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Where Can I Find a Decent Couch?

How to shop for furniture that isn't going to fall apart

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Most furniture these days is not built to last. No one expects a chair from Ikea, Wayfair, or even the pricier West Elm to survive for generations. Yet if you walk into an antique furniture store or thrift shop, even mass-produced tables and chairs considered lower-end when they were made are still standing strong.

The dining room table I grew up with is the same one my father ate dinner on with his parents. It’s made of solid wood and, while it has some nicks on the surface after 70 years of wear, the table will surely last another generation or two. My parents, unfortunately, are unwilling to part with the table, so when I recently moved, I had to buy a new one for my family.

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Where did I look? I searched online for “real wood dining table.” I ended up buying one from a West Elm competitor. One year later, the table looks worse for wear than my parents’ piece.

“The stuff today is built to last a short amount of time. The stuff they built back in the day is designed to last generations,” said antique furniture dealer Pete Mack, who’s worked in the business for 30 years. He told AARP Experience Counts that social media trends and the ease of buying online have changed expectations and created a “disposable society.”

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“Market demand and desirability is driven by what people see in magazines and online and on home improvement shows,” Mack said. “Folks don’t really want grandma’s antiques anymore.”

This fast-paced trend market means that customers today are willing to exchange an old bookshelf for a new one every few years — and as a result, they don’t want to pay top dollar for it. Yet even high-end brands are churning out products that don’t last. Why is that?

One primary reason is materials. In the mid-20th century, American-made furniture was constructed from solid wood like oak, maple, or cherry. More affordable pieces were made from plywood. The “real wood” table I bought, by contrast, is likely made of Chinese press board with a glued-on veneer. It’s technically wood but much cheaper to manufacture and far less durable. Many major brands have switched to these composite wood products to cut costs.

Another reason is that in the 1970s, manufacturing and international shipping from overseas became the norm. Labor in China and Southeast Asia is cheaper, as are materials. Today, more than 85 percent of wood furniture sold in America is imported.

Have you noticed that you have to assemble most of your new furniture yourself with an Allen key or screwdriver? That’s because, to drive down shipping costs, furniture is made in parts to “flat-pack” and take up less space in shipping containers.

“The cost of furniture that’s coming from the West Elms of the world, that’s mostly marketing costs and admin costs and in transportation,” the founder of Vermont Woods Studios, Peggy Farabaugh, told AARP. “The cost of fast furniture is just in logistics. It’s not craftsmanship, and it’s not quality materials.”

Vermont Woods Studios manufactures solid wood furniture in Vermont from sustainably sourced wood grown in America. Farabaugh said this makes her furniture more expensive than mass imports — $4,000 rather than about $1,500 for a dining table — but her products will last.

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“When you’re buying American-made furniture, you’re buying something you’ll never have to replace,” Farabaugh said. “It’ll be here for your grandchildren.”

Fast furniture is also bad for the environment. Nearly 10 million tons of furniture end up in landfills each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Farabaugh said many big companies market themselves as “green,” but the way they source wood and the waste they produce is unsustainable.

Companies in New England, North Carolina and the Midwest still manufacture and sell American-made, solid wood, quality furniture. Still, it’s getting harder for these places to stay in business. Several North Carolina companies have folded in the last few years. It’s difficult to compete with quick delivery from cheap online furniture stores.

The Amish also famously make solid wood furniture. Farabaugh said. If you can’t afford new furniture, thrift stores and antique markets are a great option. Mack said prices at antique auctions have gone down substantially since the start of COVID-19.

“What’s greener than using a bureau that’s 200 years old? I mean, you can’t get any better than that,” Mack said.

Share your experience: What's the best quality piece of furniture that you ever bought? Where is it now?

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