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Home & garden.

6 September 2021

Sofa buying guide: how to buy the best 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.
Which? Team
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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.

Not sure where to buy a sofa? Find out which are the best sofa shops in our customer survey.

Sofa styles

Style is one of the most important considerations to make when choosing a new sofa. Almost half (49%) of the 2,900 Which? members we spoke to in our latest sofa satisfaction survey said that sofa style was important when buying a new sofa. 

When you're choosing a sofa style, think about what will suit the rest of your scheme, as well as what you like the look of. 

Sofas tend to fall into five main style groups - mid-century, Chesterfield, contemporary, traditional and country. The most popular style among the Which? members we surveyed was traditional – 40% of those we asked own a traditional-style sofa.

What is a mid-century sofa?

Characterised by clean lines, a boxy, streamlined shape, wooden angled legs and low arms, a mid-century sofa has a modern retro feel. It's a tailored look, rather than overstuffed.

What is a Chesterfield sofa?

With rolled back and arms, both at the same height, a deep, pinched button detailing and often made of leather, a Chesterfield sofa is a recognisable, grand statement and suited to a variety of interior schemes.

What is a contemporary sofa?

Modern sofas often have loose back cushions, one per section of seat, and straight arms that are the same depth. Metal feet are a common addition.

What is a traditional sofa?

Traditional sofas come in all shapes and sizes, however the most common styles, often referred to as a 'Lawson' or 'Howard', tend to feature rounded arms that are lower than the back and stop short, not quite reaching the front of the seat cushions. 

Feet tend to be turned (rounded), wooden legs and sometimes on castors.

What is a country sofa?

Sometimes called a 'Bridgewater', these country-style sofas have valances to cover the feet, low armrests and removable seat and back cushions.

Types of sofa back

Sofas are made up of different parts that determine the overall look and feel of the piece.

Get to know the different styles of arms, feet, base and back cushions and you'll begin to notice what elements you like in a sofa.

When looking at the silhouette of a sofa, start at the back and choose between a fixed, scatter or cushion back. 

  • Fixed back sofa The back frame of the sofa is sprung and upholstered, rather than using loose or fixed cushions. Offers smart, clean, more formal lines with easy maintenance. Tends to offer slightly firmer seating.
  • Scatter back sofa The upholstered back frame of a sofa is hidden by loose cushions to give a more informal style. Scatter cushions usually contain polyester fibre or a luxurious feather filling. 
  • Cushion back sofa The conventional sofa is the cushion back. Two or three boxed-sided cushions of an equal size will be placed across the back.

Types of sofa arm

The design of the arm can identify a sofa or chair as classic or contemporary.

Low arms tend to signal a more traditional style while higher, and usually slimmer, arms are often spotted on modern and contemporary sofas.

Some people enjoy lying and leaning on a low, flat arm while others prefer the support of something taller. Think about how you lounge on your sofa as well as what you like the look of.

From scroll to square, here are the four most popular sofa arm shapes.

  • Scroll arms Synonymous with classic sofas and chairs. Pleating and insert panels give a more traditional look.
  • Flared arms These generally flare outwards slightly from the base. Can take up as much space as a wide, square arm.  
  • Howard arms Classic style where the arm is low and stops short of the front of the sofa or chair.
  • Square arms The most popular shape for contemporary upholstery. 

Types of sofa leg

Legs (or feet) are so much more than support at the base of the sofa. Whether you pick a sofa leg as part of a bespoke design you're having built or you're looking at a ready-made style, the legs set the scene.

Adding new feet to an older sofa can instantly add a little boost to a dated design.

From elegant turned legs to contemporary metal ones, or no legs whatsoever, the choice of sofa leg will influence how the rest of the sofa looks. 

  • Glides No visible feet, designed to make the sofa easy to manoeuvre. They are incorporated into the design, often covered by a valance.
  • Sabred/splayed legs Curved wooden legs, usually tapered at the end. A traditional look.
  • Bun feet Round, shallow feet for a subtle, low-impact look.
  • Plinth Some sofas are designed to appear as if sitting on a platform – ideal for a streamlined appearance.
  • Turned legs A classic wooden style which is turned on a lathe to produce a rounded leg. This style is often found on castors, too.
  • Stiletto A very fine, thin, contemporary leg, normally made of metal for strength.

Ordering sofa swatches

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 (51%) 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.

Choosing a sofa fabric

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 2,900 who took part in our survey.

  • Leather (29%)
  • Cotton blend (21%)
  • Wool blend (11%)
  • Cotton/linen (9%)
  • Synthetic (7%)

We've summarised the key pros and cons of these and other popular sofa fabric types below.

Leather

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 blend

Cotton is extremely versatile, whether pure or blended. Cotton blend sofas are comfy and easy to care for, so it's no surprise that 21% 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 blend

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

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

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 fabrics

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. You'll need to treat it with care to keep it looking its best.

Choosing a sofa shape – from corner sofas to sofa beds

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 sofa beds, 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.

Two-seater sofa

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'). It’s the second most popular choice among Which? members - 34% of those we surveyed said they owned a two-seater. If you’re after something a bit bigger, most brands offer the same design one size up.

Three-seater sofa

Whether you want to fit more people or stretch out your legs, a three-seater sofa is the most popular choice of Which? members - 42% of those we asked own a three-seater sofa.

Four-seater sofa

Four-seaters are less popular with Which? members – only 3% of those we surveyed owned one. But they’re great for bigger families and larger rooms where smaller sofas might look a little lost.

Sofa bed

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.

Corner sofas / L-shape sofa

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’.

Chaise sofa

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.

Modular sofa

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.

Compact sofa

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.

How do you measure a sofa?

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. This is a common problem - 19% of our survey respondents who experienced sofa delivery problems told us they had trouble getting their sofa through the front door.

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.

Consider the filling

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.

Fibre

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.

Foam

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.

Feather

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.

Should you try a sofa before you buy it?

With more of us shopping online for anything from groceries to holidays, it might seem natural to buy a sofa online too. However, most people still prefer trying sofas out for comfort and quality before buying. 83% of the members we surveyed told us they tried their sofa out in a shop before buying it in-store. A further 7% tried their sofa in a shop, and then bought it online. 

Trying out a sofa is the only real way to know whether it’s comfortable. According to our members, comfort is the most important consideration when buying a sofa - 80% of those we surveyed put comfort at the top of their priorities. So, as beautiful as a sofa might look online, if it’s not comfortable, you’ll regret your purchase. 

If you can, it's a good idea to try out sofas in several shops to compare and contrast price, quality as well as comfort. Spend time trying different sofas out, even designs you might not obviously like, as you might be surprised by what you find comfortable.

If you aren’t able to visit the shop and test out your sofa before buying it, make sure you buy from a shop with a returns policy that allows you to return the sofa if you are dissatisfied with it when it arrives. Different shops have different returns policies, so check this before you buy.

Head over to our reviews of the best and worst sofa shops to find out the best places to buy a sofa, including details on their returns policies.

Top sofa styling tips

You may already have a specific style in mind, but if you need a little inspiration, here are some quick-trick style ideas to get the most from your sofa and the space it lives in.

If your living room is small, opt for low-back sofas to help give the feeling of more room. Slim legs and a gap between the sofa and floor will also help create the illusion of space. 

If space isn't an issue, then high back sofas look great in rooms with high ceilings. Modular sofas enhance open-plan rooms and offer flexibility, so consider a corner sofa with a removable chaise section or two.

A common mistake is squeezing a large sofa into a space that's too small for it. Let your sofa breathe by giving it the room it needs. 

Have a go at positioning your sofa away from a wall too; maybe try a sideboard behind it, filled with plants and lamps instead. Or turn your sofas around so they face each other in the centre of the room, rather than towards the television, to create a more social space. Don't be afraid to have fun and move furniture around!

After installing a new sofa, it’s important to ventilate the room. That’s because new furniture can emit harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs). See our guide to How to improve your indoor air quality at home.

Here are our top tips for keeping your sofa looking its best for longer.

  • Place sofas out of direct sunlight and heat sources to stop fading
  • Sofas should sit on a level floor to avoid rocking or frame damage
  • Avoid sitting on the arms of sofas to prevent distorting the upholstery
  • Sagging cushions accounted for 38% of the sofa damage experienced by the members we surveyed. Revive your cushions by plumping them regularly
  • Rotate seat, back and scatter cushions weekly to ensure even wear
  • Use a handheld vacuum cleaner and/or an upholstery brush to clean your sofa and cushions