You can sink a lot of money into furniture and - if you don't buy carefully - spend too much, wind up with defective products or months-late delivery, have to live with items you hate, or get stuck with pieces that don't hold up.

In a new report on area furniture stores, Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook and identify several stores staffed by helpful and knowledgeable salespeople who provide appropriate advice and place accurate orders; offer high-quality products; deliver items when promised, using careful and courteous personnel; and quickly step in to make things right if there's a problem.

But a lot can go wrong, as evidenced by the many complaints and poor ratings Checkbook gets. Add that it's a hassle to compare prices, and outfitting your nest can become a major headache.

Until Jan. 5, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of furniture stores to Inquirer readers via furniture.

Here are a few shopping tips:

Start by making a plan and a budget. How will you use the furniture? Do you want something elegant for entertaining or something for the kids to ruin? How long do you expect to keep it? Do you want to redo an entire room or just replace a few things? Are there limits on what you can fit through doors, hallways, or staircases? How much can you spend?

Know that it can be difficult to compare prices. Many retailers sell items that aren't available elsewhere, and it's unusual to find the same national brands sold by more than one or two retailers. If you focus your shopping at independent stores that sell national brands, you can compare prices - and can save a lot of money by asking stores to bid competitively for items you want. Checkbook's undercover shoppers asked stores to price several items and found some stores offered prices that were nearly twice as high as their competitors. For example, for a Lane Benson love seat, stores quoted prices ranging from $569 to $1,188, and for a Hooker Sorella credenza, prices ranged from $1,545 to $2,823.

Don't assume that a sale price - even a heavily discounted sale price - is a good price. The sale prices offered by many local stores and on most websites probably aren't special at all. Unfortunately, Checkbook finds that many furniture stores use deceptive practices through which these sales never end. Even if the sign says, "Save 60 percent," it's probably meaningless.

Don't assume you can get lower prices online. Checkbook's undercover shoppers found that local stores often quoted prices that were roughly equivalent to - and often below - prices they got from web-based retailers when delivery costs were added.

Make as small a deposit as possible and make all payments by credit card. The federal Fair Credit Billing Act provides important protections for customers who are delivered faulty or defective goods.

Be wary of store-offered installment loans or promotions that allow you to delay payments if you charge purchases to a new store-issued credit card. Unfortunately, store-sponsored financing arrangements often impose very high interest rates.

If an order will be fulfilled by the factory, ask the retailer to include an estimated delivery date on the sales slip and language that requires the retailer to notify you immediately if there is a delay. The best agreements allow you to cancel an order and receive a full refund if unforeseen delays occur.

For items purchased from a store's in-stock items, the sales slip should include language allowing return within a specified number of days, and, if a return is made, whether you have to pay a restocking fee and whether you'll get back cash or just store credit.

Inspect furniture carefully when it's delivered. Reject it if there is a defect. If a defect is noted later, notify the retailer at once and insist that the item be repaired or replaced.

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine ( is a nonprofit organization with a mission to

help consumers get the best

service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. Access Checkbook's ratings of furniture stores free of charge until Jan. 5 at