density cushions, that are preferably attached to the frame at the back (otherwise there will be slumping)
2.) Pet-friendly surface (for me that was leather - I'll happy trade some "this couch is lived in" scratches for stains or constantly fighting with cat hair)
3.) solid frame, ideally hardwood (though probably hard to find/tell at the prices you're looking at), at least a good inch thick (sit on the sofa and reach over to grab the frame underneath). I also like this tip:
To test frame strength, lift one front corner or leg of the sofa off the floor. By the time you've raised it six inches, the other front leg should have risen too. If it's still touching the floor, the frame has too much give; it's weak.
There's other stuff you can look into (spring style, stain proofing for cloth/microfiber, etc), but those were less important for me.

I'd recommend avoiding an online purchase, and going and visiting couches with your price limit in mind. There are good deals to be had at outlet mall type places, but you're kind of on your own as far as quality. IKEA tends to be very "you get what you pay for" as far as quality goes -- I wouldn't trust a cheap IKEA sofa, but I'd probably trust an expensive one. Keep in mind also that even the "fancy" furniture stores often have closeouts/returns/floor models of high quality for a surprisingly good price. So don't skip places like Macy's or even Room and Board (if there's one in your area).

Mr. Motion and I probably sat on 4 dozen sectionals before choosing.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:47 AM on September 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

I have done couch surgery on a $500 couch, wherein I learned that it was $500 because it was spindly cheap stapled-together wood inside, and this also explains why it needed the surgery in the first place. Turned out that creaking arm had split into a pair of jagged spikes suitable for vampire-hunting! I don't know if Ikea sectionals are any good but I'd definitely plan on treating your future couch like a worthwhile investment rather than something to cut costs on.
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:49 AM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you have a Costco membership, make sure you look there. Their durable goods are always good quality and I have seen some outstanding deals on furniture there.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:58 AM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh... and for price benchmarking, we purchased a gigantic leather, modular sectional (approximately equivalent to this one, but less ugly and a better color) from Macy's for $1600 (plus tax) because it was a floor model (we inspected it thoroughly before payment, it was flawless).

We knew it was the one because our butts had experienced so many other ones in the weeks previously.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:00 PM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I bought a bed with an upholstered headboard from Wayfair and while I'm satisfied with the looks and quality for the price, it is not something that looks or feels like it will last a long time. It doesn't feel like furniture you buy for your final adult home, you know what I mean?

I know this is vague but the "workmanship" just wasn't there, from the stitching to the typical made-overseas bent and dinged wood and metal. It's not going to bust to splinters this year and I adore the look but it doesn't quite feel like permanent, real furniture.
posted by kapers at 12:02 PM on September 1, 2016

This older Ask.Me was kinda going in the opposite direction from you but had some interesting talk about what makes for quality furniture. The consensus was basically quality/price isn't a linear relationship, and Ikea does really well for its price point. If you want better, you'll have to spend considerably more, and you can spend a little less but it will be considerably worse. This lines up with my personal experience at the cheapskate end of the spectrum.
posted by yeahlikethat at 12:04 PM on September 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

I just bought a new couch and loveseat (to replace a sectional actually!). Sectionals are more expensive than seperate pieces anyways (for the most part). Do what Sparklemotion says...we did the same thing when we were shopping. The thing I've found between cheaper (I had a couch that was $500 in the past) is how it feels sitting on it. Cheaper foam breaks down and sags sooner, but individually covered cushions can have better foam put in them if you need it. Nothing saves sagging springs unless you do couch repair.

I found that I had to sit on a lot of couches before I could accurately describe the type of experience I was looking for (firm bottom cushions with little sinking, good lumbar support, not so wide my feet don't touch the floor).

Basically go sit on a lot of couches to see what you like then shop the sales.
posted by MultiFaceted at 12:08 PM on September 1, 2016

If you can find something at Macy's (they have incredible sales + if you can find a Macy's outlet) YES YES YES. Well made furniture is worth it.

That said

In my area, a lot of those 2k to 4K sofas are not much better than $800 to $1200 ones, just pricier. I was unimpressed with all of those warehouse places. I am a sofa snob.

Might I ask you to re-think the Kivik at IKEA? Specifically because you have a child, and especially because you can find gently used ones (near new sometimes) on Craigslist. IKEA will sometimes give you new foam if you need it, the entire covers are washable and/or replaceable - so you can rig an awesome new couch if you want. There are adapters you can buy online to add feet in a style you like, if you want to un-IKEA the look.

I miss my Italian leather couch, but I LOVE the Kivik that replaced it. I taped disposable waterproof pet training pads around the seat cushions inside the removable covers. If someone spills, I wash the cover and replace the waterproofing around the foam. GENIUS.

The Kivik is deep just like a more expensive sofa, human-sized (f$ck you, CB2) and I'm not concerned about moving it or stains. I can't tell you the improvement this couch has made in my life. It's the Goldilocks of couches.

Hope that helps.
posted by jbenben at 12:21 PM on September 1, 2016 [14 favorites]

I have a Room and Board couch, and have owned/sat in many IKEA and other cheaper couches. The main thing I have found that cause the price to be so much more is the overall construction quality leading to longevity. My Room and Board couch has lasted almost 10 years (I got it in 2007). The fabric has taken a beating in the last few years from my cats but otherwise the frame itself is still in perfect shape, the stuffing is fine, etc. It is solidly built.

Another factor is that a lot of Room and Board stuff is constructed with American labor, and the materials are sometimes sourced from American companies. This matters to me as I worry about the quality of stuffing and textiles from other countries. So, to some extent you are paying more because you are giving a job to Americans who are getting paid a fair wage and using higher quality materials.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:22 PM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There's a behavioral economics phenomenon called "anchoring" that describes how, when we get used to not paying much money for something (or maybe for a class of things), we may come to think of that thing as always being worth that much or little. It's hard to re-think and adjust our internal estimates.

However, a couch is an incredibly complicated thing, and it costs a lot of money for good reason.

Think about how much human time, effort, and resources go into making a couch; that might help you feel better about spending that much money.

First there's the wood frame. No, wait, there's the wood that goes into the frame: a tree growing for a number of years, with some human owner protecting the tree so it doesn't get cut early, die of disease, or burn up in a fire - plus the taxes that pay for the government that prevents random people from just taking the tree, or doing unsafe things that compromise the safety of the land, and that protect and educate the human that owns and protects the tree.

Then there are the tools and humans that harvest the tree - giant trucks, complicated electric saws -- and the research and development time that went into creating them, which is huge, but which gets prorated across many trucks and saws -- and all the resources necessary to maintain the people and the machines. Also the fuel for the machines. And taxes to pay for the roads, and regulating the fuel, and regulating the business transaction that makes it possible for people to cut and sell the trees. There are experts involved with all of this, too -- maintaining the machines, maintaining the laws, keeping the people healthy, managing the business, managing (we hope) health insurance, etc.

Somehow, there's a lumber mill also, with its capital infrastructure, expert employees, and business overhead.

All of these entities also have to communicate their business through some kind of marketing, so they can find each other. They employ people to do ther.

Oh, wait - you probably wanted a fairly attractive couch, rather than sticks with random lumpy padding stapled to it (how do stapleguns get made? Staples?). So, there needs to be someone designing the couch.

"Someone" probably means a group of designers -- all educated at an institution that takes billions of dollars to run every year, and which is the product of the generosity of founding donors, donors over the years, cleaning staff who work a little harder than the minimum because they may find it inspiring to work at an educational institution (or because it's a better job than most unskilled labor, even though it still probably pays minimum wage or lower) - the point is, they're working hard, and they're not paid much, but they're still paid. The college has secretaries, legal staff, payroll staff, food service workers, librarians -- it's an enormous and magnificent undertaking. Which is part of the reason it costs so much to educate designers (and many of the other people involved in making a couch), and why they are still paying off their student loans so late, and a part of the reason that these designers are paid as well as they are. Good design does matter, both for your comfort and for having your house look like a lovely place to be, so having a well-trained professional designing your couch is actually important.

Oh, and there are people transporting all this stuff around, and people running the transportation companies.

Upholstery requires some kind of batting or stuffing, which is usually made from petroleum now. Somehow, that's converted into a plastic, which is spun into fine filaments with special machines -- which are also invented, designed, refined, tested, cast from metal (using more water), assembled, maintained and lubricated, repaired, cooled -- it's important not to get the plastic too hot, or it burns -- heated -- it does need to melt, though -- and cleaned, and housed in buildings, and documented so they can be fixed when they break.

While we're at the plastics plant, we also need upholstery thread. Probably some plastic parts for the couch also.

Somehow, fabric is made, too. Maybe from petroleum products -- another huge industry -- or possibly from cotton, or wool, which require farms with thousands of years of developed technology and expertise, plus land, water -- massive amounts of water -- and business and regulatory oversight.

Before that, though, the fabric is designed; your couch designers probably chose fabric -- or allow you to choose fabric -- that is designed by another team of designers somewhere else. So, that's another bunch of designers to be educated, paid, and given health insurance.

Also, the fabric designers will be influenced by the dyes available. Fabric dye requires chemistry and chemists, chemical plants, and someone deciding which of possible colors are attractive enough to manufacture.

The fabrics available have to be strong, too, and have a weave that's achievable by modern weaving technology. I believe that's what the "textile engineers" at my old school studied.

Also, the dyes and raw material for the fabric have to be transported to the plant where they are made into fabric, then the resulting fabric transported to the couch assembly plant.

Then there are upholstery nails, staples, stapling technology. Also whatever fasteners are used for the wooden frame.

There's probably wood glue in there, too. I'm not sure how wood glue is made, but the technology for glues has really advanced in the past 25 years. There's packaging for the glue, and labeling, and MSDS sheets, and marketing.

Don't most couches now have foam blocks in the cushions? That comes from somewhere.

Many couches have some kind of metal springs in them. Metal is incredibly resource-intensive to create, and requires a lot of expertise and effort to smelt and shape. Also mining.

All this comes together in one place and some people assemble the couch. Someone trains the workers to do this incredibly complicated construction work (even if it's assembly-line work, people have to be trained on their individual task). They have to cut and shape wood, foam, and fabric with cutting machines -- these machines are also made somewhere, documented, transported to the plant, and maintainted by people.

Somehow, they assemble the couch. Hopefully, they have health insurance too. Probably their managers, HR, legal team, and operations personnel do. Hopefully, there are professional staff keeping the factory clean and safe too.

I believe couches are treated with a flame-retardant, or else the fabric is flame retardant. People make that happen too, somehow.

There are taxes to make sure the factory is inspected sometimes, and safe and healthy.

Maybe the company has a scholarship fund for children of its employees, or a cafeteria with subsidized healthy meals. Maybe they have a generous maternity leave policy.

There has to be some way to sew the upholstery fabric, probably another complicated industrial machine created, documented, and maintained by humans.

[...] After all this, a couch exists!

Usually, these seem to be shipped in enough packaging to make sure they arrive without any scratches or dirt. Currently that seems to involve styrofoam, corrugated cardboard, plastic wrap, and packing tape and tape dispensers. I could go into how all that gets made, but I think you get the gist.

There's a truck, with two large people to move the couch. Oh, possibly a forklift at some point, and possibly a shipping crate.

I'm assuming the couch isn't coming from China on a ship, but that's a possibility too.

So, how do you find the couch? You have to pay for a marketing team to make the couch visible to you, or to the store where you buy it.

If you get the couch at a store, the store needs employees, maintenance staff, and management structure. All those people need decent wages and, one hopes, health benefits. Maybe couches of their own.

There are also huge utility bills for retail stores; they all need high ceilings so they don't seem dark, cluttered, and even dirty, which makes heating and cooling them challenging. Then too, there are HVAC engineers, plumbers, and electricians involved in setting up a store and in making it run.

OK, I'm exhausted. I'm sure there's more, but I'm done thinking about this for now.

So, is $2000 too much for a couch? If one pays less, how does that happen?
posted by amtho at 12:39 PM on September 1, 2016 [36 favorites]

I know you are looking for a sectional, but if you want to save money you might want to consider buying two separate small sofas instead. This would give you more lower price options. I've found it's also handy to be able to put a small table in the corner behind the sofas, instead of having the unusable corner area of upholstery. It's also more versatile -- even if you aren't planning on moving, sometimes it's handy to rearrange furniture temporarily because you have 20 houseguests or someone is recovering from hip surgery or something.

I've been happy with my cheaper Ikea sofa, it's firmer than a lot of more expensive sofas but I prefer that style.

One quality difference that isn't so important when your sofa is new is if it will be easy to have reupholstered. If you want to keep the same sofa for the rest of your life, you'll need to have this done sometime. Personally I don't think it's that important, in 20 years you might be moving into a smaller place and not want a gigantic sectional sofa anyhow.
posted by yohko at 12:42 PM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is a lovely guide to what qualities make a difference in sofas: What's inside key to long-lasting sofa

To sum up:
- What's the frame made of (hardwood, composite wood, plastic, metal) and how is it held together (screws and dowels, staples, brackets)?
- Does it have springs? How are the cushions supported?
- What are the cushions made of? How dense is it?
- What is the quality of the upholstery fabric? Is it durable? Scratch? Attractive? Stain resistant?
posted by anastasiav at 12:43 PM on September 1, 2016 [10 favorites]

It looks like people have answered your initial question about the difference in quality, but I want to put in additional plug for Macy's. I bought a sofa there this winter which wound up being the same cost as a similar sofa from IKEA, but I didn't have to build it myself. It was a "sale" price but they seem to be pretty much always having sales! Also, I went to the Macy's Furniture Outlet first, and it was all terrible McMansion overstuffed leather sectionals for $2,000, but then I went (across the street!) to the regular Macy's Furniture showroom and there were tons of sofas in the sub-$1,000 range (I didn't look at sectionals though).

As for quality, I really, really like my sofa. Very comfortable and the upholstery is so far holding up to my dog. The one I had before was from World Market and I got it for $300 because it was a floor model and it was TERRIBLE. Got dirty really easily, the stuffing got pressed down, one of the springs broke - and I only had it for 3 years. There is a difference in quality, but you don't have to pay $4,000.
posted by lunasol at 12:44 PM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, and it looks like right now, Macy's has some sectionals for less than $2,000.

Also, I totally understand your sticker shock. I started buying new furniture a few years ago and it's really crazy what furniture costs!
posted by lunasol at 12:46 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Our IKEA Kivik couch and loveseat have held up perfectly fine so far through 8 years, 2 moves, 2 dogs, and a boisterous 3-year-old. They're lightweight and easy to move, incredibly easy to clean, and it's not terribly expensive or difficult to replace all the coverings if necessary (we did once because we wanted to change the living room color scheme).

However, they're not what I would consider "well made." My husband reinforced the frames with metal brackets, so that may be contributing to how well they're holding up.

I'm not sure I would buy anything cheaper than that and expect it to last.
posted by erst at 12:48 PM on September 1, 2016

Do you have a Costco membership (or access to someone who does)? They usually have a decent selection of furniture in the warehouse, with lots more available online. I've seen nicely appointed and comfy sectionals there for a non-ridiculous amount of money (approx. $1000 Canadian). They also have an excellent return policy.
posted by Aunt Slappy at 1:02 PM on September 1, 2016

El Cheapo couches are due to one of a few factors:

1. The couch is a lot smaller or skimpier than expected. This is almost universally the case for the cheap IKEA couches, like the Klippan. They're really more like bare bones loveseats. You couldn't sleep on one or seat more than one or two people. Fine for a teensy studio apartment where you never have anyone over, but not really an option if you have parties or overnight guests.

2. Inner workings of the couch stripped down to bare bones. My partner and I were recently in the market for a new couch, with the criteria that it needed to seat three and be a sleeper sofa. All the ~ $500 couches at IKEA that met our criteria didn't have actual fold-out mattresses, they were just stacked foam cushions of the style we used to call "flip & fuck" in college. My mom is not sleeping on that. So we ended up with a slightly more expensive but still very reasonable couch that has an actual fold-out mattress.

3. Very poor quality. I'm happy with the couch we ended up with, but after a few months it's already clear that this isn't a family heirloom. We'll have this couch for a few years and hopefully upgrade to something higher quality. Or just replace our janky IKEA couch with an identical cheap-ass couch, I guess. I'm also anticipating years of hollering "DONT JUMP ON THE COUCH" "DONT CLIMB ON THE COUCH" "DONT SIT ON THE ARM OF THE COUCH" at my hypothetical future children, with the very real possibility that they will ruin it. Which is less of a thing with a more solidly built model.

Of course, you can also err on the side of an overpriced couch. I love the design of Mitchell Gold couches, but when you buy a $5000 couch, you're mostly paying for brand and a higher-end look. I personally feel like $1000-2000 is the sweet spot for a couch. (No idea about sectionals, totally not a sectional person.)
posted by Sara C. at 1:10 PM on September 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I bought an $800 sofa online once and the instant it arrived, I could see the savings.

Lots of things are great to buy online, even without seeing it and touching it in person first. Furniture, in my opinion, is not one of them.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:13 PM on September 1, 2016

You've nixed Room & Board already but I'll put in a plug for them nonetheless. We have two sofas from there purchased in 2008 and still going strong. The arms definitely show some wear but we get them professionally cleaned annually and the frames are still in excellent shape despite regular abuse from a 300-lb husband, a Labrador, a cat, and a preschooler. Oh, and they've been through a move. I just looked up our order and we paid $1449 for one and $1499 for the other, which seemed astronomical given our salaries at the time but feels like a ludicrously good bargain now, considering how well they've held up. And, I'll add, that included a custom fabric job. We waited for a sale and also stopped into their outlet pretty regularly.

Sectionals are going to be more costly no matter where they're from because they're essentially two couches. That was our plan originally, but we ended up nixing that in favor of arranging two sofas in an L shape.

Wayfair's stuff looks gorgeous but I would under absolutely NO circumstances order a couch from anywhere I couldn't sit on it first.
posted by anderjen at 1:15 PM on September 1, 2016

Same budget as you. We found a gorgeous sectional on Craigslist for $600, had it professionally cleaned for $150 and now have a way nicer couch than we ever could have afforded new.
posted by pintapicasso at 2:21 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd highly recommend considering a used couch. I bought a used couch from the 70s for $200 recently. It's great.
I know it is solid and will hold up well -- in part because it already has held up for so long.

This sounds flippant but is borne out by the science and statistics of reliability testing/engineering.

This is why they burn all light bulbs for many hours before they sell them new. This is the reason people pay top dollar for certain types of older cars and stand mixers.

So maybe you don't want a couch quite that old, but I am confident you can get a used couch that will last several years and be comfortable for under $500, if you are willing to shop around a bit.

Try contacting places that lease furniture to offices - they often sell stuff that's only been in a waiting room for a year with light usage.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:01 PM on September 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

When I was looking for furniture, I really liked furniture with what I call "clean lines." The cheaper stuff at the big stores tended to be big and super-pillowy...like they just put stuffing everywhere to mask any underlying defects in the furniture. Like this or this. They seem to have moved somewhat away from that now. I preferred something more like this but with more upholstered arms.

So I ended up buying something sort of like this. When I saw it in the store it was in leather, and what I liked about it is that (unlike the pictured couch) the back cushions (which are attached), came straight down...they didn't have a sort of curve to them with a bulge as the ones in the picture do. When it arrived in the fabric I hard ordered, the cushions had more of the curved look. I remember when it was delivered not liking it as much in the store, but it took me a while to realize what the difference was and by then it was too late to complain and return. Now years later, it's much worse because the stuffing has sort of settled downwards (gravity), so it bulges and it bulges worse lower. It's not terrible, or unusable, or ugly or anything, it's just not the style I wanted.

So what I learned from this and pass on to you is this: 1. Fabric and leather behave differently, they stretch differently, the hold their shape differently. To make the fabric not look baggy they have to over-stuff it full of stuffing. Take this into account when purchasing. 2. Stuffing will not hold it's shape, by it's very nature. If you want a non-bulge of stuffing shape, make sure your couch is filled with cut-to-shape foam, not stuffing.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:01 PM on September 1, 2016

Others have covered the new couch details above...I just wanted to put in another plug for the used couch. At our old apartment my husband and I managed to buy a 3-piece living room set (loveseat, couch and huge chair) for like $600, used. They were leather and incredibly sturdy and very attractive. We sold them when we moved but from time to time I still miss these! It was a hell of a deal. There's always so many people selling used furniture, that if you are open to it I'd highly suggest you look at that stuff before dropping $2000 on a new sectional. You might find an awesome deal on Craigslist or the like.
posted by FireFountain at 5:07 PM on September 1, 2016

We went through this last year when we bought our very first sofa after our thirteen year-old hand-me-down sofa starting inflicting persistent back pain on us. One thing we learned real fast: They don't make furniture like they used to which is why a lot of people like taking old sofas and reupholstering them. Reupholstering our old sofa would have been insanely expensive, more than a new couch, so we went sofa shopping.

I tend to be frugal and I thought that we could find something for under $800 that was comfortable and well made. We don't have an IKEA nearby so we visited five or six different stores. Some were locally owned, others were national chain stores. We sat on a lot of sofas and I'm so glad that we did because it showed me that my expectations and my budget were not compatible. We sat on countless sofas that were poorly made and uncomfortable. I quickly realized we needed to spend a little more to get something that would last a bit longer and be comfortable. We lucked out and found a Flexsteel reclining microfiber (it looks like leather) sofa for $1100 on sale during Labor Day so I didn't go too far over budget. Sit on as many couches as you can, repeatedly if need be before making a decision. We did and it really helped us make up our minds -- in fact, it kept us from buying a $2000 sofa that was not as comfortable as we first thought after repeated sittings. We picked the Flexsteel, which tends to be a more pricey brand, because of the reputation and warranty. So far it's been fine.

Good luck with your search!
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 6:23 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

To elaborate on what everyone is referring to by construction quality: more expensive couches have denser foam that will not sag, more breathable fabric or more durable (full grain vs bonded) leather, and more and better quality springs in the suspension. (Former furniture salesman here)
posted by mikek at 6:24 PM on September 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thirding an old couch. I found a beautiful mid century sofa that had been reupholstered in the 1980s, according to the tag on the upholstery, for $180 at a fancy estate sale. You have to look in good/fancier neighborhoods for such deals, and in my case, my personal aesthetic called for a velvet sofa in a mossy green color: I think I got such a deal because my tastes vary a bit from the norm.

I also got a well built but brilliantly built Italian leather sofa on Craigslist. Keep your eyes open for $200; don't drop $2k.
posted by slateyness at 9:01 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fourthing an old couch, especially with young children. When we moved to our new house, I just couldn't justify spending any quantity of money on a sofa that would take us through potty training and pukey sick kids--but I didn't want an ikea couch that would break if someone sat on it wrong. We got an ugly, sturdy, plaid sofa from the Salvation Army for $85 plus $100 for a moving van. We could have gotten something much nicer looking there if I'd been willing to pay money, but I wasn't. This should last until the kid is out of the spewing-bodily-liquids and jumping stage.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:00 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this is relevant, but one thing we love about our IKEA sofa is that the covers are machine washable and cheaply replaced. Stains and bad upholstery are what (to me) signal ugly furniture. With two rowdy kids and the inevitable spills and crayons, etc., I think we've saved a ton of money on new sofas just by being able to wash the cover. And when we get tired of a color, we can replace the cover later. Obviously, you can probably get this feature in another sofa as well!
posted by heavenknows at 2:37 AM on September 2, 2016

The problem with couches is that unless you're an expert, you can't tell if the $2000 one is really a $2000 one, or a $500 one that is being sold for $2000. And you won't find out for a year or two until it starts falling apart.

I really like our Home Reserve (online) couches. They're not the cheapest, and they're not the best looking. But they are unbelievably solidly constructed -- basically they're made of a box of plywood, there is no inner truss structure that can break. And if part of it did break, it could be replaced as an individual piece.
posted by miyabo at 10:43 AM on September 2, 2016

I am a cheapskate and I like nice stuff. What I'd do is go to the local fancy stores in your area and get a sense for what companies make couches you like (I like Crate & Barrel's pseudo-modernist CB2, for example, but I don't have more than a thousand dollars for a gotdamn sofa when I might, I dunno, up and move to China or Pittsburgh next year).

Set a couple Craigslist alerts for a few company names and models (like Ikea + friheten) and spend an hour once a week trawling for deals. You probably won't find really recent designs (or they'll be expensive if you do), but something that's been out for a couple years will turn up on CL regularly. For example, there's an Ikea sleeper sofa I've been keeping my eyes on. It's "only" something like $500 new, but I know it's made mostly of chipboard and won't last so long, so I set a CL alert and 3-4 times a month the very thing I want turns up. Sometimes for $400 and faraway, sometimes for $200 and not so far. Last week it showed up on CL for free, in good condition, a mile from my house. But I was out of town. Figures.

Anyway, what I mean to say is that you can find expensive things for much cheaper if you've got more time than money.
posted by tapir-whorf at 1:49 PM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

We had some problems moving our couch into our condo. The door frames, staircases and available windows would not admit the couch.

After unsuccessfully trying to sell the couch, we found a (surprisingly common) specialist to de-upholster, partially disassemble, move, re-assemble and reupholster our couch. It was way cheaper than a new couch, and a good way to avoid pitching an otherwise serviceable member of our family couch.

Why am I telling you this? During this process, I saw how the couch is constructed, and talked to the specialist. I was disappointed by how simply the couch was constructed, considering its cost. It was a very simple combination of plywood, wire springs, felt, webbing and staples. He assured me our couch was actually above average in construction quality, though he did replace many nails with screws to "tighten things up". He told me from the hundreds of couches he's torn apart and reassembled, there is no reliable connection between price and quality. There are many expensive but shoddy couches (more decorative than functional), and plenty of low-cost, but solid and comfortable couches.

In his expert opinion, IKEA is actually a decent value option. IKEA generally offers reasonable (predictable if not high) quality, reasonable price, but does not travel or age that well. IKEA is good if you have to buy without trying.

If you can try your couch in advance, you should. Bring a flashlight, you can usually see through to how it is constructed and figure out if it is well made.

Oh, also, think of the upholstery like clothing. There are different quality fabric and stitching, and will wear/weather accordingly.
posted by KevCed at 3:18 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

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