Tuesday Tips: Buying Furniture

If you were to take a look around my house, you'd find furniture that has been handed down by parents and grandparents, a few cheap pieces my husband and I have bought over the years and even a few throwbacks to college. You'll also find my husband's favorite piece of furniture in the whole house -- his metal Redskins trash can. We've made these furniture pieces work in our home because well... furniture buying is scary and expensive. Since we'll have to grow up one day, I asked Annette Hannon, an interior designer based in Burke, for tips on buying furniture and maybe a new trash can. (Sorry honey. The Redskins trash can has got to go.)

Tip #1: So you've finally decided to replace that couch -- the one with stains from every meal and glass of wine consumed in the last five years. Before heading out to the store, think about what function a new couch or any other large piece of furniture will serve. Ask yourself if it's going to be something that you and your family sit on everyday or is it going to be a dining room set that you use once or twice a year. That will help you make decisions on things like fabric and durability. For example, Hannon says ultrasuede fabric is great for people with kids and pets.

Tip #2: Whether you live in a McMansion or a small townhouse, make sure the furniture isn't too big or small for your house. "The ceilings in stores are 11 feet tall," says Hannon. "You have to take the dimensions down and make sure that they'll fit in your space."

Tip #3: One way to cushion (no pun intended) the blow to your wallet when buying furniture is to see if your favorite manufacturer or retailer is having any sales. Many run annual or semi-annual sales in the spring and fall. Larger retailers and higher-end retailers hold sales in January through March and then again in September through October, according to Hannon. "It used to be a big secret when they'd run their sales. Not so much anymore," she explains. "Don't be ashamed to ask."

Tip #4: Buy the furniture staple pieces like side tables and throw rugs at places like Target and Ikea, and fork out the bigger bucks on the large pieces like couches and dining room tables at higher-end furniture stores.

Tip #5: Don't turn up your nose at consignment stores and yard sales. If you can see a vision beyond that 1970s fabric or some bumps and bruises, you can find some good deals. Some things can be upholstered, restored or painted for a cheaper price than buying a whole new piece. Just make sure the item you're buying is in good shape.

Tip #6: When buying wood furniture pieces, ask what kind of wood was used. You want to look for pieces made from hard woods like oak, walnut or cherry. A weaker wood such as teak will split easily, especially in a four-season climate like Washington, Hannon explains.

Tip #7: When trying to decide whether to refinish Aunt May's handed-down dining room table or shell out the money for a brand new set, think about sentimental value. "If the lines aren't great and you've never really liked the arms, buy something new," Hannon says. "Don't go through the trouble of finding the fabric. The springs and the frame are probably better in a new piece too."

Tip #8: Many retailers and manufacturers sell their furniture in collections, but don't be afraid to mix and match pieces from different collections. Just make sure a few pieces in the room match, such as side tables or a set of arm chairs. Hannon says even one antique piece in the room can add a nice touch.

Here's where Hannon likes to shop for furniture:

  • Baker Georgetown: The Washington store sells higher-end furniture but beautifully designed pieces, says Hannon.

  • Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams: Its one store on 14th Street in Washington has great price points and its own fabric collection.

  • Restoration Hardware: With stores in Maryland, Washington and Virginia, the retailer offers great furniture but also interesting choices in lighting.

  • Williams Sonoma Home: There are no stores in our area but the online catalog will happily take your money.

  • Design Within Reach: This online store has two studios in Washington and one in Bethesda, where furniture shoppers can see many of its pieces up close. Hannon likes its contemporary but classic design.

  • Wisteria: offers great accessories

  • VivaTerra: sells eco-friendly pieces

  • Velocity: features fun furniture pieces

  • Ikea: Hannon says she wouldn't buy a sofa there but has used the store for cabinets and other storage elements.

  • Do you have tips for buying furniture? What are some of your favorite furniture stores? Post a comment below.

    By Tania Anderson |  January 29, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Tuesday Tips
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    I agree with much of what Tanya has to say, but regret there is no place for people with townhomes and condos to shop for well-made smaller upholstery in the DC area. I design and have made exclusively for my store in Scarborough Maine a line of heirloom quality smaller furniture. Last weekend I showed it to consumers in Boston and was pleasantly surprised to see how well my smaller designs resonated with smaller space owners. If anyone knows of better quality small stores in the DC area that would like to see my line of USA-made, better quality American furniture, I would be very grateful to hear from you - I could reach them and offer this great line to them to sell to consumers in your area. Then DC folks could get great quality American made upholstery in 2-4 weeks, in 1500 fabrics and leathers, right there from a local, family run business... Relevant, responsible, and timely - keep the dollars stateside, folks! Not to disparage Mitchell Gold, but the frame and springs won't last as long as they should for that kind of money. You should get lifetime warranties on the frame, 8-way hand tied springs, and the cushion cores, too - require nothing less for your money!

    Posted by: Ross Endicott | January 30, 2008 10:11 AM

    My wife and I got on an Ethan Allen kick and fell in love with a living room set that a designer chose for our living room. I got home and my wife suggested we call the store to get the physical dimensions of the sectional couch we were eyeing and asked me to tape the outline/footprint onto the floor where we planned to place it. Thank goodness we did. It looked smaller in the store and would have been far too big. Staring at the masking tape lines on the floor was enough to cool us off on the idea. I'd suggest doing this whenever possible to make sure your good on space.

    Posted by: McLean | January 30, 2008 5:08 PM

    My husband and I have a great time at Reincarnations on Rhode Island Avenue at 14th Street in DC. The owners buy one or two of a kind pieces and every time we walk in, it is liking walking into a new store. The prices are quite reasonable and the furniture and accessories are fun.

    Posted by: Washington DC | January 31, 2008 10:08 AM

    But there are at least 2 great places for us to shop for furniture sized to fit urban homes!

    Reincarnations (as posted above)is wonderful.

    Skynear, on 18th St NW, also has pieces that obviously belong in urban houses/apartments.

    Posted by: saf | January 31, 2008 10:39 AM

    I'm a huge fan of my custom-covered Crate and Barrel 'Apartment' couch. It's the 'Potomac' sofa in a 70 inch length, about a foot shorter than the regular couch length, but still has a full-size pull out bed. (You can get it without the pull out.) I had it done in ultrasuede and it looks great.

    Posted by: brcmapgirl | January 31, 2008 1:28 PM

    Don't assume a popular or pricey brand = good quality. The same goes for weight and design. A lot of furniture pieces sold by well known stores and manufacturers say that it is wood when it is really pressed wood or mdf (think pergo vs. solid hardwood). Do your homework on materials before buying and don't let glossy catalogs or salespeople fool you. The internet is a valuable resource!

    Posted by: Washington D.C. | February 1, 2008 11:48 AM

    I've been buying furniture online. The shipping can be a pain, but the selection is great. Just watch the sizing... there's a tool at http://measuredfit.com that will search bookcases, tables or desks at Amazon based on the dimensions you enter.

    Posted by: Sara | February 8, 2008 11:37 PM

    1) To Ross Endicott regarding small size upholstery pieces. Creative Classics in Alexandria advertises "furniture sized for townhome living". Have never been there so can't comment on the quality. Phone is 703-518-4663 or www.creativeclassics.com

    2) Regarding teak wood splitting in the DC climate. I've had teak furniture that's almost 40 years old and have never had a problem. Same for a friend who's also lived with teak in DC for 40 years.

    Posted by: Nancy | February 12, 2008 3:51 PM

    I furnished much of my house in finds from Craigslist. The posted photos let me decide whether I liked the general design of a piece, and gave me an idea of the condition. If a piece looked promising, I went to see it Live and In Person, and only purchased if I loved it, it was in good condition (and, if relevant, comfortable), and the price was reasonable. Plenty of sellers were willing to bargain on the prices, and to sell other pieces. I ended up furnishing virtually my entire living room -- including the 27" TV, the DVD player, and some of the art on the walls -- for a grand total of $1200. And the room looks fabulous; I added pillows and throws and personal pieces, and no one can guess what had been bought new and what was used.

    Posted by: DMS | February 13, 2008 12:46 PM

    One thing that wasn't mentioned in Tip #5 is that not only are consignment stores and yard sales cheaper, they're also more environmentally friendly and better quality, given all of the press board, laminate, and plastic junk floating around these days. Growing up in a household where the budget was tight, our house was always beautifully decorated with "vintage" and "antique" pieces bought for $100 or less. One key reason, she made sure to visit stores in more affluent neighborhoods ;)

    Posted by: missmable | February 13, 2008 4:11 PM

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