Your No-Regrets Guide to Buying Furniture Online for Every Room in the House
Shop for sofas, dining tables, beds, and more with confidence using these expert tips.
The incessant Googling is over. You found the one. That is, until the table, sofa, or bed shows up and ... it's not quite right. Maybe it doesn't fit against your living room wall, or it completely clashes with your home's paint colors. Whatever the issue is, that frustrating furniture situation is completely avoidable. We tapped experts for smart strategies to avoid online-shopping missteps so you can click with confidence. Here's how to buy furniture online for every room in your house (sans regrets).
Tabletops get seen closely and touched a lot, so read the details to consider if you'll be happy with the look, feel, and performance of the material. "It's always great when something comes assembled," says Taniya Nayak, Boston-based interior designer and designer on Restaurant: Impossible. "You'll see that the price point is usually higher, but it can be code for higher quality. Assembly required? Chances are the quality isn't as great."
When shopping for a dining room table, pay attention to the numbers. For the best fit, you need to leave a 3-foot walkway around the perimeter of your table. Map a 3-foot strip around the room's perimeter; the remaining square footage is the max table size. Keep in mind that the typical dining table height is 30 inches; the standard for counter dining is 36 inches, 42 inches for bar tables. When deciding on the number of chairs, remember to keep 24 inches between each place setting. Measure from the center of one chairback to the center of its neighbor.
To get the scale right, follow Nayak's lead: "Add the room's length and width in feet," she says. "That number in inches is the diameter of your light fixture." For example, 15 feet long + 10 feet wide = a 25-inch-diameter fixture. From there, check the total length of the light to confirm it will hang 66 inches above the floor. That should leave the ideal 3 feet between the light and the tabletop.
Choose an area rug that'll extend 24-36 inches past the table so all four legs of a chair pulled out are on it. Scan labels for terms like flat weave or low pile. "The dining room is not the place for shag," Nayak says. "I'm looking for easy-clean rugs, usually described as indoor/outdoor or made from polypropylene."
The first step in buying a sofa online is deciding how many people you want to seat. For three, you need an 84- to 96-inch-long sofa. The average sofa-back height is 34-38 inches, and the overall depth is about 35 inches. But don't stop with the overall dimensions. Look at the interior, including seat depth (average is 22 inches). Consider your intended use and adjust: Is this a sofa for lounging? Go a size longer. Do you have short legs? Find a shallower seat. Love throw pillows? Pick something deeper.
Editor's Tip: When you order modular pieces, left or right is determined as you face the sofa, not when you’re seated. The one in the living room above, for example, is a right sofa, left chaise.
To pick the perfect sofa online, you'll need to go beyond the picture. "Don't trust your screen colors," says Christiane Lemieux, co-founder of furniture company The Inside. Order swatches (she advises limiting options to seven) and spend the day observing them in the exact space you're shopping for. Check them in the morning and afternoon sun and evening lamplight. Light is everything, she says, but texture also counts. "When I picked my sofa, I rubbed every swatch down my yellow Lab's back to see how the color and texture reacted," Lemieux says.
Read User Reviews
To get a better sense of the sofa's livability, read user reviews. Look for trends in praise or complaints (claims of bad customer service or issues with assembly or missing pieces) as indicators of quality. "I always read reviews. You get the true consumer perspective versus marketing speak," says Julie Cassetina, product style expert for Wayfair.
Utilize Web Resources
Sellers really want to avoid returns, so utilize site resources dedicated to helping you. "We try to anticipate questions like how to measure a sofa to ensure it fits through your door," says Laura Wilson, head of West Elm Design Crew. For help beyond the FAQs, call, email, or live-chat with a store's service reps.
When shopping for a bed, it is important to check assembly guides. Does the headboard mount to the wall or bed frame? What tools will you need? "No matter what, you're going to have to assemble the bed, so it's a fantastic online purchase," Lemieux says. "They're so easy to ship."
It's also important to know bed terminology. Platform beds replace a box spring with, you guessed it, a platform. And on Wayfair last year, this was the most searched type of bed. Platform beds tend to be lower and sleeker (because a box spring accounts for a large portion of a bed's overall height) and often go sans bed skirt, which is an important note if you're banking on underbed storage.
While shopping for a bed online, consider how tall your bed will be once you install your existing mattress and box spring. Will you be able to comfortably climb in and get out? Will you be able to see the headboard once you layer on your pillows? To find the ideal height for your headboard, use designer Vern Yip's quick headboard math: the height from the floor to the mattress top + your height from waist to top of head + 4 inches = minimum headboard height for reading in bed.
Allison Harlow, an interior designer specializing in virtual consulting, also suggests you always check the shipping policy before clicking purchase. "Large pieces might require additional freight charges. If white-glove delivery is an option, I usually go for it," she says. "That means the item is shipped to a third-party freight company who will deliver it to your home, unbox it, and place it where it goes. That's zero assembly headaches for you, no piles of shipping materials to discard, and no struggle trying to lug it up to the third floor."
If something doesn't work (Nooo!), how long do you have to return it? Can it be used? Do you need to hang onto the packing materials? Is there a restocking fee? Take note of these policies before ordering a bed online.
Tips for Visualizing Furniture in Your Space
When buying furniture online, look past the screen and visualize the piece in your space. "A low-tech option is to get out a roll of painters tape and tape off the dimensions," Harlow says. "Walk through the space with the tape measure pulled to the height of the piece and make sure it feels in line with the scale of the rest of the space."
From there, play house. Pull a chair up to your taped-on table and set it for dinner. Pass a dish or deal a hand of cards to see how the size works. Remember blanket forts? Arrange cardboard boxes, side chairs, or stacks of books to the dimensions of the piece you're considering. Drape them with a sheet to better understand the bulk and proportions.
How to Choose Furniture Using Measurements
Use the dimensions of a room's anchor pieces as the basis for choosing the smaller ones like chairs, consoles, and lamps. "If you take a few minutes to space plan, a lot of questions start to answer themselves," says Yip. Then you can use those handy filters built into most websites to target the workable options.
"Logistics may not be the most glamorous part of design and decoration, but once you know the facts behind the fancy, selecting pieces that make you happy and that you love becomes fun," Yip writes in his book, Design Wise: Your Smart Guide to a Beautiful Home. Take a look at Yip's room-by-room thought process:
Dining Room Furniture Dimensions
The standard height for dining chairs is 19 inches tall, and options range between 18 and 20 inches. "Even 1 inch can make a difference in how you feel at the table," Yip says. Choose taller or shorter seats based on the table's (or your family's) height. Deciding between arms or armless? "Armless: You won't have concerns about pushing a chair under the table. If it has arms, you'll need to figure out if your table has an apron below it," Yip says.
Living Room Furniture Dimensions
When choosing end tables, use the height of your sofa to determine the ideal size. "You typically want the table height right about where the sofa arm is. Too high or too low and it's awkward to use. The point is to be able to access the stuff on it," Yip says. For coffee tables, it's all about length. "It should be between half to two-thirds the overall length of the sofa," he says. Any smaller and people at the sofa ends can't reach it. Any longer and it's tricky to sit down.
Bedroom Furniture Dimensions
Ideally, the maximum depth for your bedside nightstand is 24 inches. "People use everything under the sun as nightstands, and that's perfectly fine. Just make sure it isn't deeper than 24 inches or you'll hit it as you get in and out of bed," Yip says. "In a perfect world, the top of the nightstand would be even with the top of the mattress. A couple inches above or below is OK, but more than that not only doesn't look good but also isn't as functional."