You can sink a lot of money into furniture. If you dont buy carefully,
you can spend too much, wind up with defective products or months-late
delivery, get items you dont like, or be stuck with furniture that doesnt
We found big quality differences among stores. Some stores were rated superior
for the advice provided by their staff by 80 percent or more of their surveyed
customers; others received superior ratings from 40 percent or fewer.
Some stores were rated inferior for reliabilitystanding behind products,
delivering on time, etc.by 20 percent or more of their surveyed customersa
big red flag for possible headaches ahead.
Comparing prices is difficult, because many retailers sell items that arent
available elsewhere, and among stores that do sell national brands, its
unusual to find the same item at more than one or two different retailers.
But there are some strategies for getting a good price. One proven strategy
is to ask several independent stores to bid competitively for your business.
Before you begin shopping, make a general plana rough drawing of your
space showing what will fit and where items you already own will go, a
budget, and some idea how the furniture will be used and how long you expect
it to last.
To help you make a general assessment of furniture quality, we provide
you with a list of quality signs to look for.
Youve flipped your sofa cushions in every possible permutation, but theres
still no way to further hide the stains and wear...
Your coffee table (which multitasks as dining room table, foot rest, and
dumping ground for all types of personal property), has devolved well beyond
anything that reasonably could be considered shabby chic...
So many of your dressers drawers are stuck closed that storage capacity
is limited to what you can pile on top...
The sleek, modern furniture you bought a few short years ago now screams
Face it: some of your furniture wont last long enough to qualify as antiquesand
needs to be replaced.
Buying furniture should be a relatively straightforward process, but CHECKBOOK
receives an inordinate number of complaintsand poor ratingsfrom customers
of many area furniture stores. These consumers lament incompetent and indifferent
salespersons, defective pieces, items that wear quickly, long delivery
delays, and delivery of wrong items. Add to this the fact that comparing
stores prices is difficult, and you may find that furnishing your home
can become a major headache.
Fortunately, there are plenty of furniture stores that make shopping easy
and pain-free. These stores are staffed by helpful and knowledgeable salespersons
who provide appropriate advice and place accurate orders; offer high-quality
products; deliver items when promised, using careful and courteous personnel;
and quickly step in to make things right when something goes wrong.
Our ratings of area stores, on our Ratings Tables, should help you
separate the good from the bad. Well also arm you with practical advice
for choosing the right products and making sure you get what you pay for
from any store.
Most of us have made unwise furniture purchases that might have been prevented
with a bit of planning.
Start by using graph paper to sketch various arrangements, possibly making
to-scale cutouts representing different pieces and moving these cutouts
around the sketch. You might try moving around existing furniture pieces
in the room, and you might find it helpful using masking tape to mark where
furniture would be placed. Another option is room-planning software, which
is available for free at many furniture store websites. The software on
some websites lets you place specific items in the room, choose different
wall colors and floor coverings, and look at various upholstery options.
As you think about decorating your space, consider several questions
What is your budget? Knowing what you can spend will force some choices.
How will the furniture be used? Do you want an elegant sofa for formal
entertaining or something more casual for the family? Will pets and active
children be around? Do you need a convertible sofa bed or just a couch?
How long do you expect to keep the furniture? Will you be moving to a larger
or a smaller home soon? Will you be having children? Will your children
be going off to school?
What existing pieces of furniture will you keep? Are there some items youre
fond of but could live without, and others youd never part with?
Are there limits on what can fit through your doors and hallways or staircases?
Also think about color. Youll want colors that you like, work together
and with existing furnishings (and perhaps with furnishings in other rooms),
are practical, and contribute to the mood youd like for the room (perhaps
bright, sunny colors, for example, for a room lacking natural light).
Think about style. Do you prefer contemporary or traditional furniture?
Stuffed, upholstered chairs or leaner lines? High-tech finishes, dark wood
Victorian reproductions, or bright country styles? An elegant, formal look
or something more casual?
To help your planning, you might want to see what others have done. You
can buy home decorating magazines, look at websites and catalogs from furniture
manufacturers and stores, go on showcase house tours, and visit open-house
events at houses for sale in your neighborhood.
Though seeing and reading are very helpful, you may want to turn to a human
being for suggestions and answers to your questions. One possibility is
an interior designer; see below for more on that option. Or rely on salespersons
at furniture stores. Our ratings of area furniture stores should help you
find sources for adviceand furniture stores that sell quality products,
deliver on time, and meet their obligations.
At some furniture stores, well-informed, helpful staff make shopping pleasant
and guide you to the right choices. Accurate delivery time frames are quoted,
goods arrive as promised, and store management makes sure you get the results
you expect. But subscribers send us an alarming number of complaints about
abysmal furniture-shopping experiences, such as the following
After waiting six months for our furniture, we canceled the order.
My furniture order was a disaster from beginning to end. Well, I shouldnt
say end since its not over yet. After mistakes in ordering and corrections,
one item still was delivered in the wrong fabric. The item was reordered
and I am awaiting the correct item.
Took my order for seven pieces of furniture, made me wait four months,
then told me they couldnt get it from the supplier! Yet they were still
selling it in their stores.
Call us crazy but weve bought from this company three different times
and delivery has been a nightmare each time. We love to shop here as there
is such a large selection. However, if you ever have problems, forget prompt
resolutions. The staff passes the buck, one to another, and the result
is that nothing gets done without the customer spending untold hours on
the phone or even going in person. To make matters worse, [the stores
management] just doesnt seem to care. Of the three groups of furniture
that we bought, each delivery was damaged and had to be reordered. Two
of those times we called to check on the new delivery date, only to be
told that the item had never been reordered. One item had to be redelivered
three times and we accepted it on the third try because my husband figured
it would be less trouble to just fix it himself.
Customer care department is a true misnomer. They have no interest whatsoever
in resolving problems with defective products even when they agree that
product is defective.
Sales associates are all over you...not a pleasant experience.
I cant understand how this guy manages to stay in business. He doesnt
stand by his commitments.
As you can see, there is a lot that can go wrong. See below for a summary
of the kinds of complaints we find in the reviews we get from surveyed
Fortunately, there are steps you can take that should help you avoid common
To get a perspective on stores service quality, we gathered ratings of
furniture stores by surveying CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers.
Our Ratings Tables show the ratings of area stores for which we received
at least 10 ratings. (For more information on our customer survey and other
research methods, click here.)
At stores rated highly for advice, you might expect to get helpful interior
design suggestions plus prompt and full answers to questions without over-heavy
sales pressure. Stores with high ratings for ease of looking at/testing
products can be expected to have well-designed showrooms that enhance
the value of a good sales staff.
Our Ratings Tables also shows customer survey ratings on reliability
(standing behind products, doing what was promised, etc.) and promptness
of servicetwo aspects of quality that could relate to serious inconvenience
or other problems. Some of the stores were rated either adequate or superior
for reliability by 80 percent or more of their surveyed customers, but
others received inferior ratings from 20 percent or more of their surveyed
For stores that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our
Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the
Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period.
You can check current BBB complaint information on any company by visiting
www.bbb.org or by phoning 508-652-4800. For any store listed on our
Ratings Tables, subscribers can click a link on the detailed ratings
page to go directly to the BBBs most up-to-date report on the store.
When using the complaint information, keep in mind that complaints are
not always justified; sometimes customers are unreasonable. Remember that
we didnt have a measure of business volume; large stores are more likely
to incur complaints simply because they serve more customers. Also be aware
that some stores may be at greater risk of incurring complaints than others
because of the specific types of business they do.
One major category of furniture-related consumer complaints is damaged
or defective goods. To avoid such problems, youll want to choose highly
rated stores and deal with them in a businesslike fashion.
Some product faults are apparent immediatelyscratched tables, poorly matched
upholstery, improperly shaped cushions. Others, like fading upholstery
or poorly glued chair legs, materialize only over time.
Except for makers of recliners, sofa beds, and other items with mechanical
parts, furniture manufacturers seldom offer warranties directly to the
consumer. Unlike televisions and refrigerators, new furniture doesnt arrive
with a warranty statement. Manufacturers do often make expressed and implied
promises, or warranties, to their authorized retailers, but even these
are not generally put in writing.
Manufacturers typically expect their retailers to be the point of contact
with the consumer. Retailers are expected to inspect items and arrange
for repairs. In many cases, repairs can be made by a retailers own service
department or an independent furniture repair shop working for the retailer,
which bills the manufacturer for repair costs. While local service obviously
is quickest and easiest for everyone, some items have to be returned to
the factory for repair or replacement. Many manufacturers have local representatives
whom retailers can call in to authorize repair or replacement in questionable
When furniture stores go out of businessa regular occurrence latelythe
more responsible manufacturers usually step in to back their furniture,
possibly arranging for another retailer or independent repair shop to make
repairs. If your retailer is still in business but unresponsive, the manufacturer,
to maintain its own reputation, might help you apply pressure on the retailer
or help you directlybut the manufacturer is under no legal obligation
to do so.
Most retailers offer their own standard warranty but, in our experience,
most do not put this warranty in writing.
Since customers seldom have legal rights against manufacturers, you need
a retailers warranty in order to have a legal leg to stand on. Even if
your retailer can recover repair or replacement costs from the manufacturer,
the retailer may be more interested in selling furniture than in following
through with needed service. Youll be more comfortable if you have a legal
basis for forcing action. Furthermore, not all manufacturers are equal,
and you may not know much about the reliability of the companies that make
pieces you like. So you want a retailer that will come through even if
it cant recover costs from the manufacturer.
Its very likely that you can claim an implied warranty of merchantability,
or possibly even an expressed warranty, based on something the retailer
has told you in person, or in its advertising, or based on a floor sample
youve been shown. But life will be simpler in the event of a dispute if
you received a written warranty.
If your retailer does not offer a standard written warranty, ask the salesperson
to write onto your sales ticket warranty language like that we give you
here. Or bring a copy of
that statement with you and ask the salesperson to sign it. When special-ordering
upholstered furniture, inquire whether the manufacturer guarantees that
the fabric pattern will match from base to seat to back (a point where
manufacturers often come up short). If it does, note this on the sales
Although we recommend getting your rights in writing, we feel less strongly
about written language on warranties than about other types of language
discussed belowbecause with furniture defects legal rights are not usually
the main issue. In consumer complaints concerning such defects, retailers
generally acknowledge an obligation to provide defect-free goods. Conflicts
usually arise over whether the defect is material, whether it was caused
by the customer, and how quickly the retailer should act on it.
There are several steps you can take to minimize problems
Inspect furniture when its delivered. If it is defective, it may be wise
to reject it. But if the defect is minor, you may be better off calling
the store to discuss it. Note the defect on the delivery slip; and thenwith
the stores approvalkeep the item until a replacement arrives.
If you discover a defect after delivery, notify the retailer at once. The
longer you delay, the more likely the retailer may claim that you caused
Communicate your complaints to the retailer in writing. If the retailer
is slow, youll have a record of how long youve been trying.
If a piece is defective but usable, and your retailer agrees to let you
keep it until a new piece arrives, be sure the retailer agrees in writing
to provide a replacement.
Take at least as great care to avoid the second major category of furniture-buying
problems: delays in delivery.
Delay problems occur most often when the retailer does not stock the furniture
you want and has to special-order it. When a special order is placed, the
manufacturer frequently does not have the item in stock and cant ship
until after the next production run of the item, described as the next
cutting. On top of this, there may be further, extensive shipping delays
because so much furniture is now manufactured overseas. For upholstered
furniture, along with waiting for the item to be made, you also suffer
additional delays waiting for the upholstering to be done and for the manufacturer
to obtain fabric from the fabric maker.
Although these delays are annoying, furniture manufacturers point out that
their product would cost more if they maintained large inventories of scores
of different models, or if they kept machines ready to make all models
on demand. Since youre not going to change the industry, you have to decide
whether you want an item enough to wait for it or whether youre willing
to accept what the retailer has in stock.
If you do special order, make sure you dont have a vacant spot in your
roomand your money tied upwhile the retailer sits on your order. Also,
if youve been promised delivery in three months but the wait turns out
to be twice that long, you want to know as soon as possible, not after
three months, when the item doesnt arrive. Most manufacturers send retailers
order acknowledgments stating estimated delivery dates within three weeks
or so of receiving an order; ask the retailer to tell you if the manufacturer
has promised a later date than you initially were told. Moreover, make
sure you can cancel and order something you can get sooner if the delay
will be substantially longer than the initial estimate. In short, you want
a retailer that
Gives you a realistic estimate of delivery time before you place your order,
Orders promptly and requests a delivery date from the manufacturer,
Lets you know as soon as it knows that delivery will be later than initially
Lets you cancel, if you wish, at the time the longer-than-estimated delivery
delay is discovered.
Most retailers say they follow these steps routinely, and no doubt many
do. But complaints weve received from our subscribers and that weve found
in the files at consumer agencies amply demonstrate that some dont.
To minimize delivery problems, get your retailer to sign a copy of the
second paragraph of the sales agreement.
It imposes on the retailer a legal obligation to follow a
reasonable set of steps to improve communication. Your retailer may react
with surprise at such a requestor perhaps suspect that youre some kind
of troublemaker. Dont worry; just press for a signature. If you feel awkward
doing so, say CHECKBOOK made you do it.
Of course, department and chain stores may be so bureaucratic that a salesperson
will be afraid to sign such a statement. If so, youll have to decide whether
to rely on the stores concern for its goodwill.
Although a retailers promise wont make good service happen, a few other
steps on your part will help.
First, make as small a down payment as possible. As codes i, j, and
k on our Ratings Tables indicate, some retailers expect you to pay
in full when you place a special order, and most expect partial payment
in advance when you place a special orderusually between 20 and 50 percent.
The less you pay up-front, the more eager the retailer will be to complete
Second, if you havent heard from the retailer three or four weeks after
ordering, call and ask whether the manufacturers acknowledgment has come
in and whether the initially estimated delivery date is still valid.
Third, if you are told of an unexpected delay and decide to cancel, notify
the retailer quickly so it can cancel the order. Once a manufacturer cuts
fabric or ships case goods, the retailer is obligated to pay for your merchandise.
If the retailer is on the line, it is likely to resist your efforts to
cancel and get your deposit backespecially if you clearly could have avoided
this trouble by promptly communicating your desire to cancel.
No matter how well a retailer and manufacturer do their part, you may still
dislike the furniture you get. This is a particular problem for special-ordered
merchandise. Some retailers will take back special-ordered items and sell
them as regular stock or clearance merchandise, but most wont. A returned
special-order item means a store is stuck with stocking an item it doesnt
want, doesnt have room to display, and cant easily sell to another customer.
But some stores will take back special-order items, as indicated on our
For items that you buy out of a stores current stock, returns should cause
no such difficulty. Our Ratings Tables show which retailers told us
they accept returns of regularly stocked furniture in original condition.
Keep in mind that furniture returns may be limited to a few days or weeks.
Also, some stores offer only store credit, and others charge restocking
If a retailer promises that youll be able to return an item, get the promise
in writing. Ask the retailer to write on your sales slip language similar
to the third paragraph of the sales agreement,
or bring a copy of that paragraph and ask the salesperson
Some stores are more flexible than others on payment arrangements. Almost
all stores accept major credit cards and some offer their own charge accounts
(open-end, revolving credit). Both arrangements offer flexibility on timing
your payments and, under the Fair Credit Billing Act, in many cases allow
you to refuse payment for unsatisfactory or undelivered merchandise. Other
stores offer financing through installment loans, promote special financing
terms under which interest is not calculated for a certain period or payments
are delayed, or have layaway plans. Unfortunately, store-sponsored financing
arrangements often impose very high interest rates.
A final service consideration is the stores convenience services. Our
Ratings Tables show which stores offer delivery services and repair
services, allow customers to special order from catalogs and select from
a variety of upholstery fabrics, offer soil and stain treatment for upholstered
furniture, and offer interior design services in the customers home.
One reason price comparisons are extraordinarily difficult in the furniture
marketplace is that many products are sold exclusively by a single chain
or only one or a few stores in any market region. Ethan Allen and IKEA,
for example, which are affiliated with one specific manufacturer or set
of manufacturers, dont carry lines made by other manufacturers, and dont
let other stores carry their lines. Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and some
other national chains and independent stores make price comparisons impossible
by altering brand names and styles from the names given by manufacturers.
At first glance, stores advertisements and price tags may appear to provide
a basis for price comparison. Tags often list a regular price, ticket
price, or some similarly denoted price, and then a sale or discounted
price. But comparing stores regular and discount prices is meaningless
because the concept of full or regular price means different things
in different stores. For many items, manufacturers dont state a list
price, and even when one is stated, few stores sell at that price.
Another problem is that many stores dont list prices on their websites,
forcing their customers either to visit the stores or to call for prices,
thus making price comparisons time-consuming. On our Ratings Tables,
we list the companies' websitesand indicate if the websites list prices.
The best approach to compare prices among independent stores is to conduct
a competitive bidding process. Although it might be difficult to find several
local stores that stock the exact item you want, stores that at least carry
the make may be able to order the item for you. Use the following steps.
First, get the make, model/style number, and fabric grade or number (for
upholstered pieces) from a store which displays the item. Some stores try
to mask the needed information; price tags contain a hodgepodge of numbers
and only include code numbers to identify manufacturers. Although these
stores make comparison shopping difficult, you can usually still identify
manufacturers. On upholstered pieces, look for tags under seat cushions;
on desks, dressers, and other non-upholstered items, manufacturers names
often appear inside drawers.
If you cant easily determine an items make, model/style number, and fabric
grade or number, ask a salesperson. If necessary, explain that you want
this information so you can compare prices. If he or she refuses, ask yourself
if you want to buy from a store that fears such comparisons.
As a second step, call the manufacturer or check its website to confirm
that it is still making the model/style you want. Then ask the manufacturer
(or check its website) for names of retailers selling its products within
50 or 100 miles of your home.
Third, call each retailer and explain that you are conducting a competitive
bidding process to get the best possible price on the item. Invite each
retailer to quote you a priceand be sure to ask about delivery costs.
If the prices quoted by other retailers are higher than the price at the
store where you started, you can be assured that the initial price was
good. If not, either buy from one of the other retailers or use their prices
to negotiate with the first store.
Unfortunately, this competitive bidding process may work only on moderate-
to high-priced items. In our experience, stores that sell budget or low-priced
items generally decline to bid.
When comparing local stores prices, be sure to take into account their
delivery charges. Different stores have different ways of calculating delivery
charges. Some charge a flat fee regardless of the number or size of the
items delivered; others charge per piece, per pound, or per hour; and some
waive delivery charges on large orders.
Our shopperswithout disclosing their affiliation with CHECKBOOKcalled
furniture stores, including some outside the area, to obtain competitive
bids for several items (including delivery). For most of the items we shopped,
we obtained dramatic store-to-store price variations, as shown on Table
1. For instance, we found prices ranging from $1,795 to $3,415 for a Kincaid
Gathering House wardrobe and $445 to $1,187 for a Hooker entertainment
console. But keep in mind that the stores that quoted the lowest prices
for specific items often had average or above-average prices for other
items that we shopped. If you will be buying several pieces of furniture,
dont assume that a stores low price on one item ensures youll get low
prices from it for others.
|Item||Low price||Average price||High price||Average price quoted by online/mail-order stores|
|Hooker entertainment console (64 inches) Avondale #249-55-458||$445||$849||$1,187||$923|
|Berkline #40007 queen sleeper sofa #7800||$885||$1,190||$1,754||$1,089|
|Kincaid Gathering House wardrobe #43-170||$1,795||$2,393||$3,415||$2,803|
|Broyhill Sedgemoor rectangular coffee table #3158-001||$310||$454||$645||$516|
|1 Prices include delivery and setup. Our shoppers called stores and explained they were trying to obtain the lowest possible prices for several furniture items. The shoppers asked stores to quote their best prices with the understanding that the shopper would buy from the store that quoted the lowest price for each item, and that stores would be given only one opportunity to quote their best prices.|
A much less precise way to choose a store that offers good value for the
money is to become a good judge of furniture quality by looking for the
kinds of quality features discussed later in this article, and then making
subjective judgments as to whether a stores prices correspond to the quality
of its products.
The customer survey ratings for prices, shown on our Ratings Tables,
are a compilation of subjective consumer judgments. Many of our customer
survey raters presumably have little or no expertise regarding product
quality and prices. But some no doubt do have a degree of expertise and
considerable experience in the market.
Several stores were rated superior for their prices by 50 percent or
more of their surveyed customers. Even for the stores that sell mostly
moderate- to high-priced furniture, our raters may have considered the
prices justified by the quality of the products sold.
Although the easiest way to get good prices is to go to competitively priced
stores, other strategies can help.
Wait for sales. If something you like is not on sale, you can often have
the salesperson hold it for youthen close the deal during the next sale.
Look for items on clearance. The prices may be terrific, but be aware that
clearance items are often sold as is. Inspect them closely for defects.
Try to negotiate prices. This may be difficult (though sometimes possible)
at department stores or chains, but independent furniture stores are often
responsive, especially if you agree to buy a number of items.
Consider buying through an interior designer. Although this doesnt usually
get you low prices, sometimes it mightparticularly if you can find a designer
who for a very modest charge will order for you and pass along his or her
discount. (See discussion of designers below.)
Whatever styles you want and prices you find, you will want to be sure
you get the quality you expect. By choosing a store that is rated high
for advice and reliability and has few or no complaints with consumer agencies,
you improve your chances that store personnel will give you honest assessments
of the quality and durability of pieces you are considering. But you will
benefit by knowing enough to make some assessments of your own.
Unfortunately, Consumer Reports does not (and could not possibly) rate
the quality of the many thousands of furniture items found in stores. So
you have to do your own product inspection and testing on the spot in each
store. Though you may not be able to afford the highest quality furniture,
youll need to know when youre getting less so that you can be sure it
is priced accordingly. The signs of quality described here may sound a
little abstract at first, but as you visit a number of stores and look
at many pieces of furniture, youll get a feel for quality. There are two
broad categories of furniture: upholstered goods and case goods. The
latter includes tables, desks, dressers, cabinets, and other items that
are not upholstered. Each category has its own indicators of quality.
Many signs of upholstered furniture quality are easy to observe. Indeed,
the most important indicator is your own comfortwhich you can test by
sitting on a piece for a few minutes. But to check some aspects of an items
underlying construction, youll have to ask your retailer for a manufacturers
catalog or other materials that describe, or show, whats inside (possibly
a cut-away model of a sofa or mattress).
Arms should not wobble when you shake them.
The frame of a sofa or loveseat should be rigid and not creak or sag when
you lift one corner off the floor.
The best frame construction consists of solid pieces of kiln-dried hardwoods.
The pieces of wood forming the frame should be joined with dowelswooden
pegs that connect pieces inserted into holes drilled in the end of each
Corners of the frame should be reinforced with corner blocks that are glued
and screwed into place.
Springs and Padding
The entire frame should be covered with padding so that you dont feel
hard corners on the arms, seat back, or front edge of the area under the
seat cushion. This padding contributes to both comfort and appearance,
and greatly reduces wear.
Padding should have no lumps or uneven places.
An excellent construction for the seat beneath the cushions consists of
hand-tied coiled springs. For the most firm and even response when you
sit, springs should be tied to each other eight waysthat is, with twine
tying each spring to the other springs or the frame in eight directions.
Although such construction is a sure sign of quality, there are other high-quality
Springs should not compress so much that you feel the hard surface of the
frame when you sit.
In the deck (the area beneath the seat cushions), springs should be covered
by a layer of padding.
Reversible cushionscushions that can be removed and turned overare best
because they provide a second surface if the first becomes dirty or worn.
The most common filler for high-quality furniture cushions is of solid
pieces of high-density (at least 1.8 pounds per cubic foot) foam. Springs,
down, and synthetic down-like materials also are sometimes used in high-quality
pieces. Cushions filled with shredded foam dont maintain their shape as
well and allow upholstery seams to shift.
The foam or spring core should be wrapped with a layer of polyester fiberfill
or similar product to soften edges and improve wear.
Beneath the upholstery, each cushion should be covered with a fabric liner,
Cushions should fit snugly side-by-side and within the frame.
The best fabric is tightly woventhe more threads per square inch the better.
Threads shouldnt slip or separate under pressure, and backing shouldnt
Woven-in patterns are generally preferable to patterns printed on only
one side. Printed fabric is unacceptable if the print comes off when you
rub two surfaces together.
Fabric pilling may be a problem if bits of fabric come loose when you rub
a piece of upholstery with a pencil eraser.
Treatment with Scotchgard, Teflon, or similar protectors helps fabrics
Look for upholstered goods with the UFAC tag, indicating that construction
and fabric meet the voluntary fire resistance standards established by
the Upholstered Furniture Action Council. (UFAC standards are designed
to reduce, but do not eliminate, the risk of cigarette ignition.)
Fabric should fit tightly around the underlying frame and padding.
Seams and welting (round trim composed of fabric-covered cord) should
be straight and cleanly finished, with no loose threads or irregularities.
Buttons should be securely sewn into place.
Better-quality cushions are zippered at the back (but dont remove the
covers, as this will ruin them).
Patterns and stripes should be centered and match at seams.
Patterns and stripes should line up from skirt to base to cushion to seat
back. If you are ordering custom upholstery, find out whether the manufacturer
guarantees such alignment; many middle- and low-end manufacturers do not.
Matching arm covers will add to the life of a piece.
It is somewhat easier to judge the quality of case goods than of upholstered
items because its easier to see how the items are made.
Drawers should fit snugly, and open and close effortlesslyeven when you
push or pull from the right or left end of the drawer. Good-quality drawers
have glides either underneath in the center or on both sides.
The sides of high-quality drawers are joined to the front and back with
dovetail joints (one piece fits into a series of flared slots on the other
piece). Avoid drawers in which the side pieces are just butted up against
the front and back.
Side and back panels of drawers should be of wood at least a half-inch
Drawer bottoms should slip into grooves in the drawers sides. The bottoms
should be strong enough that they dont give significantly when pushed
The insides of drawers should be smooth, with nothing to snag fabrics.
Dust panels between drawers are a sign of quality. Although many quality
pieces lack this feature, dust panels add strength to the furniture and
keep clothes from getting snagged.
Furniture should be constructed with stops to prevent drawers from being
accidentally pulled out too far.
Test drawers to make sure they are real, not false fronts.
Doors, Top Lids, and Flip Tops
Doors and other hinged pieces should swing smoothly and quietly, close
easily, and latch snugly.
Insides of doors should be finished.
Inset glass panels should fit tightly so they dont rattle.
Long cabinet doors should be hung on piano hinges that run the full length,
or nearly the full length, of the door.
Furniture should not wobble or rock.
Legs are usually stronger if built into the frame, not merely attached
In high-quality chairs, the arm and leg or back and leg are made out of
a continuous piece of wood (though this isnt possible with some styles).
Stretchers (pieces of wood connecting two legs near the floor) add strength.
The finish should feel smooth to the touch and contain no cracks or bubbles.
There should be no deposits of excess glue and no streaks or areas in which
excess finish material has collected.
Grain patterns and coloration should be similar on all drawers and doors
and should blend with other areas.
Joints should be tight, with no visible space or filler material.
Hardware should be substantial, have no rough or jagged spots, and be firmly
bolted from the inside.
In better cabinets, desks, and chests, the back panel is inset and screwed
into place, not just nailed or tacked on the back.
Joints that receive stress should be strengthened with corner blocks.
Dining-room table leaves should be easy to insert, fit flush, and match
the tabletop. If the table has an apron, leaves should have aprons.
Large pieces should be fitted with leveling devices.
Heres a summary of complaints we find in the furniture store reviews we
receive from surveyed CHECKBOOK subscribers.
Customer service/sales staffDissatisfaction with advice provided, attitudes
of staff, or responsiveness. Mentioned in 45 percent of complaints.
Delay in deliveryDissatisfaction with length of time to get the item(s).
Mentioned in 32 percent of complaints.
Received damaged or incorrect productItem delivered was damaged or flawed
or different from what was ordered. Mentioned in 28 percent of complaints.
UnreliabilityStore didnt address concerns or correct problems, had unsatisfactory
refund policies, or failed to keep promises. Mentioned in 24 percent of
Product qualityItem was inferior in quality or wore quickly, or rater
was generally dissatisfied with the quality of items offered by the store.
Mentioned in 10 percent of complaints.
Delivery qualityDelivery crew provided unsatisfactory service (including
damage to item delivered, damage to home, rudeness, etc.). Mentioned in
five percent of complaints.
VarietyDissatisfaction with variety of stores offerings. Mentioned in
five percent of complaints.
Difficult to view items/showroomDissatisfaction with store layout, display
of merchandise, etc. Mentioned in three percent of complaints.
If the job of decorating your homenot only with furniture but with floor
and wall coverings, artwork, and other elementsseems too big for your
available time, know-how, or artistic talent; if you want the benefit of
someone elses ideas; or if you want access to furniture choices available
through wholesale showrooms not open to the public; consider using an interior
You can use a designer employed by a store or hire an independent designer.
You can hire a designer for the whole job, from developing a design concept
to purchasing and supervising installation of the furnishings. Or you can
hire one for a two- or three-hour consultation to provide new ideas and
perspectives. But even if you hire a designer for the full job, you can
remain thoroughly involved. Youll need to meet with the designer regularly
to review plans, fabric samples, proposed furniture pieces, and other design
The cost of hiring a fully trained, independent designer to redo a living
room (including furniture plus design fee) is typically more than $20,000.
But it can cost considerably more or less depending on room size, quantity
and quality of items purchased, and other factors. Although some independent
designers wont accept clients who arent prepared to spend in this range,
others are willing to work with much more limited budgets, and most understand
that you might want a plan now while spreading out actual purchases over
Although some store-based designers offer limited service, some provide
fairly extensive service, including drawing floor plans, advising on color,
and ordering furniture. Different stores design departments use different
payment formulas. At some stores, you pay a small design fee, which is
returned in full if furniture purchases exceed a certain dollar amount.
You purchase items through the designer at the stores current prices,
including sale prices. At other stores, design departments may charge on
a per-hour basisor charge a flat fee for a consultation and additional
hourly fees for other tasks, such as writing up purchase specifications.
Stores may waive the fee if your purchase is large enough. Since arrangements
vary so widely, check with stores to find what services they offer and
how they charge.
Code h in the special services column on our Ratings Tables indicate
which stores offer in-home design services.
Independent designers also charge according to a variety of formulas. A
few charge no explicit fee but retain the difference between the discounted
price they pay for your furnishings and the retail pricetypically double
what the designer pays. More commonly, designers charge a flat fee or hourly
fee and may also collect a markup on the items purchased.
Because the client pays one way or another, we favor an arrangement in
which all or most of the designers compensation is based on a flat fee
or hourly rate. Such an arrangement makes the cost explicit, doesnt incentivize
the designer to encourage you to spend more than necessary, and avoids
the tension that might arise if you spend less than the designer anticipated.
Despite the discounts designers can get, buying through a designer means
you will probably spend more than if you bought the same products on your
own at one of the areas best priced storeseven if the designer charges
on a fee basis and passes along his or her discount.
To get the most for your money from a designer, choose the person carefully.
Start by soliciting recommendations from friends whose taste you admire
or from owners of homes whose furnishings you like when you take house
Also check for fellow CHECKBOOKsubscribers reviews of interior designers
in the Neighbor-to-Neighbor area.
You can also receive referrals from the American Society of Interior Designers
(ASID) by calling 202-546-3480 or visiting www.asid.org. ASID membership
is a meaningful credential. Full Professional Members must complete an
exam that lasts more than 10 hours and includes both written and practical
components. Before taking the exam, a designer must meet specified standards.
For example, one basis for eligibility is completion of a four- or five-year
college degree program with a major in interior design and two years of
Meet with any designer you are considering. Talk about your lifestyle,
needs, and tastes. If you dont feel comfortable enough with the designer
to talk about budget limitations and occasionally reject his or her suggestions,
then this is not the person for you. Ask to see samples of the designers
workeither photographs or, better still, the homes themselves.
Be specific about your total budget and discuss the designers fees. Its
reasonable to negotiate fees.
Finally, compose a letter of agreement spelling out your understanding
of the specific services the designer will perform (which rooms will be
furnished, whether shopping is included, and whether tradespeople will
be supervised), how fees will be calculated, and whether the designer will
retain any portion of the actual price paid for purchased items.
There have always been mail-order alternatives to local furniture stores,
and now most of those outlets have made a transition to the Web. The existence
of numerous out-of-town shopping options benefits you by pressuring local
independent retailers to keep prices down.
But do you want to buy via the Web? The only really compelling reason to
do so would be price. But as our Ratings Tables show, we routinely
found that our shoppers were quoted prices by local retailers that, on
average, were roughly equivalent toand sometimes less thanprices on the
Web when delivery costs were added. (Delivery from Web-based sellers often
costs $150 to $200 for large pieces; local stores generally charge less
than half of that, and sometimes nothing.)
Along with the lack of a price advantage, consider several other possible
There will always be a delay. Not only will shipping itself take time,
but there is usually a delay while the seller special orders your items.
Of course, theres also a delay on special orders from local retailers,
but many local stores stock substantial quantities of merchandise that
can be delivered in a week or less.
It may be difficult to prove you received a defective product to an out-of-town
Web-based store, since it probably wont have anyone in the area to inspect
the furniture. You can, of course, send pictures or call in an independent
appraiser, but it may be difficult to force a remedy. Because most Web/mail-order
companies do not have repair capabilities in the area, you may have to
pay shipping and give up the piece to have repairs made. (For minor repairs,
the seller might let you use a local repair service and bill the seller.)
And if you must go to court, youll probably have to travel to the location
of the Web-based store.
If an item is damaged, and an independent van line or freight carrier has
delivered the shipment, you wont know whether the carrier caused the damage
or it was present before the carrier received the item. If neither company
accepts responsibility, youll be left in the middle, trying to force one
or the other to make amends.
If there are long delivery delays and the seller wont return your deposit,
you might have to go to where the Web/mail-order outlet is located to sue.
Some Web-based stores offer delivery only via freight carrier. Goods might
be deposited in your front yard or driveway, leaving you to unpack them
and place them in your home. Many stores do offer white glove delivery,
which includes unpacking, assembly, and placement in the homefor an extra
If you decide, despite these possible disadvantages, to go ahead and order
from a Web/mail-order retailer, here are a few suggestions
Have your furniture shipped by a van line that will pack it blanket-wrapped
after the seller has inspected it and put it where you want it in your
homeassembling the items, if necessary. This way you can inspect before
Order from a store that accepts deposits of no more than 30 percent of
the purchase price when you place your order, and pay no more until the
store claims the item is ready to ship. The smaller the deposit the better
your leverage for prompt service and the lower your risk if disputes arise
or the company goes bankrupt.
Before submitting your deposit, send the seller a written notice that includes
the first two clauses of the sales agreement
(regarding warranty coverage and promptness of delivery);
have the seller sign both clauses and return the paper to you.
Pay by credit card. If there is a problem, youll have the option of disputing
the transaction with your credit card issuer.