Choosing a sofa
How to buy a sofa: step-by-step
By Rachel Christie
Article 1 of 3
How to buy a sofa
Sofa, couch, settee – whatever you call it, it’s the focal point of your living room and the place you'll relax and unwind – so it’s worth getting right.
Buying a sofa takes time and consideration. You need to pick a style that suits your living space, a colour you love, a material that lasts and – after all that – it has to actually fit through the front door.
Get to grips with the various sizes, fillings and finishes before you part with your cash. A new sofa doesn’t have to be expensive, but while there are some things you can skimp on, there are other areas in which it will pay to splash out.
This back-to-basics guide focuses on:
Not sure where to buy a sofa? Find out which are the best sofa retailers in our customer survey.
Before you decide on a colour and fabric, order several swatches of a variety of fabrics you’re interested in. More than half of all Which? members surveyed owned their previous sofas for more than 10 years, so it's definitely worth taking the time to choose a colour you like.
Swatches are usually free, so it's best to get hold of a range of different options. Seeing a picture of your chosen fabric just isn't the same as touching it yourself and looking at it in different lights.
Live with the swatches for at least a few days. Look at them in natural and artificial light, to see how they'll look at different times of day. You could even splash some food or drink onto them to see how well they clean up. And, if you're worried about pet scratches – particularly cats – let them claw at the swatches to see how the fabric holds up.
Whether you go for soft leather or a relaxed-look linen, the fabric your sofa is upholstered in will set the tone for your living room.
For everyday seating in a room you use a lot, you might prefer a hard-wearing man-made fabric with stain protection treatment. Good-quality leather is also a durable choice.
Man-made fibres tend to be the most durable – textured flat weaves in particular are among the most hard-wearing and family friendly, as they’re more forgiving of stains and less likely to snag.
Popular sofa fabrics
Here are Which? members' top five sofa fabrics, according to more than 1,800 who took part in our survey.
We've summarised the key pros and cons of these and other popular sofa fabric types below. Or if you need a little inspiration, head to our guide to choosing a sofa style to take a quiz on which sofa style would suit you best.
A natural leather sofa will stretch and crease with age and regular use, softening the shape and feel. Any scuffs or marks will only add to its character.
As well as being soft, leather is durable and strong; a real leather sofa will hold up well to everyday use. To clean leather, just use a slightly damp cloth.
A real leather sofa usually costs double the price of a faux leather one, but it can last up to four times as long.
On the downside, leather sofas can feel chilly to touch when you first sit down in the winter and will get hot and sticky in summer.
Cotton is extremely versatile, whether pure or blended. Cotton blend sofas are comfy and easy to care for, so it's no surprise that 18% of the Which? members we surveyed went for a cotton blend sofa.
You'll get a wide range of colour and pattern options too.
Wool brings texture and warmth, and is naturally soft. When it's brushed, a wool blend sofa will have a felted look and feel.
Any wool blend will naturally develop piling and bobbling, so will need a little upkeep.
Cotton linen sofas tend to look casual and relaxed. They have natural creases that will soften over time.
Like wool, the surface can start to fuzz or ‘pill’ over time in places where it's regularly in contact with the fabrics in your clothes.
Woven fabrics are particularly durable, so they're a good choice if your sofa is likely to be clambered and bounced on regularly by children or pets.
Tough, tightly woven flat weave looks like cotton and is made by combining natural cotton with manufactured fibres to make it really hard wearing.
Woven fabrics hold their shape well, so you'll often see them on sofas with a more rigid shape.
Velvet is having a resurgence at the moment, so it's an on-trend choice. It's soft to the touch and gives depth to flat colour.
However velvets can develop natural lines, bruises and shading over time. Plus, velvet is uncompromising when it comes to spills; so you'll need to treat it with care to keep it looking its best.
Once you've ordered a few samples and narrowed down your fabrics. It's time to work out what size and shape sofa will fit and suit your space.
From elegant chaises longues to practical sofabeds, sofas come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Whether you get to enjoy your sofa all to yourself, have to fight for the best spot with a large household or share it with a beloved pet, how you use it will influence the size you choose.
But to get it looking just right in your room, you'll need to be realistic about the space available,too. A small sofa looks out of place in a large room, while a large sofa squashed into a tight space will feel claustrophobic.
Think about how you prefer to sit when you're relaxing. If there are two of you and you both like to have your legs up, then make sure the sofa is deep enough to accommodate you both. If not, you might need a sofa with chaise end or a reclining sofa.
If you like to lie down on your sofa, measure up to make sure it is long enough for you to stretch out. And, if you're tall, a sofa with a higher back will give extra support so that you're not forced to slouch.
Great for smaller spaces, two-seater sofas simply have two seat and two back cushions (or the equivalent space if your sofa isn't divided into separate 'seats').
If you’re after something a bit bigger, most brands offer the same design one size up.
Whether you want to fit more people or stretch out your legs, a three-seater sofa is the most popular choice of Which? members.
44% of those we asked own a three-seater sofa.
Sofas with a tucked-away foldout bed underneath, adapting to sleep guests.
The quality of sofa bed you'll need will depend on whether it's intended to be used regularly or just every now and then. The structural difference tends to be the quality of the mattress, the suspension of the foam and the filling.
Great for those with large living rooms, a corner sofa includes two sections of seating, forming a right angle and both parts have back rests. The overall shape resembles an ‘L’.
Usually a three-seater, with one elongated seat section to support extended legs. Unlike an L-shape sofa, the backrest doesn't continue around the corner.
A sofa-length seat that has a sofa back and arm at just one end. Ideal for nooks not quite big enough for a sofa or if you're going for an elegant feel.
Great if you want to adapt the shape of your sofa. Modular sofas come in sections and can be put together any way you choose.
Modular sofas are perfect if you're after a more bespoke feel or if you want to start small, but change and grow your seating space over time.
Also known as a love seat or snuggle seat, a compact sofa falls between an armchair and a two-seater sofa in terms of size. It's characterised by a single seat cushion and single back cushion.
It might seem obvious, but always measure the space where your sofa is going to go carefully. There’s nothing more annoying that going through the process of choosing a sofa, having it delivered and then finding it doesn't fit. If it's being delivered pre-assembled, make sure you measure up your door frames too, and allow for any tight angles. If it doesn't fit through the front door, you'll be heading back to the drawing board.
A quarter of our survey respondents who had sofa delivery problems had trouble getting their sofa through the front door. So measure, measure and measure again!
Sofa measuring tips
- Mark out the sofa’s dimensions on the floor using newspaper, or mark your floor with masking tape to get a more realistic feel of how much space it will take up.
- Leave yourself enough room to walk around the sofa comfortably, and make sure the arms won't get in the way of anything, such as a door opening.
- If you're buying an extendable sofa, make sure you measure your space at the full extended size before you buy, as well as its standard position.
- Ensure furniture will fit through doors and hallways when it's being delivered. If it looks like it will be a tight fit, choose an option that’s partial or full assembly or that has removable arms.
- If you think your delivery van might struggle to find a parking space in front of your house, consider asking neighbours whether they’d mind moving their cars that day.
The stuffing of a sofa is often overlooked in favour of shape and size when it comes to buying a new sofa. Picking colours, patterns and shapes is far more fun than thinking about what's inside!
However, it's very important to think about the filling. Ultimately, you'll be sitting on your sofa for many hours, days and years to come, so getting the filling just right will impact how comfy you find your sofa to snuggle up on.
The main three sofa fillings are fibre, foam and feathers.
If you like your sofa to feel like it's giving you a big hug at the end of the day, fibre could be for you. Crafted from man-made polyester hollow strands pumped full of air that compress and expel air as you sit, fibre gives a soft, relaxed feel and a plump appearance.
A fibre sofa requires a fair bit of upkeep to preserve its appearance, so plumping and turning cushions every day will maintain the feather like feel.
A common sofa filling, foam provides the firmest support and a more structured appearance. Foam cushions are supportive and helpfully spring back into shape the moment you stand up.
Foam sofas keep their tailored shape over time even with constant use and require very little maintenance. Occasional cushion turns will ensure the sofa wears evenly.
Foam fillings vary in density and determine the firmness of a sofa. A higher-density foam will better maintain its shape.
All new foam loses about fifteen per cent of its hardness over the first six months of use before it stabilises. This means that a foam sofa may initially feel a little firmer than it might have done when tried out in store.
Expect a foam sofa to slowly lose a little volume in time.
A feather-filled sofa invites you to sit down and sink in. Natural, luxurious and comfy, feather is a popular choice.
Like fibre, feathers provide a softer, less structured look than foam.
However, that sink-in feeling comes at a price; cushions will need regular plumping and turning to keep their generous rounded look and soft support.
A hybrid of all fillings is becoming more popular. Feathers on their own can clump together, so feather is often mixed with foam to create a dreamy sofa to sink into. On the other hand, feathers can be combined with fibre to give cushions a little extra resilience.
Try before you buy
With more of us shopping online for anything from groceries to holidays, it might seem natural to buy a sofa online too. However, it’s still worth testing the sofa out for comfort and quality in store before you type in your credit card details.
As beautiful as a sofa might look, if the arms are too low or the sofa cushions are too firm, you’ll regret your purchase. Spend time trying different sofas out, even designs you might not obviously like, as you might be surprised by what you find comfortable.
It's a good idea to try out sofas in several shops to compare and contrast price and quality. Head over to our reviews of the best and worst sofa shops to find out the best places to buy a sofa.