You spend a third of your life in bed, and much of the rest of it camped on the sofa or slumped in your home office chair. But buying furniture isn’t as straightforward as using it.

Nonprofit Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook receives way too many complaints — and poor ratings — from many stores’ customers. Gripes include incompetent and indifferent salespeople, defective items, pieces that wear out quickly, long delivery delays and delivery of wrong items. Plus, it’s a hassle to compare prices.

Fortunately, Checkbook identifies several stores staffed by helpful and knowledgeable salespeople who provide good advice and place accurate orders.

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

Before shopping, make a plan and a budget:

• To help figure out what you like, spy on what others have done via design websites, magazines and furniture catalogs. You can also hit show-house tours or real estate open houses.

• How will you use the furniture? Want an elegant sofa for formal entertaining or something casual that children will climb on?

• 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?

• Think about color. You will want hues that you like that work together and with existing furnishings, and that contribute to the mood you want.

• How much can you spend?

If all this planning seems overwhelming, or you want someone else’s design ideas or access to wholesale showrooms and more furniture choices, you might consider hiring an interior designer.

The cost of hiring a fully trained independent designer to redo a living room (including furniture plus design fee) is typically more than $20,000. But it can cost considerably more or less depending on room size and other details.

Some store-based designers offer limited service, but others do more, from drawing floor plans to advising on color. Different stores’ design departments use different payment formulas. At some, you pay a small design fee, refundable if furniture purchases exceed a certain amount. You purchase items through the designer at the store’s current prices, including sale ones. Other stores may charge an hourly rate or a flat fee for a consultation plus additional hourly fees for other tasks.

No matter who does the buying, know it can be difficult to compare furniture prices. It’s unusual to find the same national brands sold by more than one or two retailers.

Don’t assume that a sale price is a good price. The sale prices offered by many local stores and on most websites probably aren’t special. Unfortunately, Checkbook finds that many furniture stores use deceptive practices where these sales never end.

If you focus your shopping at independent stores that sell national brands, you can compare prices — and save a lot of money by asking stores to bid competitively. Checkbook’s shoppers asked stores to price several items and found some stores offered prices that were nearly twice as high as their competitors.

You can save a lot by buying items on clearance or floor-sample sales. But inspect them closely for defects.

Don’t assume that you can always get lower prices online. Checkbook’s shoppers found that local stores often quoted prices that were roughly equivalent to 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 and policies of credit card companies provide important protections for customers who are delivered faulty or defective goods.

Be wary of installment loans or promotions that allow you to delay payments if you charge purchases to a new store-issued credit card. The cards 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 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 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 must pay a restocking fee.

Inspect furniture when it’s delivered. Reject it if there is a defect. If a defect is noted later, insist that the item be repaired or replaced.

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. See ratings of area furniture stores free of charge until Jan. 5 at