smart spending

5 tips on buying furniture

How much do you know about the quality of the sofa you retreat to every night? Could you have paid too much for it?

People in the United States spent $61.1 billion on furniture and bedding in 1999, according to the American Furniture Manufacturer's Association in High Point, N.C.

Yet 67 percent of those who bought wood furniture -- and more than 80 percent of those who bought sofas -- had no idea what kind of quality they were buying, says Ron Bartkowski, president of Furniture Rep's Warehouse in Carol Stream, Ill.

"What they seem to do is buy for look, not for quality," he says. "It's the third most expensive purchase [people] make and yet they have little knowledge about it."

Since they don't know what they're getting, how can they know if they are paying a fair price for it?

It's nearly impossible to find information on the track record of a furniture manufacturer, and there are 350 sofa manufacturers alone.

"The consumers have to rely on the credibility of the retailer," he says.

Bartkowski says that for many years furniture building has been a mom-and-pop industry. Manufacturers will often change quality levels, and retailers won't tell customers.

To avoid overpaying for furniture, ask the right questions and brush up on some furniture knowledge. Here's what to look for:

Inspect the sofa's frame and cushions

When you approach the piece ask yourself if it will fit your home. Is it comfortable? "The more expensive the sofa, the better built it better be," Bartkowski says. He says there are four components to sofas: the frame, the spring system, the cushions and the tailoring.

If the frame is hardwood, ask if it's kiln-dried, which takes the moisture content out of the board. Bartkowski says kiln-dried boards last longer because changes in humidity don't cause them to warp, weaken and crack.

He says if you're paying more than $1,000, the sofa should have a five-legged frame. There should be a fifth leg under the center of the piece. He adds that legs built into the frame are sturdier than legs screwed into the frame. To check the quality of the frame, he recommends feeling the thickness of the board on the side of the sofa at the bottom. It should be 1¼-inches thick, anything less and it could squeak when people move around on the couch.

Pick up the seat cushion. "There is a correlation between weight and the quality. The heavier the seat cushion, the higher the quality," Bartkowski says. When it comes to the sofa's spring system, he says sinuous wire, or S-type springs, are the standard and should run from front to back. You should feel the springs when you push down on the sofa.

"The salesperson should be able to explain the springing system. That's the first question you should ask," he says.

Eye the tailoring

Also look at how well the sofa's fabric is tailored. To do this, he says check to see if the seams are even and if the piping (the tube-shaped edging) lines up.

For printed sofas that cost no more than $600, the pattern should match from one piece to another well enough on the sides and the front. But if your sofa costs more, expect more. An $800 sofa should come with fabric that matches in the back, on both sides and the front.

When you've found the ultimate in quality, the fabric pattern flows. Like wallpaper, it should wrap over the entire piece, including the back skirt. The pattern should start on one segment and continue on to the next, and there will be a seam in the center of the sofa's back. This piece of furniture will cost more than $800.

Ask if it's top-grain leather

When buying leather, it's important to listen to the sales person. If he presents it as a leather match or says it is leather-like, then it's not leather. The only way you can tell the difference is by looking at the base of the sofa to see if it's dyed all the way through, Bartkowski says. If you see white gauze backing, it's vinyl. He says leather-match sofas should cost no more than $800.

"There are unscrupulous retailers who will try to sell it for more and will get away with it," he warns.

Next, find out if the leather is top-grain. "Top grain is the absolute best level," Bartkowski says. Top grain leather sofas start at $1,000. A non-top-grain leather piece could be splits, which means the hide is split and another part of the hide, such as fatty tissue, is compressed and used. He says splits don't wear as well, and they need to be kept moisturized and out of the sun.

He also warns against leather furniture supported by lawn-chair strapping; they can sag over time. "You're sitting on a lawn chair with leather on it," he says.

Check the drawers and veneering

With bedroom sets, dining room sets, tables and the like, look at how all the pieces are proportioned in relation to each other. If you're spending more than $400 for a table, Bartkowski recommends looking underneath to see the quality of the wood.

On pieces with drawers, notice how they are hung. "If they are tilted, that indicates the quality of the manufacturer very quickly," he says.

Take out the top drawer and check to see if the inside feels rough. He says rough drawer interiors indicate a lower quality. And a better piece of furniture will have dust panels that stop you from looking through from one drawer to another.

Look at the corner of the drawer, and see how well the veneers match on the corners. Veneering is a synthetic process in which decorative woods are applied on top of solid cores of material such as, plywood, particle board or medium-density fiber board.

Bartkowski says most of the quality drawers are made with wood binders -- cheaper drawers use rollers. Looking in the upper left-hand drawer where the name of the manufacturer is stamped may give you a feel for the furniture's quality.

Even brand-name manufacturers sometimes use fiberboard or match board and cover it with paper printed with a photograph of a real wood finish. If you don't know what you're looking for, you can easily be fooled.

Find out who's the backing the warranty

Manufacturer's warranties on wood furniture typically cover splitting and cracking for one year. On upholstered furniture, the warranty covers the frame. He says better quality furniture will have warranties of up to five years on the spring system and cushions.

Bartkowski says consumers should look to see if they have a manufacturer's warranty or a retailer's warranty. If it says, "Only to the original address" in very small print at the bottom of the sales contract, your warranty will be void if you move.


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