You spend a third of your life in bed, and much of the rest of it camped on the sofa or slumped in your futuristic home office chair. But buying furniture unfortunately isn’t as straightforward as using it.

The nonprofit Washington Consumers’ Checkbook, which surveys area customers, collects too many complaints — and poor ratings — regarding the stores from their customers. Gripes include incompetent and indifferent salespeople, defective items, pieces that wear out quickly, long delivery delays and delivery of wrong items. Plus, it’s such a hassle to compare prices that redecorating your house ends up being fraught, not fun.

Fortunately, in its new report on area furniture stores, Checkbook identifies several stores staffed by helpful and knowledgeable salespeople who provide appropriate advice and place accurate orders; offer high-quality products; deliver items when promised, using careful and courteous personnel; and quickly step in to make things right if there’s a problem.

Until Jan. 5, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of furniture stores to Washington Post readers via

Before shopping, make a plan and a budget:

  • To help figure out what you like, spy on what others have done via design websites, magazines and furniture catalogues. You can also visit show-house tours or real estate open houses.
  • How will you use the furniture? Want an elegant sofa for formal entertaining that will last a long time or something casual that pets and children will climb on?
  • Do you want to redo an entire room or just replace a few things?
  • Are there limits on what you can fit through doors, hallways or staircases?
  • Think about color. You’ll want hues that you like that work together and with existing furnishings (and with pieces in other rooms), and that contribute to the mood you want (for example, white for a space lacking natural light).
  • How much can you spend?

If all this planning seems overwhelming, or you want someone else’s design ideas or access to wholesale showrooms and more furniture choices, you might consider hiring an interior designer.

The cost of hiring an independent designer to redo a living room (including furniture plus design fee) is typically more than $20,000. But it can cost considerably more or less depending on room size, quantity and quality of items purchased, and the designer’s fee structure. Although some independent designers won’t accept clients who aren’t prepared to spend in this range, others are willing to work with more limited budgets. Most understand you might want to plan now and spread out actual purchases over many months.

Some store-based designers offer limited service, but others do more, from drawing floor plans to advising on color. Different stores’ design departments use different payment formulas. At some, you pay a small design fee, refundable if furniture purchases exceed a certain amount. You purchase items through the designer at the store’s current prices, including sale ones. Other stores may charge an hourly rate or a flat fee for a consultation plus additional hourly fees for other tasks, such as writing up purchase specs. Stores may waive the fee if your purchase is large enough.

No matter who does the buying, it can be difficult to compare furniture prices. Many retailers sell items that aren’t available elsewhere; and it’s unusual to find the same national brands sold by more than one or two retailers.

Don’t assume that a sale price — even a heavily discounted sale price — is a good price. The sale prices offered by many local stores and on most websites probably aren’t special at all. Unfortunately, Checkbook finds that many furniture stores use deceptive practices in which these sales never end. Even if the sign says, “Save 60%,” it’s probably meaningless.

If you focus your shopping at independent stores that sell national brands, you can compare prices — and can save a lot of money by asking stores to bid competitively for items you want. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers asked stores to price several items and found that some stores offered prices that were nearly twice as high as their competitors'.

You can save a lot by buying items on clearance or floor-sample sales. But be aware that these items are often sold “as is.” Inspect them closely for defects.

Don’t assume that you can always get lower prices online. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found that local stores often quoted prices that were roughly equivalent to — and often below — prices they got from Web-based retailers when delivery costs were added.

Make as small a deposit as possible and make all payments by credit card. The federal Fair Credit Billing Act and policies of credit card companies provide important protections for customers who are delivered faulty or defective goods.

Be wary of store-offered installment loans or promotions that allow you to delay payments if you charge purchases to a new store-issued credit card. Unfortunately, store-sponsored financing arrangements often impose very high interest rates.

If an order will be fulfilled by the factory, ask the retailer to include an estimated delivery date on the sales slip and language that requires the retailer immediately to notify you if there is a delay. The best agreements allow you to cancel an order and receive a full refund if unforeseen delays occur.

For items purchased from a store’s in-stock items, the sales slip should include language allowing return within a specified number of days, and, if a return is made, whether you must pay a restocking fee and whether you will get a cash refund or just store credit.

Inspect furniture carefully when it’s delivered. Reject it if there is a defect. If a defect is noted later, notify the retailer at once and insist that the item be repaired or replaced.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of area furniture stores free of charge until Jan. 5 at