Last updated February 2018
What can go underfoot if you’re installing new flooring has changed significantly. While your grandparents might have just had the option of solid-oak strips, nailed in and finished onsite, you now can choose from myriad materials and finishes. Still, just like your older, wiser family members, you want a flooring company that provides solid advice and top-notch installation at reasonable prices.
Choosing a flooring type is the first step. Below is a rundown of the most popular choices. Also check Consumer Reports ’ ratings of a sample of products offered by popular flooring brands.
Choosing a type of flooring is the first step. Below is a quick rundown of the pros and cons of the most popular choices. You might also want to check Consumer Reports ’ ratings of a sample of products offered by popular flooring brands. (Click here for Checkbook’s advice on buying carpeting and rugs.)
Solid-Wood Strips or Planks
Still on good footing: standard 3/4-inch-thick solid-wood flooring. It looks and feels more realistic than any engineered marvels.
Plus, solid wood can be sanded and refinished three or more times, and it’s far less expensive to refinish a floor than to invest in a new one. (Click here for advice on floor refinishing.) Refinishing will cure most ugly stains, scratches, and uneven wear.
Solid wood is also durable but not indestructible—most solid-wood flooring (except for the most expensive bamboo floors) dents easily and wears faster than other options. It can also be discolored by exposure to sunlight, and can warp and buckle if it’s laid in areas prone to moisture, like basements.
The biggest drawback to solid wood is price: Good-quality prefinished flooring costs from $8 to over $14 per square foot, installed. And exotic hardwoods can cost much more.
Solid-wood flooring is graded #2 Common, #1 Common, Select, or Clear. Clear means the fewest number of knots, wild grains, and color variations that are considered defects. With the higher grades, hue and grain are relatively closely matched from one piece to another. (Exotic hardwood species may use a different rating system.)
The grade of the flooring is relatively unimportant for medium or dark finishes because the finish will camouflage many defects. As a rule, pay more for select grades only if you want a very uniform floor with a natural finish under a clear sealer. Also consider whether “defects” like wild grains and color variation actually might be desirable, since they can lend the surface a unique look.
Some wood species are harder than others, meaning they’re more difficult to dent. Wood hardness is measured using the Janka Hardness Test, which is the amount of pounds of force (lbf) needed to embed half the diameter of a small steel ball into the wood. The Janka rating for red oak, for example, is around 1,260 lbf. The softest woods have ratings below 800 lbf, the hardest above 3,000 lbf. Although the hardest woods won’t dent easily, they are more prone to splitting, making them more difficult to install than softer ones.
When comparing products, be aware that grade and Janka rating say nothing about precisely how a product was manufactured, which will affect how well pieces fit together when installed and how long any factory-applied finish will last.
Engineered-wood flooring consists of several layers of wood—usually plywood—glued together and topped with a hardwood veneer. The veneer is finished and sealed at the factory and, as with prefinished solid-wood stuff, there are countless wood species and colors. Compared to the alternatives, engineered wood best mimics the real thing.
In general, better-quality engineered-wood flooring products have thicker veneer layers than lower-quality ones. Many high-quality veneers can even be refinished once or twice. If you can afford it, consider only flooring with veneers at least 1/8-inch thick.
For durability, engineered wood tends to dent easily and moisture, even from small spills, can cause permanent damage. Many factory-applied topcoats tend to scratch very easily; you’ll be dismayed by how much damage a small pebble stuck on the sole of your shoe can do, not to mention the carnage produced by kids’ Hot Wheels and dogs’ nails.
But at $5 to $10 per square foot installed, engineered-wood flooring usually costs considerably less than solid wood.
Made of dense fiberboard topped with a photo image protected by clear plastic, laminates can mimic nearly any type of flooring. But many laminate products use a repetitive pattern that’s a giveaway they aren’t really wood.
Because they resist scratching, denting, and discoloration from sunlight better than other flooring, the best laminates offer great durability. But if you do have an accident, it will be hard to fix. Small nicks and scratches can be hidden using touchup pens, but the only cure for bigger dings is new floors.
What gives laminates an advantage is price: Good-quality flooring runs $4 to $7 per square foot, including installation.
The protective layers on laminates are classified by Abrasion Class (AC) from one to five, with a higher number representing a better wear grade. AC1 is for light, infrequent traffic; AC5 is for commercial spaces. Since they’re so durable, AC2 and AC3 laminates are probably adequate for most homes.
When you walk across the floor of a supermarket, school, or hospital, you’re likely treading on vinyl. It can be manufactured with a top layer that includes a wood grain design. Since it is plastic, vinyl isn’t affected by moisture, isn’t easily discolored by sunlight, and is the easiest to clean of all the flooring options.
Vinyl flooring comes in rolls, tiles, and planks or strips cut to look like wood. In addition to durability, vinyl’s main selling point is price: Even the highest-quality varieties are relatively inexpensive, from $2 to $6 per square foot, installed. But, unfortunately, even the best vinyl products look like, well, vinyl.
Often confused with vinyl, most linoleum is made from natural products—such as linseed oil from flax, wood powder, limestone, and resins—backed with jute. It is more eco-friendly than most other flooring options—and it is durable, easy to clean, and not easily damaged by moisture.
Like vinyl, linoleum comes in rolls, tiles, and planks or strips cut to look like wooden pieces. In general, thicker products are of higher quality. Most linoleum products are inexpensive, from $4 to $8 per square foot, including installation. But the best-quality linoleum products, which mimic wood, are expensive, $9 or more per square foot installed.
Other options include bamboo and cork, which are renewable resources that offer distinctive looks.
Some types of flooring are inappropriate for certain rooms. For example, solid-wood flooring isn’t a good choice for basements or areas where spills might frequently occur. The condition of the subfloor might also affect your choice of material. In this respect, solid-wood and good-quality engineered-wood flooring surpass other materials in that the subfloor doesn’t have to be perfect because planks are strong enough to bridge minor problems. A subfloor of 1/2-inch plywood is usually sufficient for solid- and engineered-wood installation.
For flooring materials other than solid- and engineered-wood, an underlayment is necessary since these thinner planks or slats aren’t strong enough to bridge sags or otherwise beef up a weak subfloor: They’re decorative, not structural. Thicker pads made of high-density foam or rubber greatly reduce sound transmission; the ultimate silencer is cork.
Discuss with suppliers and installers—and include in any contract—how subfloors will be prepped and what underlayment will be used.
While solid-wood flooring is almost always installed with an angle nailing machine, other flooring types can be glued down. This usually requires carefully prepping the subfloor by scraping and leveling it to an almost perfectly flat surface. The planks are then fitted together and glued to the subfloor.
Another installation method is a “floating floor.” This means an underlayment is installed and the planks are locked together on top via a snap-and-click system.
Once you’ve settled on a type of flooring, you’ll have to decide what you want it to look like. Do you want a natural light finish, or a dark mahogany or walnut finish? Even within relatively narrow finish choices, there will be several options.
For solid- or engineered-wood flooring, you’ll also have to pick a wood species. You’ll find a great number of choices, each at varying price points. Before spending a lot more for exotic woods, compare their finished looks with those of more common, less expensive options. Often an expensive exotic hardwood doesn’t appear very different than a cheaper species stained in certain colors.
Narrow down the forest of choices by getting samples—lots of them—and taking them home. Compare them in both daylight and after dark. You’ll be surprised how different materials and finishes look in your home compared to under industrial store lighting.
Selecting a Supplier and Installer—and Getting Good Prices
You want to buy from a supplier that can provide good advice, offers a wide variety of products, performs quality installation work, keeps its promises, promptly makes things right if things go wrong—and charges a good price.
We find that many area flooring companies consistently fail to satisfy their customers. What’s disturbing is that so many of the negative comments we receive from consumers are related to workmanship—floors that buckled, uneven and wide gaps between planks, incorrect stains—and other problems that could have been avoided had workers been more diligent or had proper supervision. Often raters were dismayed when they had trouble getting obvious errors resolved.
Once you’ve selected a product (or narrowed down the choices), contact suppliers for prices. If your job is straightforward, you can shop by email and phone, which our undercover shoppers did for a sample of local independents and major chains. But Empire Today repeatedly told our shoppers it will not provide prices without sending a rep to the home.
When collecting prices, specify the exact product to be supplied, including brand, model number, grade, and finish. Include a description of the work areas, including measurements. Specify whether existing baseboards and shoe molding will be replaced or reused, and describe how any transitions (such as doorways) should be covered. Because some companies quote low per-square-foot charges but then gouge customers for necessary finish work, ask companies to total their prices for the entire job. Get all details in writing.
Our undercover shoppers asked for stores’ prices to supply and install two different models of solid-wood flooring and three models of engineered-wood flooring for a 432-sq. ft. room. We found you can save a lot with a little shopping around. For Mullican Muirfield solid-wood flooring, prices quoted to our undercover shoppers by stores in seven metro areas ranged from less than $4,000 to more than $7,500. For Shaw Lakeside engineered-wood flooring, prices ranged from less than $4,500 to more than $8,000.
It’s difficult to compare prices at many of the big chains with other stores. Empire Today, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Lumber Liquidators mostly sell products that are supplied exclusively to them by the manufacturers. This “private labeling” is designed to prevent you from comparing prices.
Although we were unable directly to compare prices for products sold by Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Lumber Liquidators, it’s worth noting that for what we considered comparable products, the prices offered by all of these big chains were typically—but not always—lower than those at independent stores we surveyed.