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Which piece of furniture or household appliance do you use most? The television? The perfectly broken-in sofa you sit on to watch it? Another good guess: The kitchen island? The kids eat and do homework there, and guests crowd around it when you entertain. And let's not forget your computer.

Those are all good guesses, but in all likelihood they are wrong.

You probably use your more bed more than anything. After all, people spend roughly a third of their lives sleeping. And researchers have shown that the condition of your bed significantly affects the two-thirds of your life when you're not in it.

More specifically, "Studies show quality sleep is directly related to the mattress you sleep on," says Pete Bils, vice president of sleep innovation and clinical research at Minneapolis-based Select Comfort, which makes the adjustable Sleep Number air bed.

Poor sleep, he adds, is tied to irritability, lack of focus, unsafe driving and health problems. Signs that your mattress has seen better days include sunken spots that force you and your partner to roll into each other. And if you're waking up sore or stiff, a worn-out mattress may be to blame.

"If you stay at a hotel or a friend's house and sleep better than you do at home, that's a good sign that it's time to start mattress shopping," says Karin Mahoney, director of communications for the International Sleep Products Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade association for the mattress manufacturing industry.

Mattresses seldom hold up for more than 10 years, and they might start breaking down as early as five to seven years, according to the Better Sleep Council, ISPA's consumer education arm. Though it may seem short, that very life span makes mattress-buying a serious business. Making the wrong decision literally could cause you to lose sleep - for up to seven years. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "You made your bed, now you have to lay in it."

Where to start? Specialty, department and furniture stores all sell mattresses. Perhaps the most maddening thing about mattress shopping is that it's difficult to comparison shop among those stores. Although each store might carry the same beds, the model names will differ from one retailer to another. This is not a deliberate tactic to confuse consumers, according to the Better Sleep Council. Rather, it's because retailers, as part of their brand strategies, prefer to offer products that are exclusive to their stores.

But comparison shopping is not impossible. Decide which type of bed you like in one store and ask to see an illustrated or actual "cutaway," or cross-section, of the mattress's interior to see what it's made of. Then, at other stores, you can ask for mattresses of similar construction.

Other factors to take into account while comparison shopping are delivery services and terms, financing options and whether the delivery crew will haul off your old bedding.

When shopping, wear comfortable clothes, and if you co-sleep, bring your partner. You may also want to bring your pillows. Be prepared to kick off your shoes. Then, you and your partner should test out each mattress by lying in your normal sleep positions for 10 to 15 minutes. Though you might be embarrassed, you'll get a much more accurate reading of how your body responds to the mattress then if you pressed your hands into the mattress to see how it responds to your touch. And no one will be thinking, "Get a room," provided you're just simulating sleep.

What you're looking for are comfort and support.

"Comfort is immediately obvious when you lie down on the mattress, while support can be harder to judge," says David Perry, executive editor of

"Furniture Today" magazine. "Sometimes you don't know if a mattress is supportive until the following morning."

Such being the case, "Many retailers offer a 'comfort guarantee' that allows you to take [a mattress] home, try it out for so many days and return it if it doesn't work out," Maloney says.

A comfort guarantee is not the same as a warrantee, which protects against product defects, not loss of comfort and support over time, she adds. Home trial periods vary, but 30 to 60 days is fairly common. Make sure there's a money-back guarantee unless you're fine with a store credit. Also, ask if any pickup and restocking fees apply.

There are several types of mattresses to choose from. The most trendy are high-density or memory foam mattresses, latex mattresses and eco-friendly mattresses made of soy-based foams, sustainable wood framing, and natural and organic cotton and wool. Natura, a Canadian producer with U.S. dealers, is a forerunner in "green" bedding. Simmons has an eco-friendly line called Natural Care.

Latex and foam mattresses are recommended for allergy sufferers because they don't harbor dust mites.

Trends and new technology aside, the most widely sold type of mattress is the familiar old innerspring mattress, consisting of coiled springs covered with layers of upholstery.

Your customary sleep position may help determine the best mattress set for you. Side sleepers put pressure on their shoulders and hips and may be more comfortable on a cushiony mattress to relieve those pressure points. Back sleepers may prefer a memory foam mattress to conform to the curvature of their spines. Unless you and your partner are all-night spooners, you should buy the largest mattress that fits your bedroom and your budget, and that can be maneuvered up tricky stairwells and around tight corners. That way, you can both stretch out a bit without crowding the other person or accidentally waking them with your ice-cold feet.

The best time to purchase a mattress set is on national holidays, like Memorial Day and Labor Day, when they go on sale. Some consumers successfully negotiate the cost, but certain brands invariably sell for the sticker price. To extend the life of a mattress, occasionally rotate and flip it (from end-to-end and from top-to-bottom) according to the manufacturer's instructions. Some one-sided mattresses, such as pillow-top models, need not be flipped.

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