Shopping for furniture: a twofer

By Mir
October 31, 2006

I’m pretty good about tagging my email appropriately when it comes in, but sometimes I miss something. So if you send me a question and a lot of time goes by? You might want to send it again. I just realized I never answered this one, for example:

Dear gorgeous, smart, practical Mir,

My husband and I built and moved into our dream house almost a year ago. We have waited and waited to purchase new furniture. I am paralyzed with fear. How can I be sure I’m not getting ripped off? How can I be sure I’m buying quality furniture? We need a couch, entertainment center, and formal dining table, chairs, and china cabinet. Do I buy from a chain store like Haverty’s or do I try to go a big furniture outlet?

Do you have any suggestions? Thanks so much for trying to tackle this.


Dear Micki: Probably you have not only bought your furniture by now, but moved several times as well. I’m sorry I missed your email before. Please forgive me, because you are so pretty.

Also, I then got this email:


I have nearly mastered shopping for a bargain, but I still stumble when it comes to furniture purchases. I look and look, but I usually end up paying full price. That being said, I do end up with relatively nice furniture that lasts for an extended amount of time. Sooooo my question is regarding children’s furniture. Yes, you want it to last more than a few months, but it doesn’t need to last 15 years. So where do I find a sturdy but not ridiculously priced bed (with a trundle) for my 4 year old? Any ideas on where to start the search?


So let’s talk about the furniture thing.

Also, let’s work backwards. Jennifer, take a look at this trundle bed from Ikea. The price is certainly right.

There are as many different levels of furniture-buying as there are flavors of ice cream. You have to know what you want, how much you’re willing to pay, and what quality level is sufficient for you. Ikea is going to have lots of relatively sturdy but fairly cheap options. So, for example, it may be the right place for Jennifer but not for Micki. (But I have some friends who have this sofa and I never would’ve guessed it was from Ikea; it’s really nice.)

(Let’s pause a minute and check back to see what I’ve said before, both because I can’t remember and because maybe I said something useful. Ah, yes. I’ve written about bookcases once before and about beds twice. So refer to those posts if that sounds interesting. Or don’t.)

if late-dorm-room is an acceptable look to you, Ikea or Target are fine. Up a notch from there is the large chain department stores, like Sears or JC Penney. They’ll have a mix of particle board type things and slightly nicer “real” furniture. They often have sales, so if you time things right you may get a bargain. (The online outlet at Penney is a favorite of mine for furniture that needs to not come in a box from Target but needn’t be suitable for impressing royalty, plus they often have coupons.)

Then you have the furniture stores—chain or not—that crowd the suburban countryside. How do you know if you’re being ripped off? Well, know your store. I think I mentioned a local New England chain in one of my previous posts (Jordan’s Furniture) where there are no sales. The price is the price. On the upside, that’s less stressful than negotiating or finding sales. On the downside, they don’t carry cheap stuff. If you want a fair deal on good stuff, they’re the right kind of store. If you want a fantabulous deal on some maybe-not-so-high-end stuff, they’re not the right place.

The kind of stores that scream “Sale! Sale! Sale!” all the time might yield a good deal, but it’s going to take a lot more vigilance on your part. And these are not the kind of places that will have really high-quality pieces. But maybe you don’t need the best of the best, and a good price on the mid-level will suffice. Only you know.

Let’s run down the typical pieces and how you decide on quality level.

Beds. I’ve talked about this before; I will always choose a high-quality mattress and boxsprings over a pretty bed frame. A bed frame is nice, but it’s a luxury. And unless you’re doing things on your bed that I really don’t want to know about, it’s not an item that will need to stand up to a lot of wear and tear. The exception to this is a child’s bed, which will need to be fairly sturdy, and in that case you need to decide between “good enough for now and disposable” and “heirloom quality and I will cry if Junior paints on it.” (For a nice bed frame for not a lot of cash, I’d suggest browsing Overstock.)

Couches and chairs. I don’t believe in skimping on the furniture you’ll be lounging around on. I’ve found the Ikea stuff to be pretty comfortable despite the low price point, but I’d recommend against outfitting your family room with Target furniture. Cheap furniture will get lumpy and misshapen in a hurry. Want to save on a higher-priced model? See if furniture stores near you have a “scratch and dent” or otherwise marked-down area. Sometimes you can get a couch that has a big snag on the back of it, say, and since you’d be putting it against a wall, you don’t care.

Formal dining. This depends a lot on how often you plan to use it. It doesn’t make any sense to buy cheap, crappy furniture for your formal room, but on the other hand, you probably don’t need a set gilded in 24k gold if you’re only going to use it once a year. Go out and browse, get an idea of prices, and then decide what makes sense to you to spend on such things.

Casual dining. I had a cheap kitchen table for years and it drove me insane. It warped, it didn’t close properly around the leaf, the chairs bowed—you get the idea. I now have a solid oak table that more or less stands up to everything the kids dish out and I love it. We spend a lot of time at that table. I did buy it on sale, but it wasn’t overly cheap. And I’d do it again. For many of us, the kitchen table is the heart of the home. (I cannot believe I just said that. Do I have to go churn some butter, now, that I’ve turned myself into a parody of a homemaker?) You probably want something that’s going to stand up to some abuse.

Entertainment centers and desks. These are two items where I feel compelled to break the “no particle board” rule, but with a caveat. Solid wood entertainment centers and desks tend to cost thousands of dollars. If you can afford that, good for you. I can’t. But there are varying levels of kits and the quality is not the same across the board. So, yes, buy a kit and put it together yourself to save some money, sure. But make sure to buy a kit of a high enough quality that it’s not going to fall apart. If you have a big television or a lot of computer equipment, you can’t buy the $150 special and call it good. Sauder makes some nice higher-end pieces (available at Sears and some office supply stores), for example. This is where it’s useful to actually walk through a store and touch the display models; sometimes, they’re falling apart even standing there empty. Buyer beware.

Lastly, you know I can’t get out of this discussion without suggesting you look secondhand. While it’s unlikely you’ll turn up a gem at your local Salvation Army (though you might!), if you have a high-end consignment store in your area, you may find the piece of your dreams for less than half what it would cost new. (I’m not sure I could buy a couch on consignment, not knowing where the cushions had been, personally, but a dining set? Or an entertainment center? Sure.)

I hope that helps, ladies!


  1. If you want really well-constructed furniture, have the significant cash to pay for it, but don’t want to get ripped off at the local Ethan Allen (or whatever), make a special trip to North Carolina. Pick it out at one of the myriad furniture makers and arrange for it to be freighted to you.

    I’d only do that if I had a lot of furniture to buy, but you save big eliminating the retail markup.

    On the other hand, IKEA is fine for a lot of durable, but not fine, furniture needs.

    Also, there’s a lot to be said for modular furniture such as the Skandia stuff at Container Store (sometimes found on eBay at a fraction of the new cost) along with things made with pine, but finished nicely. Pine’s not a good choice for a table, since pine is soft, but with a good finish, it’s strong and attractive, especially if you like lighter-color furniture. (Pine doesn’t take stain particularly well.)

    Just FYI.

  2. You might also look at resale stores (not just thrift stores, but more upscale consignment stores). My mom has found tons of really nice furniture from these types of stores. Yes, some of the stuff looks “used” but that’s not always a bad thing (A beautiful wood dining table that looks like it’s been ours ,but we’ve had for about a year, fit our home better than a shiny, new table would).
    We’ve also gotten some great furniture from estate sales (some antiques, others just good quality brands for cheaper)- but those you have to really work for (not ideal if you need something fast, but good if you have time to look).

  3. Here’s a few more possibilities:

    Find an upholsterer first (this makes you braver), and then hunt the estate sales/flea markets/secondhand stores for nicely made and shaped furniture with terribly ugly fabric. You’ll get it dirt cheap, and then can spend your money on a nice reupholstering job. Sometimes you may find something with good, neutral fabric and not even need the upholsterer. Stuff made in earlier eras is about a thousand times better made (down stuffing, hand-tied supports, etc) than current-day furniture of a similar price range. Also, old ladies hardly ever used their formal living room furniture, so there’s still plenty still around in good shape. Plus, that midcentury look is really hot right now, so you’ll actually have HIP well-made furniture.

    (When you read your decorating magazines, you’ll notice that lots of those homes are filled with bargains found like this– it helps make a home unique and fascinating, in my opinion. Our visitors are always asking me where I find my stuff.)

    I found a great brown leather couch at Sam’s (wholesale club) that was their display model– the last remaining of the model. It had a few scratches on it that (nearly)disappeared with a little leather oil, and I paid $350 for it.

    (Like Julia, I’m all for buying the used or slightly scratched furniture. After all, my family’s going to use and scratch it– and the more pristine I want to keep something, the more likely it is to get damaged. Why buy yourself expensive stress?)

    Find local craftsmen– the Amish, a local woodworker, an old hillbilly on a mountaintop that makes wooden chairs (yes, I have my own chair hillbilly). I’m talking about individuals, not commercial storefronts. They can make you things and sell them without the markup you’ll pay in the stores. Word of mouth is about the only way to find these people, as they never advertise.

    Look for a model-home furniture store. Like consignment stores, but they sell furniture and decor that’s been used in model homes in housing developments. (=not really used at all)

    Finally, for small items like end tables, find things that weren’t originally created for that purpose and recommission them. I have a wooden “raccoon box” from a Louisiana farmer’s barn that I stained with linseed oil and topped with glass to be an end table. It holds a ton of games and looks great. A stack of vintage suitcases has been overused (by those magazines), but looks great as a bedroom end table. Old windows can make some beautiful fronts for simple wooden frames to make great bathroom storage (again, that carpenter friend of yours can come in handy).

    Creativity, giving up the matchy-matchy room look, and taking your time to find items as they come to you are key. If you’re in a hurry, though, lots of the furniture stores are willing to negotiate lower prices for you if you buy multiple pieces with cash.

    Hope something in there suits somebody– I sure spent too long on this!

  4. We are big Ikea, side-of-the-road & PB fans but my SIL & BIL are not. They are attracted to overpriced formal stuff that no one is allowed to sit on. BIL is a big bargin hunter and has found several greats deals in the newspaper. The last bargin he found, a 14pc formal dining set, came from a household that was downsizing and cutting out to Fla. He not only got a great price but while he was there he was able to pick up several other pieces that he didn’t know he needed!

  5. We live in a 4-bedroom house and have very little furniture that was purchased at traditional retail stores. In fact, it would be fair to say that the items we DID purchase that way haven’t held up any better than our alternative finds.

    For case goods (bookcases, armoires, dressers) check unfinished furniture stores. Depending on your budget, you can finish it yourself (simple but somewhat time-consuming), or, most of the time, the unfinished furniture store will finish it for you for a fee. These stores are a great resource for learning to finish furniture.

    For upholstered items – well, when we purchsed this home I did my research on leather furniture and visited a number of furniture stores to examine and sit on leather sofas and chairs. Then we special-ordered several items online. Do a search for “Italian leather direct” or “Barcalounger discount” and you will find a number of sources. Most do not list prices online – you have to call for a quote – but there is a significant savings even with shipping costs included. We saved 20-30% over advertised “sale” prices.

    My china cabinet is a garage sale find – $125, solid wood, belonged to an elderly lady who probably polished it every week and never moved it after it was delivered. It is not the most current style, but it blends in with our eclectic ranch look. This weekend I saw a Duncan Phyfe style mahogany table at a yard sale for $20 – it needed some touch up work, but who cares at THAT price?

    I’ve also purchased furniture and rugs at going-out-of business sales and auctions – usually I stop by early in the sale to determine whether the store has anything of interest, then I wait until the FINAL DAY to return. is a GREAT resource for furniture. What’s available seems to vary a great deal by region – I’m in Texas and find very little Ethan Allen listed, but if I moved to Denver/Colorado Springs I would be in Ethan Allen heaven.

    The best advice I have is not to be in a hurry to outfit your room, or home, and you will be able to get quality furniture within your budget.

  6. A couple of things I haven’t seen mentioned yet… for one, get the word out that you are looking for furniture. Sometimes a friend of a friend is selling her house, moving her mother to a condo or came into money and is refurnishing her entire house and has lots of stuff she wants to get rid of. The nicest piece of furniture I have came from a coworker that was remodeling her kitchen and could no longer fit her china cabinet in there. Lucky me.

    Also, how about unfinished furniture? I have some because the price was right at the time. Not top quality for sure but easy to play matchy matchy by choosing your own finish/stain/paint. They will often do it for you, if you aren’t confident in your wild staining skillz.

    Lastly, I’m in MA and we have Gardner, a town with a number of furniture outlets. I know North Carolina has something similar. We went there before we were married and needed everything. We didn’t find much in the way of sets but for single pieces, it would have been great. Quality and price met somewhere in the middle. Better quality, not cheap but not as expensive as the big chains.

    Thats all the ideas I have!

  7. I second the advice on checking out the scratched and dented or closeout sections of furniture stores. For my boys’ nursery, my husband shopped, as I was stuck on bed rest. He went to a local shop and found a dresser (which we used as a changing table) and end table (which sat next to my glider and held nursing paraphenalia) for $120. These pieces are beautiful, all wood and can be used in other parts of the house or the boys’ room(s) as they get older. They were perfectly fine, just the last pieces of a discontinued line.
    I also use a consumer wholesale club. My last purchase from that was a “chair and a half” with ottoman in sage cordoroy fabric for $200. I couldn’t find a decent ottoman for that price elsewhere. I’ve had the pieces for 2 years and they’ve held up beautifully.

  8. A little addition to the unfinished furniture mention: The best of these places will special order lovely things to your specifications, so you end up with custom made furniture. We have an entertainment armoire, a wall unit, a corner dining cupboard, a fantastic dining table and a great coffee table (we chose a dining table and had the legs cut short to coffee table height) that we acquired this way, some finished for us, some that we finished ourselves. I don’t know where the “pine doesn’t take a stain well” came from, but solid clear pine holds up well, and is very adaptable to paint, stain, and varnishing. The best advice I’ll echo: take your time! Shop, touch, feel, learn quality, then go online to compare prices and wait for sales. We have a lovely home now, but it didn’t happen overnight!

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