How to Buy a Bed

A mattress is a purchase that could be with you for a decade or more, so research is essential.

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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?

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.

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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.

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.

2. 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."

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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.