When the marble double sink-vanity of my dreams somehow made it safely to my home on an island off the coast of Maine, I thought it was fate. This double-doored-soft-close-drawer beauty and I were meant to be.

Until our plumber showed up and completely burst my bubble.

I didn’t know the type of plumbing set up in your bathroom could dictate what you could actually buy. I thought that knowing the dimensions of the wall was enough. I had pulled out the measuring tape for this purchase! Surely this was wrong!

This wasn’t my first heartbreak in buying home items online, but as I sent that big beauty back, I vowed to never fall in love with a vanity, armoire, or throw pillow again without doing exhaustive research first.

If you’re trying to furnish a home, you can order everything from your mattress to an oversized sectional online. Gone are the days of sitting on couch after couch or comparing swatches in-store as you decide if you’re willing to wait weeks on end for a new sofa to arrive. Shopping for home items online has made life so much easier. Right?

There are some definite downsides to placing big orders online. And trust me—returning that marble vanity is even trickier than picking it out in the first place.

Here’s how to put an end to your “this-doesn’t-look-like-the-photo” woes for good, with our handy checklist of things to try before you buy. Apply these practices to everything from large furniture to artwork and everything in between.

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photography by zara home

Material Matters

You can’t plop down on a couch to get a sense of texture and overall comfy factor when you shop online, so pay attention to inner materials like cushion fill. And don’t assume that just because an end table looks like real wood that it actually is.

If you’re looking to splurge on art or even pick out an affordable print, make sure you find out if the cost includes a frame or if that steal-worthy price really is an original.

Buying Tip: Read customer reviews carefully to ensure that the item you’re scoping out doesn’t have any major flaws. 

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photography by west elm

Consider Shipping Costs

Just because you’re perusing a site that offers free shipping on every order doesn’t mean there aren’t restrictions. Read the fine line to be sure that freight costs are covered. If the information seems to be buried on the site, take the time to hop on a call or live chat with a customer support person. Finding this out in advance will save you many headaches and lunch break races home.

Buying Tip: If the furniture you want to buy is running a “free shipping” promotion, give them a call to make sure what’s in your cart is covered so you don’t have any disappointments at check out.

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photography courtesy of iStock

Know the Delivery Issues

We’ve all been there before. We get back to our house and there’s an “attempted delivery” notice on the door. Don’t play a game of tag with the delivery guy when it comes time to getting a piece of furniture home. Instead, find out exactly how the piece will be delivered and if you’ll need to be there when it’s dropped off.

At checkout, see if there’s a box for delivery instructions. If there is, indicate that you’d like your furniture dropped off at a backdoor or left without a signature to try and expedite the delivery process.

Buying Tip: If you find that you’ll need to be there for the delivery, find out how large the windows are and cement one that works best for your schedule. No one wants to use a vacation day for a chaise lounge. (Unless it’s a really, really good one.)

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photography courtesy of Article

Measuring your space is a great first step for narrowing down styles when you shop online. But don’t forget to measure the doors that deliveries will come through.

Measure Your Space (And Your Door!)

Once you’re done patting yourself on the back for whipping out the tape measure to see if a chaise lounger will fit in your room, don’t make this rookie move: Forgetting to measure your door frame.

Yes, measuring your space is a great first step for narrowing down styles when you shop online. But don’t forget to measure the doors that deliveries will come through. This is especially helpful if you live in an older home or apartment as door frames can skew much narrower.

Buying Tip: Once you’ve settled on the piece you’d like to buy, use painter’s tape on the floor of the room to see how much space it will take up. Sometimes a visual can help make the final decision easier.

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photography by Minted

“Use painter’s tape on the floor of the room to see how much space it will take up. Sometimes a visual can help make the final decision easier.”

Know The Return Policy

Sometimes furniture doesn’t turn out to be the right fit, whether its a dimensional issue or you’re just disappointed with what arrived. Make sure you find out about how a return is issued before you order.

Ask if they cover the cost of return shipping, if you have to shell out for shipping and if the item can be picked up from your house or if you have to bring it to a local postal carrier. Returning large items can be a giant hassle, so get the information up front.

Buying Tip: Want an item from a shop that has a rough return policy? See if you can drop off an item to a nearby store instead of shipping it back. If the site doesn’t have brick and mortars, you may want to keep hunting. You don’t want to get stuck with something you don’t love.

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photography by west elm

Pay Attention to Colors and Patterns

Even the best product photography is just not the same as seeing something in real life. If you’re about to make a big purchase, like sectional-couch-level big, then ask for fabric swatches, which allows you to see the color and touch the material.

Buying Tip: No swatches? No problem. Look for customer uploaded photos to get a real sense of what the color/pattern look like.

“Look for customer uploaded photos to get a real sense of what the color/pattern look like.”

Assembly Instructions

Not everyone can wield tools beyond a monkey wrench, which is totally okay. But find out how much assembling will need to happen before you buy. We know that buying that Ikea bookcase online is a huge sigh of relief, (we love you Ikea, but your stores exhaust us) but it won’t remain a relief if you don’t have the tools needed.

Most companies will include this on the product listing. But if you see the words “some assembly required” without more details, it might be time to ping a live chat agent or call customer service to ask for more information.

Buying Tip: If a piece of furniture does require a specialty drill or skills you don’t have, hire it out! Your local hardware store is a great option for renting the tool. Or if that’s not an option, try looking someone up on TaskRabbit to help.

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photography by burrow

“If a piece of furniture does require a specialty drill or skills you don’t have, hire it out! Your local hardware store is a great option for renting the tool.”

Read The Reviews

There’s a time and place for reviews, but there’s one situation where you do want spoiler alerts: buying home items online.

Customers feedback is the best place to find out if someone was super pleased or uber bummed with a purchase. You’ll also be able to pick up on trends, for example, if a carpet pills easily or if the color of a chair isn’t exactly as pictured. Consider these your virtual best friends who can ultimately help you decide to pull the trigger or not.

Buying Tip: Some stores will let you comment on product pages with questions or upvote answers that were helpful. Take advantage of this so you can get your own questions answered and leave a nice little breadcrumb of answers available to anyone else that’s interested in buying.

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photography by zara home

DIY or Hire Out

You may have impressive carpentry or electrical skills, but unless you fall squarely into that category, there will be some products that you may need help with.

If you’re looking to replace an old vanity light fixture in your bathroom, not every wall sconce will be the right fit.

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photography by zara home

“If you really want to know exactly what you’re getting, you’ve got to read the product description to find out.”

Don’t Rely On Photos

When the art print you relied on is a) half the size and b) unframed, chances are you looked at the photo and didn’t read the product description. We hate to break it to you, but that’s on you.

Remember that products are not always as they appear online. If you really want to know exactly what you’re getting, you’ve got to read the product description to find out. With art, pay attention to dimensions and how it’s sent (without a matte, framed or not, etc) and for furniture, both dimensions and material are key.

And when in doubt, go back through the checklist below!

  • Read customer reviews
  • Find out if free shipping covers freight charges
  • Get a solid answer for what happens if an item needs to be returned
  • Measure your space, and for larger items, measure your doorway too
  • Look at customer photos to confirm that items look “as pictured”
  • Get assembly instructions up front so you can buy tools, rent tools or hire help
  • Read the product description
  • Still unsure? Do it the old school way and head to Ikea

See more online shopping guides like this: 

Our Favorite Under-the-Radar Shops to Fuel Your Decor Obsession

The Best Websites for Art Lovers on a Budget

The Best Online Stores for Your Scandinavian Design Obsession