The worst time to figure out that you hate a new sofa is after it’s been delivered. The convenience of online shopping makes browsing easier, but when you’re buying a couch sight unseen, it’s important to do your homework. After hundreds of hours of research, including visiting three furniture factories, interviewing industry experts, and parking ourselves on nearly every sofa we’ve seen, we can tell you exactly what separates a great sofa from a future curbside donation. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to bring home a durable—and comfortable—piece of furniture. And we recommend some worthy brands we’ve personally tested.
Finding the right sofas for your space and budget begins with deciding what type and style you want. Just as important, you’ll need to determine what size sofa will fit in your home(including through doorways, down hallways, and up stairs, among other exterior and interior obstructions). Then consider how many people you want to seat and what you should avoid (and invest in) if pets or kids will regularly use the sofa. We tell you how to check for quality construction, how much you should expect to spend, and when you can get the best deals. We’ve also put together a buying checklist that you can consult while you’re shopping to help you remember the most important details.
A sofa is one of the most expensive pieces of furniture that most people purchase, and we encourage you to try them out in person, or to buy from online companies that have generous return policies. We hope that after you read this guide, you’ll feel comfortable purchasing a sofa that will be an investment in your current and future home. And if you’re curious about why two seemingly identically styled sofas might have drastically different prices, hop over to our companion piece, Sofa Buying Advice From the People Who Design and Make Them.
Decide what type of sofa you want
Sofas and couches come in many shapes and sizes. The right one for you will depend on how much space you have, how many people you want to seat, and whether you plan to use the sofa for napping or hosting overnight guests. These are the four types you’ll generally find:
Standard sofa or couch: These generally measure between 72 and 84 inches, comfortably seating three to four people.
Loveseat: Similar to a sofa, but intended for two people, these range from 48 inches to 72 inches wide.
Sectional: A larger modular sofa consisting of two or more pieces arranged in an L- or U-shaped configuration. Apartment-size sectionals are about the same size as a standard sofa, but larger sizes can seat five or more people.
Sofa bed or daybed: A sofa bed transforms to lay out flat, offering a mattress-like surface to rest on. A daybed is essentially a sofa with more depth, and is intended for lounging comfortably stretched across its length.
Although a designer may take offense if you call their sofa a couch, or lounge chairs, in everyday use there’s no difference. Both describe a cushioned piece of furniture with a back intended to seat more than one person. “Sofa” has always implied a more formal seating arrangement for entertaining guests (and the design/retail industry favors the term), and “couch” connotes the relaxed comforts of seating that’s intended to welcome any and all.
Choose a sofa style
Regardless of how well a sofa is made, you won’t be happy with it if you don’t also love the way it looks. Narrow your search to the styles that appeal to you and that will complement your home’s decor. Below are the eight most common styles sold today.
Mid-century modern: The hallmarks of the mid-century aesthetic are a clean and minimalist structure sitting low to the floor atop unadorned metal or wooden legs.
Lawson: The “comfy jeans” of sofas, the laidback Lawson is practically synonymous with what we think of as the quintessential couch where spare change gets discovered.
English roll arm: The cushioned yet firm high-back sofa is distinguished by its low contoured arms leaning outward. This style looks best in traditional and transitional decorated spaces that have enough room not to cramp its size.
Chaise: Imagine the seat of upholstered chairs and stools stretched out and you have the chaise. Traditionally this sofa features one side with an arm and the other side without (aka a méridienne sofa or fainting couch), like benchs, but many chaise designs forgo arms altogether.
Settee: A small upright sofa that’s distinguished by its seating for two, the settee is the original name for the love seat. Styles can range from traditional to contemporary detailing. Because of its petite proportions, the settee works well in smaller apartments, in a pair facing each other, or placed within unexpected spaces like bedrooms, offices, or even hallways.
Tuxedo: Boxy dimensions, tufting along the back and arms, and arms of equal height to the back are what distinguish this style.
Chesterfield: Identified by its quilted or tufted low back and its high arms, this British design is classically upholstered in leather.
Camelback: The aristocratic profile of the camelback (also called a humpback sofa) is unsurprisingly attributed to the hump at the center of the backrest. Sometimes there are two humps, and the sofa usually sits atop four to eight exposed wood legs.
Make sure the sofa fits in your home
We’ve all heard the horror stories about someone who purchased the sofa of their dreams only to discover it would not fit through a doorway, navigate a stairway, or fit inside the room. The carpenter’s adage of “measure twice, cut once” proves similarly true when you’re dropping hundreds—if not thousands—of well-earned dollars on a sofa,, or side chairs. Follow these steps to ensure that you don’t become a cautionary tale for future generations of sofa shoppers.
Accurately measure the sofa
Measure the width, height, and depth of the sofa; taking additional measurements can also prove useful for ordering custom upholstery or for packing and moving individual pieces later. Although measurements are almost always listed online or in catalogs, we recommend bringing a tape measure to stores to verify dimensions in person. Ask sales representatives whether the sofa ships with sections or parts disassembled, or if they can be easily removed.
Measure your entryways
Survey the easiest points of entry into your home, together with any obstacles that could complicate delivery. A steep stairway, a narrow corridor, a low overhanging fixture, or a small elevator can all present insurmountable challenges, even before a delivery makes it to the front door. We found Room & Board’s How to Prepare for Furniture Delivery video particularly insightful for identifying and visualizing obstacles that can get in the way of delivery. Habitat UK’s six-step sofa-fit checklist (PDF) is another excellent resource that can help you determine whether the sofa will fit through doors and hallways, up a flight of stairs (including those with a landing), or into an elevator.
Pick the right sofa for your lifestyle
Once you’ve narrowed your search by style and size, give some thought to your personal seating needs. A pet owner or a family with young kids may have very different needs than a fastidious couple. Think through the following questions to help determine what best serves your lifestyle.
How will you use the sofa?
Be honest with yourself about how you’ll sit on the sofa. In retail stores, we’ve seen shoppers sitting on sofas with tables like they’re upright mannequins, which is likely not the way they would sit or lie on them at home. If you tend to slouch, a daybed or sectional with a chaise will prove more comfortable and won’t disfigure cushions (over time, slouching presses the front of seat cushions outward). If you’re a couch napper, avoid multi-cushion sofas, because they’re prone to buckle and dip between each cushion. If you prefer to sit upright while reading, knitting, or using a mobile device, the more tailored, firmer structure of a mid-century-modern–style sofa or one with an upright back will feel more comfortable.
How many people will sit on the sofa?
Think through how many people will regularly sit on the sofa, but also how they like to sit. For example, if one person likes to sit upright but the other likes to lie across with their head on an arm, and the choices ate single sofas, or two seater sofas, that’s how they should test out a sofa for comfortable width. Larger families or households that regularly host guests will be naturally drawn to sectionals. But to produce a more dynamic and flexible seating arrangement, also consider using two different-size sofas positioned into an L shape, or try a pair of loveseats facing each other.
Do you have kids or pets?
Never underestimate a dog’s, cat’s, or child’s ability to destroy your furniture. Microfiber and leather upholstered sofas are the easiest to clean and maintain. And because both are smoother, they’re less likely to be scratched into remnants by a pet’s claws. Otherwise, stick with upholstery fabrics with high stain protection and a higher rub count. (Room & Board has a great guide to pet- and family-friendly fabrics.) For an added layer of protection, you may also want to consider a sofa with a slipcover. Unattached seat and back cushions will make for easier individual cleaning. If your kids jump on the sofa, stick with a frame that has sinuous springs or poly-webbing supports rather than one with more delicate hand-tied springs. For families with young kids, avoid down-filled cushions, because little feet will likely deform the malleable filling every day. It’s also a good idea to avoid decorative detailing, like tufting buttons or frilly trim; pulling and picking at these will prove irresistible for some kids.
Do your floors easily scratch?
If you have delicate wood floors, carefully consider the legs of your sofa, or console tables. From experience, we know that hairpin legs can scrape wood floors. As a last resort, a well-placed area rug can keep sofa feet from damaging a floor.
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