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Big ticket items: what to know before you buy

Jun 16th, 2011
Photography Tony Amos
Jun 16th, 2011

Planning to buy a big-ticket item for your home? Read this guide before hitting the shops. It could save you money!

How many times have you bought a large, costly item to only live with it for a while and find it was one big mistake? Read on to avoid this ever happening again.


Sofas are one of the most-used items of furniture in your home. If you want one to stand the test of time, there are key features to consider – a strong frame, good-quality seating suspension and cushioning. Even if you don't have a large budget it's still good to know what you should be looking out for, and where you can compromise. Generally, it's easy – and inexpensive – to replace the fabric (even if it's just getting slip covers made), but aim for a good-quality structure and it may last 10 or 20 years, maybe longer.

For a quality frame, look for one made from steel or kiln-dried hardwood (moisture is removed to make it stronger), which has been assembled with glue or screws rather than pins. Cheaper sofas tend to have frames made from pine or chipboard. As a rule, better quality frames are heavier to lift. When it comes to the suspension system, options are steel coils or webbing. Steel springs are considered hard-wearing and are usually preferable to webbing.

Foam cushions tend to be firm, so hold their shape and can look more structural. Down filling is soft, but requires regular plumping. It can give a relaxed look. You can get cushions that have a combination of the two.

While modular sofas remain popular, consider the size of the room where the sofa will live. You should have enough space to place a coffee table in front and still have plenty of space to walk around all large items in the room. A sofa should be in proportion to other pieces of furniture in the space. Also, measure – and trial – its depth and height. This is especially important for tall people.

Ultimately you should buy a sofa that suits you and your lifestyle. If you have children and/or pets you may want to consider darker fabrics or removable, washable covers. If you have long legs you may need a deep seat or high back. And if you like head support when you lie down and watch TV or read, low arms may not be suitable.

Decide if you want leather or fabric. Leather is easy to clean but it is the pricier option. A good-quality, full-grain leather can age beautifully – so look for one that is dyed all the way through (aniline). A fabric sofa may offer more choices in terms of colour and pattern, and is often cheaper. It can also be treated to repel marks/stains.

Lighting is something that every room must have, but there's more to lighting than hanging a single bulb in the middle of a room. Here are some key points to consider before you go shopping.

If you are about to build a home or planning a reno, lighting is one of the first factors you need to consider. You will need to tell your builder and electrician where you want powerpoints for the various lights you choose – from downlights to lamps. Most spaces need a combination of task and mood lighting options.

Even if you are looking to install lights in an existing home, it's a good idea to consider how you use each room and what natural light it already receives. For example, lighting requirements in the kitchen will be different from the bedroom. Consider each room individually. And even if you do need more task-orientated lighting, that doesn't mean you have to go for boring choices. An industrial pendant can work in a bathroom if it emits enough light.

We all know the importance of choosing low-energy lightbulbs such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), linear fluorescents and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). CFLs are generally used in kitchens and can be installed under higher cupboards to illuminate bench food prep areas. LEDs save about 90 to 95 per cent of energy on traditional globes and are the most energy-efficient.

Design scheme
As with any other element in your interior, consider your lighting within the overall scheme. If your place has a beachy look, pendants made from pale timbers, bamboo or ply will look great. Industrial spaces are the perfect place to showcase enamel pendants, more modern styles (like those available at Artemide.com.au), or chrome-plated angled desk-style lighting.

Statement lights
Light features that grab your attention when you step into the room have become increasingly popular. If you want to make a statement with your lighting, remember to temper the rest of your furniture and furnishings. You should only have one "hero" element in a room. Areas that are well-suited to statement lights include dining rooms and hallways. Generally, bedrooms are places to relax and so more subdued lighting is best.

Kitchen lighting
The kitchen is one of the most important spaces to prioritise function. But you're not restricted to bland lights. If you need plenty of light over your island benchtop, hang three pendants instead of one. Also, you can supplement this with halogen or fluorescent lights under cupboards. This can be effective if you have an open-plan living area and don't want the full glare of pendants when eating dinner, but still want some visibility in the kitchen.

Accent lighting
It's not only important to consider what's going to hang from your ceiling, but what you will place on your bedside and living room side tables, too. When guests visit in the evening, create a relaxing ambience by lighting your space with table lamps rather than glaring overhead pendants. Size and style depend on your existing decor. Also, consider floor lamps for larger areas such as living rooms. Standing lamps transform dreary corners and offer a great solution if you can't have an electrician install overhead fittings. The wide variety of floor lamps means you can easily update a rental property, too.

Media rooms
Go for lighting options that won't create glare or reflect on your TV or computer screen. Consider floor lamps with low-wattage bulbs or table lamps with dimmer switches. Dimmer overhead lights are also a good idea.


While other heating technologies come and go, the old-fashioned fireplace still has lasting appeal. It's not necessarily the most efficient way to heat your home, but certainly one of the most stylish. There are also mixed messages on whether they are good for the environment due to the emissions they create. The counter-argument is that they're greenhouse neutral due to the oxygen-producing trees that are planted for firewood. So if you want to add one to your place, or update an older model, here's what to consider...

A new addition
Generally, fireplaces are easier to create during the construction of a new home or when adding an extension, rather than incorporating into an existing place with no chimney. So if your home belongs to this last category you'll need to consider where to put the fireplace so it can release smoke outside. Alternatively, you might want to look into gas fires.

Fire choices
Wood Even if you have a chimney, ensure it's in good working order. If it's not, or you don't have one, you can consider a direct venting system, which uses an exterior wall. Wood fires are more expensive to buy than many other heating options, but they do have lifestyle appeal. On the plus side, they generate a lot of heat and are well-suited to large, open-plan areas.

Gas A popular option for people who don't want to clean up regularly after a wood fire. Gas fireplaces can be vented through a chimney, direct-vented or possibly use a vent-free system. They're available in myriad stylish designs.

Vent-free As the name suggests, a vent-free fireplace means you don't need a chimney or an external wall. However, because the heat is retained so well, it's advised not to use them for long periods of time, or in confined spaces.

Electric Generally, electric fires are easy and convenient to operate. But they are not the most efficient way to heat a room.

Bioethanol Powered by bioethanol fuel – a sustainable energy created from processing plant extracts these fires (also known as gel fires) are a good option if your home doesn't have a chimney or gas supply. The downside? The high running costs – 20 times greater than a gas fire for the same heat output. Also, your room will require natural ventilation for bioethanol.

Hot features
For wood fires look for a combustion-style firebox to disperse heat effectively. For gas fires, consider a remote control that controls temperature settings and fan speeds; thermostats, which allow you to set your ideal temperature; programmable timers, which mean you can get heat when you want it; child locks as an added safety feature; and electronic ignition, which saves money as you don't need a pilot light constantly running.


Forget the fancy gizmos and gadgets, what you really should be looking for when buying a fridge is good food storage!

For optimum food storage, choose a fridge that maintains a constant temperature throughout all compartments – those featured here have all been tested by Choice magazine and maintain good temperature control.

Energy efficiency
Recent improvements in energy efficiency has meant greater temperature fluctuation. But don't be put off. After all, you want to be enviro-aware and save money, too. And take note – in April 2010 the Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) revised energy star ratings, raising the bar – a fridge that may have been 4 stars may now only be 2-star rated. So also consider the energy usage (kWh/year) info.

Which design?
Good design is determined by how the product is used. Bottom-mount styles have the freezer below the fridge, which is a popular design as people generally access the fridge the most and, therefore, there's less bending involved. Top-mount fridges are generally much cheaper than their upside-down counterparts, but the freezer sections can be small in comparison to the fridge space. Side-by-side models offer more internal space and they look streamlined, too. French door has the fridge on top with two wide doors and a freezer below. They look smart and have great internal space (ideal for families), but there's limited brand choice.

Road test
Can you open the doors easily? Are drawers simple to adjust? Is it easily mobile? A fridge on four wheels is easier to manoeuvre than one on two.

Top tips
It sounds obvious, but it can get overlooked: make sure the fridge you're looking to buy can fit through the doors at your place.

Fridges need some space around them to work well, so make this allowance in your measurement calculations.

Pigeon pairs (separate fridge and freezer units) are narrower individually but take up a larger footprint overall.

Having a separate in-built control for the fridge and freezer will help provide more consistent temperatures in both compartments.

Note that if you do want a water dispenser or ice maker, it will need to be connected to a water tap, which will effect where you can place the fridge. Also, you can lose up to one-third of your freezer's space.

In NSW you can get a $35 rebate for recycling your old fridge (which will cost an extra $225 a year on your power bills to run, as older models consume up to three times more energy). Collection is free. Fridgebuyback.com.au


It's hard to beat timber flooring – it's durable, looks good and can be an eco choice. Hard flooring also offers low ongoing maintenance. But consider this: Where will it go? Older homes often have timber floorboards, so just rip up the existing surface, remove any protruding nails or glue, then sand, stain and varnish. You can apply timber over an existing substrate like ply or concrete. If you live in a unit, you may need to lay acoustic insulation first.

Type of timber
Hardwood floorboards are hard-wearing, whereas soft woods, such as pine, will damage quicker. Pine also tends to have more knots and whorls, which explains why it is a cheaper option. Lighter-coloured timbers such as Blackbutt, New England oak and spotted gum are currently some of the most popular timbers in Australia. Bamboo is a fast-growing renewable resource that provides a consistent colour.

Type of boards
There are many options when it comes to the type of board you choose, including solid timber boards, engineered-timber floorboards (or floating floors) and laminate flooring. Solid timber boards need to be stored inside your home for about two weeks before they're installed so the timber can dry out and shrink or expand, depending on the internal temperature. The boards need to be nailed into place. Once they have been laid, all imperfections and nail holes need to be filled with a water-based wood filler, sanded smooth and vacuumed before an oil, stain or varnish is applied. Floating floors comprise layers of ply covered with a timber veneer. They are easy to install as they generally work on a click and lock system. Also, the boards are pre-finished so they can be walked on straight away. Laminates are a composite of high-density fibreboard covered with a printed layer that resembles timber. Generally a foam underlay needs to be placed on the floor first. Some laminate planks don't need gluing.

Standard widths are 80mm, 110mm and 140mm. The thickness of dressed floorboards is usually about 19mm. Wide floorboards have become quite fashionable, but not only are they more expensive as they're less common, they can also be more complicated to install. For boards wider than 80mm (sometimes up to 130mm) "top-nailing" is used whereby nails are driven through the timber surface. These then have to be puttied over and sanded before any top stain or varnish is applied. However, boards under this width are attached with "secret fixing" &ndash: a method that sees nails driven in at an angle so that they're not visible from the surface.

Green choice
When it comes to the environment (and some would say looks, too), recycled floorboards are the best option. Hardwood timber from plantations can take up to 100 years to grow and replace what you've bought for your home. However, recycled boards can be more expensive. As a happy medium, buying timber that is FSC-certified means you're supporting a sustainably managed forest. Timbers to consider from an environmental point of view include rubberwood from old rubber trees, FSC-plantation eucalypt and bamboo. Timbers to stay clear of include Burmese teak, African mahogany, Merbau, Ramin, Meranti.

If using solid timber floorboards, you'll need to decide on a finish too. Options include tung oil, pre-tinted water-based and solvent-based polyurethanes as well as clear polyurethanes that require you to stain the timber first. Polyurethane is the most hardwearing.


There are two basic types of heater – radiant or convection – and sometimes they're combined.

Radiant heaters
These work by radiating heat, which is created from an element that heats cool air. They tend to be inexpensive, easy to move around and good for warming small areas. But they are hot to touch so be cautious with children.

Convection heaters
More of a fan-based system – they suck air in, heat it up and send it back. They can warm large spaces by replacing cold air. Hidden elements make them more child-friendly.

Other options
Quartz tube heaters tend to have up to three heating-element tubes with a metal grille as the only protection from potential burns. Look for models with automatic tilt and overheat cut-off facilities.

Oil column heaters can be slow to heat up but they provide a warm, constant heat.

Ceramic heaters are usually flat, and can be wall mounted. They are often used for floor heating.

Halogen lamps are apparently quite energy efficient, but they are a developing technology.

Handy features
Check a portable heater comes with a tilt shut-off feature, which is activated if the heater is knocked over. Also, an overheat cut-off device is good to have.

These can save you money by switching off when a room is warm, and can preheat a space before you arrive home or wake up.

Heaters with this mechanism help spread heat further so good for open-plan spaces.

Air filter
If you'd like a convection heater, consider an air filter – it's good for families with allergies as it prevents dust from being redistributed.

For more great renovation features, check out our home improvement section.



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