How to Buy a Bed

US News

Walk into a mattress store and you'll be bombarded with options: plush vs.firm, foam vs. latex, platform bed vs. the traditional mattress and boxspring. But what questions should you ask? And how do you know which one is right for you?

Photo: MAZZALIARMAD.IT/Flickr

A mattress is a major purchase that could be with you for a decade or more, so here are some tips on balancing your need for comfort with the desire to save cash.

1. Research (but don't buy) online. Before you go into the store, check online to get an idea of price ranges and materials. Even if you find a great deal and want to save time by ordering online, it's still a good idea to try out mattresses in person.

As Ron Czarnecki, a retired mattress salesman and author of the book Shop for Sleep and Survive the Bite, points out, "if you buy something online and have issues, you're going to have a real problem resolving it because the cost of shipping a mattress back is prohibitive." It's much easier to return or exchange a mattress when you're dealing with a brick-and-mortar store.

Plus, mattress preferences vary and not all product reviews are truthful, so even if a mattress gets five-star reviews online, it may not fit your needs.

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2. Understand the three major types of mattresses. Here's a quick primer (Czarnecki notes that brands are typically grouped together in the store with the most expensive options in the front and least expensive in the back):

Inner spring: Traditional inner-spring mattresses come in firm, plush, and pillowtop, all available at various price points. "You have really high coil counts at their top levels and your most basic coil-type mattress at the bottom," explains Czarnecki. For instance, a cheaper coil mattress might work for someone who's right out of college and plans to upgrade in a few years.

• Foam: Pricewise, foam mattresses fall between inner-spring and air mattresses. "Foam mattresses are best for people that are really sensitive to pressure, because of the way they contour to the body without creating pressure," says Czarnecki. "But they are a lot warmer to sleep in and a lot of people don't like the way the foam reaches around you and holds you in place."

Air mattress: Air mattresses allow you to adjust the firmness, decreasing or increasing the amount of air using a remote control. Air mattresses tend to be more expensive than traditional inner-spring mattresses, but replacement bladders are available if one wears out, which can help prolong the life of an air mattress, according to Czarnecki.

3. Consider you and your partner's needs. Factors like body mass index, firmness preferences, and eco-consciousness play a major role in your choice of mattress. For instance, "if you're a larger person, you may want to get a strong inner spring because you'll need to keep your hips up and you'll wear out materials quickly," says Dr. Bruce Meleski, an independent sleep wellness consultant in Austin, Texas. Some companies also offer mattresses specially designed for heavier consumers.

If you and your partner have different firmness preferences, you might opt for an air mattress that allows you to adjust the firmness on each side. Of course, "the ideal thing would be to get two separate mattresses and connect them, but people don't like that because there is space in the middle," says Meleski. "Even if you have different types of sizes, you can find something in the middle, and there are some mattresses out there that split the sides to each of your needs."

Some consumers also want organic or eco-friendly materials, which can cost incrementally more (although it's difficult to quantify the difference in cost because mattress prices vary so widely, the Specialty Sleep Association's 'Green' Initiative Consumer Research Report found that 30 percent of respondents said they would pay at least 10 percent more for a mattress with an environmentally friendly claim). If knowing your mattress is made from organic or eco-friendly materials is important to you, then Vicki Worden, an environmental consultant with the Specialty Sleep Association, recommends looking for third-party certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or OE Standards.

4. Test mattresses for comfort. Worden suggests spending as much 15 minutes lying on each bed to see how it feels against your body. You'll be spending several hours a night on your mattress for the foreseeable future, so try a few different positions and make sure they're comfortable. If your old mattress is uncomfortable, it's likely that everything you try in the store will feel like an improvement, says Meleski, but take time to find the right fit.

Salespeople should ask about your sleep environment and why you're in the market. Some are trained to check your spinal alignment, but consumers "should be conscious of where their hips are relative to their shoulders," says Meleski. In general, he adds, the greater your hip-to-waist ratio, the more important it is that the material conforms to your body to prevent lower back pain.

5. Ask about price guarantees, delivery costs, and warranties. "A lot of places will say in the advertising that 'we'll beat anyone's prices by 5 or 10 percent,' and some will do it for as long as 60 or 90 days," says Czarnecki. "I know one place that honors their price and comfort guarantees for as long as a year." Price guarantees don't always apply to online prices, but they allow you to shop around and gain some leverage in negotiation. The trick is that model names are usually different at different stores, so to get a price match, the mattresses should be of comparable quality, brand, and material.

Czarnecki also suggests asking these questions before making a decision: "Is delivery free? How much does it cost for you to pick up the old mattress? What kind of comfort guarantee do you offer? If I'm uncomfortable, can I exchange my mattress?" Extras like sales tax, delivery, and removal of your old mattress can drive up the price considerably, so factor those in or see if you can negotiate free delivery and mattress removal.

6. Make your mattress last. Staining your mattress may void the warranty in many cases, so protect your investment with a mattress cover. Mattresses also tend to get firmer as they age, while as people age they tend to need a softer mattress. According to Meleski, one way to cope with this fact is by using a high-quality gel or latex topper to prolong the life of your mattress purchase.

Rotating your mattress can also help, especially if you share a bed with a partner. "You're going to have some variance in height and weight, so rotating helps it wear better," says Meleski. "Most mattresses are not double-sided, so you don't need to flip the mattress anymore." He recommends rotating all types of mattresses twice a year, more often if there's a significant weight differential between partners, because one side will wear more quickly.

Choosing the right mattress isn't easy — but you'll sleep better knowing you bought the right one and didn't overpay.

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