Sofa buying guide

Sofa buying guide: How to make the right choice

A guide to finding the best style, ideal fit and comfiest seat in the house

By Caroline Rodrigues |

There are several ways to buy a new sofa. At the lower end of the price scale, a ready-made design can be on your doorstep within a few days. One-stop-shop major retailers offer a multitude of shapes, fillings, and fabrics to choose from, while high-end stores are the place to find more exclusive styles. And if you want something bespoke, there are smaller specialist companies that offer a tailored-made approach, which can be particularly useful if you have a need for a non-standard size. This sofa buying guide covers all the key aspects to consider before committing your cash.

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Select a style

First up, consider how you will use the sofa along with how you want it to look. Ideally you are looking for a style that suits your room while being comfortable to sit in, lay on – or both. A high scroll arm with a sprung back is formal and ideal for sitting in an upright position. Whereas a design with low square arms and a squashy, deep seat looks relaxed and is great for laying on.

A big sofa with several seats is good for cosy family evenings watching TV, but a pair of two-seaters facing each other might work better in a grown-up snug. Sectional sofas give you the option to adapt the design to your needs. They are bought seat-by-seat, bolt together as you wish, and can be assembled in L or U configurations.

‘You can add to them and reconfigure them as your needs change,’ says Sally Bailey, owner and co-founder, Baileys.

Roomy enough to seat four, this shapely sofa has a textured fabric cover, deep cushions and tapered pale oak legs. Novara Grand sofa in N136 fabric, from £2,450, Ercol

Measure up

Always measure your room carefully before starting your search. You could even place a sofa-sized paper template on the floor to give you a clear idea of which dimensions work best. Make sure that it won’t block routes across the room. This is particularly important in an open-plan space, so allow 60cm of clearance around the sofa.

It’s also vital to make sure the sofa will fit through any openings into the room. Measure doorways and, if necessary, staircases, and if access is tricky look at sectional options or designs where the arms and/or legs bolt-on after delivery. Sofa in a box companies such as Snug and Swyft provide designs that come in several packages to assemble at home.

Loft corner sofa in dark with ladders mounted on wall behind

The Loft corner sofa in Espresso linen, £4,900 from Baileys, has a sustainable FSC hardwood frame, supportive steel serpentine spring seats and cushions in fibre fill with a foam core

Try before you buy

It really is best to try out several sofas in store to get the seat depth, height and back support that works for you. If you want to sit, rather than lie down on your sofa, make sure your bottom is against the back cushion, your thighs parallel to the floor and your feet flat on the floor.

It might be possible to make small adjustments to the seat height by changing the legs or adding casters. Ask your supplier for advice. Otherwise, a bespoke sofa’s measurements can be tailored to suit your shape, but this comes at a cost.

Sofas with recliner seats let you stretch out and relax, and some adjust as you shift position: ‘The BalanceAdapt system, hidden beneath the sofa cushioning, tilts the seat and back cushion, responding to your body’s movement, while supporting your neck and lower back,’ says Anna-Marie Warren, advertising and brand manager, Stressless.

Leather sofa from stressless with footstool

Hidden within this Stressless Stella 2 seater sofa in Paloma copper leather sofa is a system that tilts the seat and back cushions as you move. £3,478 from Stressless

What’s the frame made of?

Top quality sofas have a hardwood frame, often beech, held together with dowels, screws and glue. Lower priced models are made of softwoods and wood composite materials that are glued and stapled together. Frames can also be made of metal. To get some idea of the sofa’s stability, grasp the back and arm and twist; checking that the frame doesn’t move – a sofa buying guide essential!

Higher price, traditionally made seat cushions include individual coil springs sewn by hand. But don’t discount serpentine springing and webbing since these are also used in quality and more affordable sofas. Traditionally-made sofas have padding layers of wool, hair, felt and cotton wadding, while synthetic materials are likely in mass-produced models. Seat and back cushions are either feather-filled, filled with a man-made fibre or with firm foam, which is often wrapped in a layer of feather or fibre for comfort and support. Feather cushions need regular plumping to keep their shape.

Devon two seater mustard sofa with scroll arm

The classically elegant silhouette has feather-filled lumbar cushions and pillow-style back cushions. Devon 3 seater sofa in Cognac smart lux velvet, £3,319 from Heal’s

Material matters

Linen is elegant, though it will crease, cotton is hardwearing and wool is cosy. Man-made fibres are strong and long-lasting, and are often blended with natural fibres, for a practical finish. Aniline leather is the supple but can mark easily, whereas semi-aniline will resist stains. Pigmented leather is hardwearing, and good for heavy use. Suede and nubuck are glamorous but they will mark, synthetic versions are a hard-wearing alternative.

An upholstery fabric’s durability is measured by the Martindale abrasion test. Something that can take 25,000 rubs before wearing away is suitable for family-use, or look for an ‘A’ rating for severe domestic use, on the label. Bear in mind, a velvet may show shading and that pet claws can pull at loosely-woven or boucle fabrics. If the sofa will be near a window, ask about the light-fastness of the fabric. And when supplying your own fabric check with your sofa supplier about fire retardancy.

large taupe corner sofa with multifunctional footstool that transforms into a coffee table

The Grand Designs Lambourne sofa is a sustainable modular sofa made from recycled and recyclable materials including plastic bottles and reusable high-carbon steel springs. £2,999 from DFS 

Freshen up

If you are concerned about keeping your sofa clean, there are designs that come with removable covers. Some have tailored covers with zips and touch-and-close fastenings or for a relaxed fit select loose covers.

Extra sets of tailored or loose covers can be ordered, either from the sofa company or from a specialist firm such as Send the existing covers by post and a new set will be made up. Companies such as Plumbs will visit you at home to make a template for new covers. To restore and reupholster, find a specialist at The Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers.

Cream wood framed sofa in panelled living room

The Clementine 3 seater sofa in Natural Belgium linen has an FSC-certified solid wood frame, sprung base, oak legs and a filling of polyurethane foam and silicone balls. £4,365 from Graham & Green

Ordering and delivery

Expect an eight to 12-week wait for a sofa made to order. But before you buy, check the guarantee; look for 10-15 years on the frame and springing. And, once again, measure up following the supplier’s guidelines to check that the sofa will fit through awkwardly shaped stairways. Always check the returns policy, especially if your item is being made to order, as bespoke items can’t be easily exchanged. Finally, if the company is disposing of your old sofa, make sure it will be done in a climate-friendly way.

This sofa has a frame in solid beech, back cushions filled with feathers and side/bolster cushions in foam and lumbar support. Larsen 2 seat sofa in Stone linen cotton, £1,490,