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Mattress Buying Guide

By: Kelly Burgess on July 24, 2017

What the best mattress has

  • Adequate spinal support. Your mattress should allow your spine to assume the same natural curve when you lie down as when you're standing.
  • Motion isolation. Low-end innerspring mattresses transmit more motion from one person in the bed to another, while foam mattresses and high-end innersprings transmit less. This is important because you don't want to be shaken awake every time your partner turns or gets up to go to the bathroom.
  • Freedom of movement. Some foam mattresses, and memory foam in particular, make changing positions difficult because of the way they conform to the body. Some people like that "envelopment," others feel smothered. Also, a mattress that has little movement also may not have the "bounce" that many prefer for intimacy.
  • A good warranty. Although experts warn that a mattress may not last nearly as long as its warranty period, several do consider a long warranty a reliable sign of the manufacturer's confidence in the mattress's quality.
  • Warranty coverage for sagging. In addition to considering the length of the warranty, pay attention to how it covers sagging, the most common problem with aging mattresses.
  • Good return policy. While traditional mattresses usually have cumbersome (or non-existent) return policies, online-only mattresses tend to have no- or low-fee, no-hassle policies as long as you return them within the specified time frame.

Know before you go

What size do you need? Standard mattress dimensions in the U.S. are: twin, 39 inches by 75 inches; double or full, 54 inches by 75 inches; queen, 60 inches by 80 inches; standard king, 76 inches by 80 inches; and California king, 72 inches by 84 inches. Some high-end mattresses don't come in sizes smaller than a queen, so make sure the mattress you try in the store is available in the size you want.

How tall do you want your bed? Mattresses seem to be getting thicker and taller all the time -- a really thick pillow top can be so tall that you'll need extra-deep fitted sheets (which we cover in their own report) for them to fit on the bed. However, platform beds can take your high-profile mattress down a notch, to make it easier to crawl in and out of bed, while box springs, or foundations, can raise it up if you prefer a lofty look.

How do you sleep? People who normally sleep on their sides may prefer a softer mattress than back or stomach sleepers to avoid pressure point pain in the hips and shoulders. However, a medium-firm mattress is usually comfortable for everyone.

Do you overheat at night? Foam mattresses retain more body heat than innerspring mattresses. A latex mattress may provide better ventilation than memory foam. If you find a foam mattress you love, but feel like you sleep too hot, a wool mattress topper (covered in their own report) can help keep you cool.

Will you share the mattress? If you strongly prefer a firm mattress while your partner prefers a soft one or vice versa, your best option may be an air mattress that can be adjusted to a different level of firmness on each side. However, those can be pricey. Another alternative would be to investigate customizing a latex mattress through a company like FloBeds or Sleep EZ. These built-to-order beds don't get any better or worse reviews than other latex mattresses, but they might be worth a shot for those with very different firmness preferences.

How will you support the mattress? All beds need some kind of support, whether it's a platform, closely spaced slats or a box spring. Box springs have undergone quite a few changes in the past decade or so, and often do not even have springs in them any longer, since mattresses have become more springy and thicker. While traditional box springs still exist, they are largely being replaced with "foundations," which are sturdy boxes made from wood or metal. Regardless of which type of mattress you choose, you will need to support it via a box spring or foundation, by the use of a platform bed, or with a piece of plywood or very closely spaced slats on your bed frame. Mattresses can also be placed directly on the floor, although most people don't find that very comfortable for getting in and out of bed. Most manufacturers also make box springs and foundations in "low-profile" styles so that the mattress is supported, but you don't have to climb too high to get in bed.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

When surfing the larger manufacturer's website to learn about their mattresses, just ignore whatever price they have posted there -- that's probably not even close to what you'll actually pay. The "suggested retail price" on mattresses tend to be exceptionally high, as models are often priced to be sold at discounts of 50 percent or more. And don't ever be afraid to haggle when you're in the mattress store. If they know you're serious about making a purchase, salespeople may find a way to sweeten the deal rather than watch you walk out the door. Even if you can't knock down the price, a little bit of negotiation could land you a free foundation or a good deal on a frame or headboard.

Traditional mattress manufacturers are starting to respond to the start-up upstarts like Casper with their one-price, no tricks foam mattresses. Sealy, to use one example, now has a Cocoon line that is an online-only foam mattress, with a 100-night trial period and free returns (it gets pretty "meh" reviews, though, which is why we don't recommend it). Big companies, like Sealy, are gambling that they can better afford to absorb the losses from returns than these newer dealers. We expect that mattress buying, in general, is going to become a lot more transparent as traditional mattress companies bow to the reality of easy, lower cost, internet mattress purchases.

Another alternative for those who still like to try before they buy, experts say, is to visit smaller, factory direct mattress stores that use their own sourcing and often offer higher quality mattresses -- such as specialty latex -- and better, more knowledgeable customer service. Because they work closely with their sources, rather than just selling pre-made mattresses, these stores can often help "build" a mattress to a customer's specifications.

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