A sofa takes a lot of abuse. Kids jump on it, pets sleep on it, and inevitably, food is spilled on it. "A couch is one of the most important pieces of furniture you buy because it’s used almost every day," says Chicago-based Jennifer Litwin, author of a new book, Best Furniture Buying Tips Ever! and a contributing writer to Consumers Digest magazine. But short of dissecting a sofa in the store to examine its insides, how can you tell one $1,500 sofa from the next? Litwin shares her tips for finding a well-made, affordable couch.

It’s all about construction.
The quality of the frame is what determines how well a couch will hold up over time. It should be made of a kiln-dried hardwood such as oak, maple, birch, or alder, all of which have a little bit of give and won’t become brittle or crack easily. "Metal is okay, too, but it’s not as solid as hardwood," Litwin says. Always shake the piece a bit to see if it seems sturdy. If it wobbles, walk away-it won’t last. Look for wooden legs that are attached with hot glue, not screws, which can weaken a piece, Litwin says.

Check for exposed staples used to secure the fabric. Often, these are tucked where the back of the couch meets the seat. "Exposed staples cause the fabric to loosen over time," Litwin says. Finally, make sure the corners of the frame are reinforced with glued-in wooden blocks, to keep it strong.

Upholstery matters
The best family-friendly fabrics today contain a bit of Teflon, Litwin says, but she also likes microfibers, which tend to be inexpensive and durable. Tightly woven fabric wears better than loose weaves. "Ask the salesperson to look up information about the upholstery to make sure the fabric company stands behind the fabric," she says. Specifically, ask whether the fabric has been tested for pilling, fading, and wear and tear. Lift up cushions to make sure the fabric goes all the way down to the springs-many upholsterers put nice fabric only partway down the back of the couch. "If the couch isn’t fully finished, it’s probably not a quality piece," she says.

Test-drive the springs.
Finally, never buy a couch without sitting on it first. "The cushions are what make the couch most comfortable," Litwin says. What the cushion is stuffed with (cotton mixed with foam, perhaps, or some percentage of down) doesn’t matter as much these days, she says, but when you stand up, the cushion should rise with you and not stay depressed. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t splurge on eight-way hand-tied springs. "They’re still the Cadillac, but they don’t make or break a couch. The quality of the frame is much more important," she says.

Don’t hand over your credit card unless…

You’ve done your research.
"Look up sofas online. Figure out what’s most important to you, and know that you should never have to spend more than $2,500 for a quality sofa unless you’re investing in high-end upholstery," Litwin says.

You have it in writing.
A salesperson should provide documentation on everything from the fabric quality to the type of wood used to construct the frame. "The $71 billion furniture industry is unregulated, meaning no one guarantees you’re buying what the salesperson says you’re buying," she says.

The couch will still be available in six months.
"A lot of furniture you buy is already discontinued," Litwin says. This can make it hard to get replacement parts should disaster strike.

You get a warranty from the store, not just the manufacturer.
"Much of the furniture we buy today comes from Asia, so it’s very hard to go after the manufacturer if something goes wrong," Litwin says.

Litwin’s Local Picks

Ethan Allen (1700 N. Halsted St., 312-573-2500; 10001 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-675-5600; 2350 Fountain Square Dr., Lombard, 630-792-0500)
"They make a fantastic couch in the $1,500 range."

Ligne Roset (56 E. Walton St., 312-867-1207)
"You can find great sleeper sofas with foam mattresses that are very comfortable."

Mig and Tig Furniture (540 N. Wells St., 312-644-8277; 910 Green Bay Rd., Winnetka, 847-784-9212)
"This store has lots of nice couches with very simple construction."