Sitting Pretty

With a bit of know-how, you can buy quality furniture without breaking your budget


Whether you're getting married or graduating from college, moving to your first home or upgrading to a bigger one, you may need to buy new furniture. And finding stylish, high-quality furniture to suit your needs and your budget often is a challenge.

Will this dining room table be large enough for our family? Is this sofa comfortable, durable and the right shade of celadon? Do we really need to spend that much on a bed to ensure it will last?

The tangle of questions just gets more complicated when you throw in limited funds. The adage "you get what you pay for" looms large and can cloud the judgment of even the thriftiest of shoppers. When you're faced with the possibility of wobbly legs and fading upholstery, suddenly, $1,000 for an overstuffed chair doesn't sound so unreasonable.

But in shopping for furniture, that old adage isn't as hard and fast as it seems, some experts say. And in today's world -- where, for some, every penny not headed for the gas tank has to be tightly accounted for -- discount or outlet furniture shopping might just be the best way to go.

The furniture, which is usually current-season merchandise, may be slightly damaged or irregular. Or they may simply be custom pieces returned at the last minute by finicky customers. Often the inventory comes from closeouts or are floor samples.

"I highly recommend outlets," says Stacie Walters, founder of and principal designer for SDW Interiors in Washington. "And garage sales, estate sales, auctions, even the newspaper. If you are equipped with some basic tools, you can buy your furniture almost anywhere."

We used Walters' design experience and discerning eye to arm us with some of those tools when we went searching for furniture at area outlets. She assures us that, if we use our instincts -- and her advice -- quality and affordability won't prove to be mutually exclusive.

"Quality is relative. It depends on what you're using the furniture for," Walters says. "And it's not necessarily an absolute."

Our first stop: Bargain Depot in Laurel. This warehouse full of furniture that once belonged to the RoomStore chain offers closeouts, samples and overruns for 30 percent to 80 percent off the original retail price.

Bargain Depot's owners buy their merchandise from the RoomStore, a store with a recognizable name.

Grace Garvin of Beltsville was shopping there recently with her friend Willie Woods of Columbia. Garvin had just moved into a new apartment and didn't want to spend loads of money on furniture.

"Outlets are really a good alternative to conventional furniture-shopping when you're just trying to do something temporary," Woods says.

But faced with a sea of cramped rows of dimly lit furniture, how were Woods and Garvin to determine that the five-piece Douglas furniture sectional that was $2,509, and is now $1,777, won't be riddled with $732 worth of headaches down the road?

With sofas, Walters says, first ask someone about the frame, which is often hidden. "Is the frame made from hard wood or soft wood?" she says. "Soft woods bend and break easily. Is it metal? What you want to look for in a frame is a hard wood frame."

Hard woods often used in furniture are oak, maple or ash. Pine is an example of soft wood.

After inquiring about the frame, check the piece's weight by trying to gently lift one end of the sofa, Walters says.

"That's a good way to cheat," she says. "Typically, well-made pieces are heavy."

Next, says Walters, ask your furniture salesman or saleswoman what is holding up those comfy cushions to make them stay full and fluffed.

"Do they have coils in the cushion? Is there steel in there, flexible steel? What is in that seating unit?" she says to ask.

The best thing for cushion support: something called eight-way hand-tied springs. This has a wide range of movement that helps to evenly distribute weight.

"Have you ever had an adult sitting on one side [of a sofa] and a child on the other side, and the little child rolls into the adult?" Walters says. "That shouldn't happen. And, also, a quality [cushion], after a little wear and tear, shouldn't sag on the sofa. If it's not a quality piece, then you may have some sagging."

Additionally, Walters says, always inspect the pattern on any upholstery. If the patterns don't line up -- and you don't intend to have the mismatched area hidden from view -- consider that piece of furniture to be cheaper than one where every paisley point and polka dot is perfectly aligned.

Our next stop: the Storehouse Furniture Clearance Center in Catonsville.

The savings at the outlet range from 20 percent to 50 percent off showroom prices, and on many days the store offers an additional 20-percent off the lowest marked price. New pieces come in every Tuesday and Friday, so chances are that Borneo cocktail table you saw in the catalog will show up at the clearance center -- and for several hundred dollars less.

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