A How-To Guide for Buying Furniture

Updated: Feb. 08, 2024

Life is full of regrets. Don't let your next furniture purchase be one of them. Our guide to how to buy furniture can help you avoid buyer's remorse.

When I was eight months pregnant, my husband and I hastily ordered catalog furniture for our new house. We were looking for a fast solution we didn’t have to think too much about.

But in our rush to get the house ready for our baby, we forgot to think long-term. The furniture arrived before our daughter, but we didn’t like most of the pieces. And we were stuck with them!

Unless you’re just shopping for a simple nightstand or a shoe rack, chances are your next furniture purchase will be a major investment. The furniture you buy now will likely be with you for years to come, so it’s important to choose wisely. Consider quality, personal style and, of course, comfort and cost.

You may also want to consider sustainability and safety, since a lot of furniture is made from composite materials that emit harmful VOCs. We asked an expert for her tips on how to buy furniture you’ll love for years to come, until you’re ready for your next room makeover.

Set a Budget

Decide how much you can spend before you start shopping.

Nicole Regan, a design assistant at Doxa Home, a boutique interior design studio based in Tampa, Florida, says she advises clients to dedicate roughly 30% of the cost of their home to outfitting the interiors, from furnishings to artwork, light fixtures and other design elements. If your budget is smaller than that, you might need to acquire those quality pieces a little a time.

“If you’re on a limited budget, focus on foundational pieces first, like the bed for the bedroom, and the sofa for the living room,” Regan says. “No one wants to sit on an uncomfortable sofa!”

She says “case goods,” the industry term for non-upholstered items like coffee tables and end tables, are a good place to save.

Choose Your Style

If you’ve done any surfing on Pinterest or started to make a vision board for your new interiors, you probably have a good idea of your personal style, or how you envision the room once it’s finished.

“Clients usually come to us with their own aesthetic, and we work from there,” Regan says. “Some clients like more traditional pieces, some like more modern.”

She usually recommends a mix of styles and finishes to keep a room from resembling a time capsule, she says.

“I love mid-century modern chairs in a room with more traditional pieces, and we are always working to mix materials like wood, upholstery, and metal,” she says.

Mixing it up is a safe approach for several reasons, in part because it’s easier to change out a single piece if you tire of it, rather than a whole room. And you also avoid the monotony of a single style.

“A room with all exposed wood frame furniture can come across as rigid,” says Regan, “just like a room with too many slick or metal surfaces can come across as cold.” Looking for options? You must know about these different types of furniture.

Take Measurements

If you’re buying a single item like a sofa, you’ll of course go with measurements in hand, to make sure you purchase one that fits the space. But if you’re buying an entire room of furniture, you’ll need to consider not just room dimensions, but scale and traffic flow.

“We generally try to aim for 36 inches of walkway around large pieces of furniture like a sofa, or chairs at a dining room table,” says Regan. In the family room, Regan says smaller pieces like coffee and side tables should be tucked close to the seating arrangements.

“It’s a great everyday luxury for each seat in the living room to have a place for a drink and a reading lamp within arm’s reach,” she says.

Regan says when you go shopping, know your existing furniture sizes and as well as the room dimensions. “You’ll want your table heights to correspond to your sofa or bed heights,” she says.

“It is also very important to measure the size of your doorways before you make a purchase. No one wants to find out that their new furniture doesn’t fit through the door on the day of delivery.”

Consider Quality

The quality of the furniture you buy is almost always tied to your budget. But spending a little more on better-quality foundational pieces will save you money in the long run.

“We have a saying, ‘Buy once, cry once,’ ” says Regan. “If you buy the best quality furniture your budget can afford, it might feel a bit painful when you make the purchase. But if you buy a low-quality sofa and need to replace it every three to five years, you’ll cry over multiple purchases.”

Regan calls mortise and tenon joinery the “gold standard” in sofa construction, but it’s expensive. “If you have or find a used sofa made this way, and it looks worn out,” she says, “reupholster it!”

The majority of new wood-frame furnishings combine dowels and corner blocks. “Pay attention to the frame, suspension, and cushioning of home furnishings,” Regan says. “Classics can be reupholstered over and over again.”

And a material to avoid? “Right now, we’re seeing a lot of rugs made from viscose,” says Regan. “The rugs have a lovely sheen to them, but are nearly impossible to clean and stain easily. They’re generally thought of as disposable furnishings, and we do not recommend them to our clients.”

Online vs. In-Person Shopping

For all the obvious reasons, it’s best to “kick the tires” of new furniture before you purchase it. Test that sofa, mattress or those new dining room chairs to make sure you’re comfortable with them. “It’s best to see furniture in person before buying, ” says Regan, “but that’s becoming harder to accomplish in today’s world of online retailers.”

If you can afford an interior designer, they can guide you towards quality items that are right for you.

“They’ll ask questions about your lifestyle [kids, pets, etc.] and even your height, to select the best furniture for your family,” says Regan. “Great interior designers visit furniture retailers several times a year to see products in person, and can advise you when you’re not able to do so yourself.” Here’s some advice for navigating tipping for furniture delivery.

When you can’t shop in person and you can’t spring for an interior designer, consider limiting your online purchases to case goods, like small tables and accent pieces, which cost less and get less wear and tear. Otherwise, if you must buy a mattress or new couch online, pay attention to trial periods, warranties and money-back guarantees if you’re not happy with the product.

Furniture for House-Flipping?

If you bought that fixer-upper with a plan to fix and flip it, you might not need to include new furniture in your budget.

“In the United States, it’s not common for houses to sell fully furnished,” says Regan, who does not recommend purchasing furniture for a flip. Instead, she suggests hiring a professional house stager to rent furniture and interiors from instead of buying everything yourself. You can also try DIY staging.