Reupholstering your furniture is a major investment. It's also a major risk. So how do you ensure you're getting your money's worth without making an expensive style mistake?

There it sits, 10 years later, amid a living room that's seen three different paint jobs and a houseful of kids and pets. You spent what seemed like a small fortune on a sofa that was meant to last a lifetime, but now it looks as tired as you feel at the end of a long workweek.

However, this isn't the time to start sofa shopping again, experts say. You have a range of options for reconditioning this hardest working piece of furniture (as well as that favorite upholstered armchair or ottoman). A well-made piece of furniture, designers note, really proves its value when it's looking its most beleaguered a sagging exterior can easily be brought back to life if it covers a well-constructed frame.

“A great sofa lasts a lifetime, and any changes you make to it are really surface changes,” says Elaine Griffin, of New York City-based Elaine Griffin Interior Design, who adds that a range of revitalizing options are available when furniture has good “bones.”

“It's exactly like going to talk to a plastic surgeon or a dermatologist,” she says. “You have superficial things you can do or you have very detailed things you can do.”

Slip into something new

Renovating a piece of upholstered furniture involves a number of decisions, beginning with the choice to redo instead of buy new. Slipcovers provide the easiest, and least expensive, makeover, experts say.

New York City designer Michael Tavano, of Michael Tavano Design, suggests slipcovers as a great accessory, regardless of a sofa or chair's age. In addition to protecting more expensive upholstery from summer sun and tracked-in sand, slipcovers, he says, allow furniture owners the chance to explore more playful colors and patterns.

“I always think you can be a little more whimsical with slipcovers,” he says. “They really do give you a whole different look for the summer.”

Next in scope comes re-covering as opposed to full-scale reupholstery. This process involves simply changing out the exterior fabric and, perhaps, refreshing cushions. Griffin finds this level of rejuvenation the best approach for giving an upscale makeover to local thrift-store finds. She'll even have cushions from clients' new, moderately priced pieces redone with a foam core wrapped in down padding to give them a luxurious look and comfortable support.

“It gives you the down effect, but there's still something in the center,” she says. “Pure down is very luxurious, but it sinks down every time you sit on it. It's something you should do every 10 to 15 years. It's very affordable and it gives your existing upholstered pieces a new look.”

Getting a custom look

True reupholstering, notes Tavano, is a much more laborious and expensive process, which involves pulling off all the existing batting and foam and stripping the piece down to the frame. Though the result can cost as much as or even more than a new, higher-end model, real reupholstering allows furniture owners the chance to create a sofa or chair that's truly unique.

“You can change a scroll arm you can square it off. You can change the shape of the back,” he says. “You're getting a custom job when you reupholster.”

And, notes Dave Ross, a former Superior, Wis., upholsterer, who has offered upholstery advice on a number of HGTV and DIYNetwork home-improvement shows, the added expense also gives customers access to a range of fabrics typical manufacturers don't offer.

“The plus side is the amount of fabrics you can select from is ten times as much as the options you would get from a manufacturer,” he says. “That has created a new customer for reupholstering.”

However, working your way through the range of fabric offerings can seem daunting at first. Determining the composition of the fabric is an important first step, Ross says. He suggests starting the decision-making process by considering where and how the piece of furniture will be used. Options for a pristine living room are pretty wide open, he says, but in a well-used family room he recommends more durable polyesters, olefins and blends.

Tavano offers several options, both natural and synthetic, for heavily used rooms, including cleanable wools for heavily used family rooms and synthetic ultrasuede for kitchen banquettes and chairs an option Griffin recommends, as well.

“A child could spill something on it and you could wash it out with a little dishwashing liquid,” Griffin says of this synthetic suede material. “It would be just like new.”

A delicate balancing act

Choosing between solids, patterns and stripes can be a little more challenging. Some designers think chairs and ottomans are better candidates for patterned fabrics than room-dominating sofas. This is the approach Tavano takes, often opting for more subtle strategies to add visual interest to these larger pieces. He likes pairing differently textured fabrics in subtly similar hues or eye-popping contrasts to define furniture lines and create drama without overwhelming the room.

Others suggest patterns, stripes and prints can all co-exist, so long as all elements are in proportion to both the room and each other, and there is plenty of solid color to balance the composition. Griffin reserves large-scale pattern for large-scale pieces, and only allows one element in a room floor, ceiling walls or furniture to really shine.

“Proportion is really the thing that governs good taste,” says Griffin. “If you have very big patterns in a very small room, that doesn't look good. It's the same rule that applies to clothes. Your room exists as a whole at the end of the day, you've got to think of it all together.”