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How to Buy Furniture for Your Home

We found out what Nesties wanted to know about furniture buying and got experts to answer their questions.

Q: What items should we invest in, and which ones should we just buy at Ikea?
A: “There are four key pieces you should invest in for every home,” says interior designer Vanessa de Vargas, owner of the Venice, California, home boutique Turquoise. First? A sofa. Not only is it often the very first thing you and others see when you open the door, but it gets used all the time, so you want something high quality. Next on her list: A dining table and chairs. Again, she says, you are eating every day, perhaps a few times a day on your dining table. And if you have children, lots of guests, or find yourself turning your table into a work station from time to time, you want something that will stand the test of time. The last two quality items you want go in the bedroom: “Invest in a great bed and mattress, do not go cheap on that” says De Vargas. “They do ridiculous payment plans with no interest these days, so there’s no reason you can’t create a quality bed.” Once you’ve got your basics, have fun with the extras, like a funky chair, coffee table, or lamps.

Q: How long should we expect our couch to last?
A: The general prognosis is about 10 to 15 years, says Sotheby’s-trained home shopping expert Jennifer Litwin, author of Best Furniture Buying Tips Ever. But it depends on how you and your family are using those couches. “If it’s your only couch and you’re laying on it every night, it’s going to wear faster,” says Litwin, who currently has couches in her house going on 10 years -- because she says, “we take really good care of them.” Here are some of Litwin’s suggestions for making your couch last longer: (1) Keep it out of the sun, as the sun will fade fabric couches, and suck the moisture out of leather ones, which can lead to cracking. (2) Keep the fabric of an upholstered couch clean and vacuum under the cushions, on the backside, and on the underside, as stains or lost Craisins can add to the wear and tear of the fibers. (3) Clean the couch legs. If they are metal, wipe them down with sudsy warm water, but avoid those alcohol-based spray cleaners, which can break down the metal or coating. “If they’re wooden legs, oil them to keep them in good condition,” says Litwin, “so they will be less likely to chip or crack.”

Q: Should we reupholster furniture from Craig’s List or just buy new?
A: “To decide whether to buy or reupholster used furniture depends on the quality of the wood with which they were manufactured,” explains Sergio Tinoco, founder of L.A.’s custom design company Designs by Sergio, which has done upholstering work for hotels and celebrity clients including Jennifer Garth and Noah Wyle (designsbysergio.com). “If it is an antique good quality piece, it’s better and cheaper to reupholster and refinish the piece, rather than buying a new one.” Generally, it’s also worth reupholstering if you’ve found a unique piece that you won’t find at your local Crate & Barrel. Whether the item is old or mass market new, consider the costs you may face: “Reupholstering a couch would cost about $800 to $1,600, and a chair around $150 to $300,” explains Tinoco, though that doesn’t include the price of fabric. “It does not matter if is a small chair or a big one, because it’s all about work. For example, an antique or carved chair that would be reupholstered would cost more because the upholsterer has to be more careful to not damage the wood frame while he is doing his job.”

Q: What do I need to know before buying a crystal chandelier?
A: Before getting mesmerized at the chandelier shop and losing all sense of size and practicality, measure the area where you’re planning to place the chandelier. “Ideally, you want it to be placed in the center of the room or area you’re using,” says Nadav Paskal, president of Expert Lighting in New York City, which installs and cleans chandeliers in high-end hotels and private residences. In a dining room, “you want 36 inches between the table and the bottom crystal of the chandelier,” explains Paskal. If that leaves you with, say 30 inches, between that point and the ceiling, your maximum chandelier size is about 28 inches high, to account for the canopy hook and at least one link of chain it will hang on. “In a hallway, you want at least seven feet from the floor to the base of the chandelier, in case a tall person is walking through.” In a foyer, place it as squarely in the center as you can, instead of trying to place it in the center of a particular doorway or window. “The chandelier is for you, not your neighbor,” says Paskal. As for the quality of the crystals, you pay for what you get. Great quality crystals -- they will look clear and reflect colors, not just white -- like Waterford and Baccarat will cost much more, compared to low quality like Chinese crystal, says Paskal. Next, choose one with a good frame. “Whether there’s crystal on it or not, the frame alone should look nice,” says Paskal, “so just imagine it on its own.” Inside your house, you can wire a small chandelier yourself, but make sure the size of the chandelier base you have will fit the hole in your ceiling; otherwise, call an electrician or contractor to install it for you. Finally, clean your chandelier once a year. “When you buy a Porsche, you keep the car clean or it will look like a Hyundai, right?” says Paskal. Professional cleaners like his use a special salt solution and hot water, and remove the crystals one by one. Whether you do this or not, “Don’t use Windex or chemical sprays,” says Paskal. “It’s fine for the crystals, but the alcohol in it will gore into the gold or silver pins holding the crystals on, and turn them black.”

Q: How do you buy dining room furniture?
A: “The best way is to go to a consignment store or auction,” says Sotheby’s-trained home shopping expert Jennifer Litwin, author of Best Furniture Buying Tips Ever, because you can find quality tables for less money than new ones. Why? “When people move, they either don’t want to put a nice table on the truck, or they want a new table for a new space. So they’re desperate to physically remove it.” That’s where the consignment store pickups come in. When it comes to the type of wood you want, consider that “darker woods tend to be harder and more solid woods than lighter ones.” As for the finish, she suggests avoiding tables with a too-high luster. “It’s hard to clean and it’s hard to prevent heat burns and cold burns that go through the layers of high luster on a piece,” says Litwin. When it comes to dining room chairs, be prepared to shell out. “Typically chairs are more expensive than the table,” says Litwin. To save money, consider the eclectic look of unmatching chairs: Pull some modern plastic or Lucite chairs up to a wood table; or, buy used chairs and paint them in a bright high gloss color. If you like the matching look, buy the table and chair “suite,” which will get you a slightly better deal. “The best time of year to buy dining furniture is after Christmas,” says Litwin, “when people aren’t entertaining as much.”

Q: When it comes to buying antiques, how can you recognize the good stuff?
A: The key is in the materials used for the item, and what condition the item is in. If you’re buying an antique, make sure the item, say, a dining hutch, is made of real wood, not wood laminate or wood-covered particle-board. If you’re not sure, pick it up: A quality piece should feel solid and heavy. The drawers should work smoothly, and be held together by a dovetail joint construction (notches of wood sliding into each other before being glued or nailed), rather than just glued. Finally, “inspect your pieces to see if there are things that are missing or need fixing,” says interior designer Vanessa de Vargas, owner of the Venice, California, home boutique Turquoise. “Then ask yourself: Do these flaws matter to you? Do you want to spend the investment having something repaired? Do you love the shape so much that you don’t care how much it will cost to reupholster?” For De Vargas, it’s worth doing the extra work to get a piece that will stand the test of time. “I like to buy something with great bones, that’s manufactured by hand,” says De Vargas. “A lot of the woods and materials that were used in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s aren’t used anymore -- they don’t make furniture like that anymore. You can pick up a vintage piece for $200, have it reupholstered, and you have a piece that will last you another 100 years.”

Q: What kind of coffee table will look beautiful and be kid-friendly?
A: In terms of kid safety, you want a table that will survive the “topple effect.” Meaning you should avoid big wide tops on a slim middle core. Be sure that if a child grabs an edge -- or, as kids will, tries to sit on it -- the table will remain balanced under the weight. So look for tables with four sturdy legs on the edges, or for tables that run from top to floor all the way around, like a solid ottoman. Also, choose a table with rounded edges. “Natuzzi makes beautiful white lacquer coffee tables that are so low to the ground, you don’t have to worry about them getting under it and nailing their head on the corner,” says new mom Susan, who lives in Battery Park City in New York. “And I have a circular table, so I don’t have to worry about the edges.” (Check out natuzzi.co.uk for styles.) Finally, consider the life of the table. Avoid soft woods that will dent, and glass tops that can either chip, or just leave you cleaning the dang thing 12 times a day thanks to one unstoppable kid feature: fingerprints.

Q: Our office is also our guest bedroom, so we’re considering a futon. Is there another less college-looking piece we can buy?
A: Ah yes, the futon. Sometimes you don’t want to live with ’em, but you can’t have guests without ’em. Luckily, furniture designers are reinventing the ’80s creation into sleeker and more modern designs, along with renaming them into things like sleeper sofas and daybeds. “I think for a young couple starting out, versatility is key,” says Sotheby’s-trained home shopping expert Jennifer Litwin, author of Best Furniture Buying Tips Ever. Some of the best sleeper sofas allow you to recline in multiple directions, and order the item in beautiful fabrics. One of Litwin’s favorites: “Ligne Roset makes great quality furniture, including a sofa bed that opens left, opens right, and bends back. It’s not inexpensive,” she warns, “but I rated it as the best in the premium category.” She says Innovation also makes a versatile futon that can carry you through the years and multiple locations. And if you want your futon or daybed to look like nice furniture, treat it like nice furniture: add pillows in gorgeous fabrics or a cashmere throw over the back.

Q: What does custom shelving cost?
A: “The best custom shelving for books is made from real wood, which is solid and strong, but will cost more and add to the value of your house,” says custom woodworker Marius Tudor, owner of Modern Marvels in Atlanta, Georgia. The alternative is materials like the now oft-used MDF (medium-density fibreboard), which is basically a synthetic wood material made from tiny chips of wood hot glued together, to create a heavier and more dense product than particle board. When choosing the material, woodworkers will divide them into the more expensive “stain grade” (the best quality and appearance) and “paint grade” (which can be lower quality since you’ll be covering it up). The cost of custom shelving overall varies, but is priced by the linear foot, which is presumed to be about three feet high. Tudor says, “even a paint-grade MDF will cost $95 to $200 per linear foot.” He estimates, for example, that a 12-foot-long library wall with just shelves and a four-foot doorway starts at about $2,500 for paint-grade material and goes up from there for higher end materials and details. If you prefer the look of stained wood, Tudor says you can ask for stain-grade material in the places that show -- like trim, doors, and panels -- and use cheaper paint grade or MDF in the hidden areas. Want the look of custom shelves for a much cheaper price? Just buy standing wooden bookshelves (or have them custom made to fit a space), “and anchor them to the wall with L-shaped brackets in a hidden spot,” suggests Tudor.

Q: How can I tell if the upholstered couch I like is good quality?
A: First and foremost, pick up a corner of the couch; it should be heavy. “Good upholstered furniture is heavy because the quality products and techniques cost more,” explains Sergio Tinoco, founder of L.A.’s custom design company Designs by Sergio, which has done upholstering work for hotels and celebrity clients, including Jennifer Garth and Noah Wyle (designsbysergio.com). “If the furniture is weightless, it’s a sign it is made with low quality materials and wood.” Next, ask or do research to find out what wood was used to make the frame inside. “The best is the kiln-dried hardwood frame, which is pliable but sturdy, and won’t fracture easily,” says Sotheby’s-trained home shopping expert Jennifer Litwin, author of Best Furniture Buying Tips Ever The hardwoods of choice, adds Tinoco, “are alder, maple, oak, walnut, and mahogany.” Third on the list, check the fabric. Most important is that the fabric is double-stitched. Then, “Make sure the fabric goes all the way down the inside back of the couch, rather than just halfway and then covered by pillows,” says Litwin. “Over time, the staples become undone and loose, and the fabric will get more ratty looking.” Even better? Where the fabric meets the wood or metal legs, “look for welting or piping there, which protects the fabric so it doesn’t pull and remains in place,” says Litwin. And finally, ask if the couch legs are hot-glued to the base—believe it or not, you want this. “Screws and nails can come loose,” says Litwin, “so it’s important to have a hot glue attachment to the base.” Who knew?
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-- Amy Spencer

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