The most common buyers' mistake is misjudging the size of the table. Be sure the table is small enough to allow at least 30 inches between it and the surrounding walls and furniture.
Where to Go
Pier 1 Imports has inexpensive choices with exotic accents (pier1.com).
Modernica has reproductions of midcentury classics starting at about $700 (modernica.net).
Drexel Heritage is a value-conscious source for pieces with traditional styling (drexelheritage.com).
Watch out for tables that are unfinished underneath and those stained to look like something they're not. What appears to be cherrywood may actually be pine.
2 of 6Annie Schlechter
Beds get bigger every season, but big isn't better if it crowds bedside tables. Aside from the night table, there should be at least three feet of space on three sides of the bed. "The appropriate-size piece can make a room sparkle," says Leonard Bruce Lewin, author of Shopping for Furniture: A Consumer's Guide (Linden, $18, amazon.com). "The wrong-size piece can close off a room."
Queen-size beds should have two slats supporting the mattress; king-size beds need three.
3 of 6Annie Schlechter
Many side chairs are attractive and versatile enough to be used at a desk or a dining table. (And that flexibility won’t cost you a dime.)
Where to Go
Ikea sells sturdy solid-wood chairs starting at about $20 (ikea.com). Many are unfinished, so you can paint them any color you like.
West Elm, the chain known for minimalist pieces in distinctive colors, has chairs at $99 and up (westelm.com).
Design Within Reach offers modernist chairs that are reasonably priced without looking like compromises (dwr.com).
Make sure your pick is sturdy. If the back has any wiggle to it, take a pass.
4 of 6Annie Schlechter
A sofa is the mood-setting piece of any living room and probably your most important purchase. This might not be the place to scrimp. "Anything under $900 and you had better kick the tires pretty carefully," says Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, author of Apartment Therapy: The 8-Step Home Cure (Bantam, $14, amazon.com).
Where to Go
Crate & Barrel consistently strikes a balance between price and quality (crateandbarrel.com).
Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams has a range of medium-priced choices (mitchellgold.com).
For upholstery, consider microfiber, which resists stains.
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Cases and Cabinets
Avoid items that are dressed up to look like heirloom or museum pieces, and concentrate on solid construction, says Marco Pasanella, a designer based in New York City. One indication of poor craftsmanship: Parts joined by staples or glue.