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Smart Stepping

We love the historic appeal of floors covered with wood, stone, or ceramic. But let's face it: These materials can be high in cost, low in comfort, and often require more care than we have time or energy for. That's why the smart money is often on vinyl. This durable flooring shrugs off street grit, pointy heels, and sloppy spills while providing a slip-resistant and often cushiony footing that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. No wonder you find vinyl in almost every American home—usually in kitchens, baths, and entryways.

This category of resilient flooring encompasses an array of products, including sheets, tiles, and planks made of flexible PVC; rigid tiles that combine vinyl and ground limestone; and soft, ruglike sheets that are woven from vinyl-coated fiberglass strands.

Popularized in the mid 20th century, vinyl flooring is still evolving. It's more durable—many companies offer lifetime warranties—and can be installed faster than earlier versions. Patterns and textures convincingly mimic their old-school competitors or boldly go in a more modern direction. And in response to health concerns, some flooring is now certified to meet strict standards for indoor air quality. When a flooring is this versatile and has so many looks, who needs a historic pedigree?

Pictured: It looks like limestone tile, but this floor is actually a textured vinyl sheet, a practical water-resistant pick for bathrooms.

Similar to shown: FiberFloor Fresh Start in Capetown, $1 per square foot uninstalled: tarkettna.com.

Anatomy of a Vinyl Sheet

This flooring, the most popular type, is created layer by layer.

1. Top Coat

Adds sheen as it protects the wear layer.

2. Wear Layer

Safeguards the pattern layer.

3. Pattern Layer

Supplies the sheet's color and its looks.

4. Cushion Layer

Adds bounce and texture.

5. Fiberglass

Keeps the sheet flat.

6. Base Layer

Supports all layers.

Vitals

Photo by Colin Walton/Getty Images

How much does it cost?

Vinyl sheets range from 75 cents to $4 per square foot. Tiles typically cost $1 to $8 per square foot. Planks run about $5 per square foot. In each case, installation is extra.

DIY or hire a pro?

Homeowners can install most tiles and planks themselves. Let a pro lay sheet flooring.

How long will it last?

Warranties on vinyl flooring run from five years to as long as you own the house.

How much care does it need?

Vacuum regularly and mop with soapy water to remove grime and keep colors bright. Do not use abrasives, bleach, or ammonia. Wipe up spills to prevent stains.

Where to buy it?

Home centers and flooring retailers sell a variety of tiles, sheets, and planks, and can recommend an installer if the type you choose isn't DIY-friendly.

Vinyl Type: Sheet

Photo by Courtesy of Tarkett

Invented in 1958, this pro-installed flooring goes down fast and has few, if any, seams. Combines PVC for toughness; fiberglass for stability; foam gel for comfort, texture, and insulation; and urethane for durability. Because of its weight, it can simply be loose laid over a subfloor, or glued down for more permanence.

Vinyl Type: Tiles and Planks

Photo by Courtesy Amtico

These DIY-friendly products go through a manufacturing process similar to the one for vinyl sheets, but they come out harder and stiffer. Glue them down, or join them at the edges and let them "float" over the subfloor.

Vinyl Type: Composition Tile (VCT)

Photo by Courtesy of Mannington

Made with a no-flex mix of vinyl and ground limestone, these tough 12-by-12-inch tiles are commonly used in schools and other institutions. It has to be glued down. Installation is unforgiving because there's no grout and every tile has to be flush with its neighbors; get a pro to do it.

Vinyl Type: Woven

Photo by Courtesy of Bolon

Strands of fiberglass are encapsulated in vinyl and woven into soft, textured sheets that can be glued down or loose laid. Naturally springy, it's stain resistant and easy to clean, and it won't deteriorate when left outdoors.

Durability: Good

Photo by Ted Morrison

Overall thickness: 0.080 inch

Wear-layer thickness: 10 mils

Warranty: 10 years

Other attributes: Urethane top coat has built-in stain protection.

Shown: CushionStep Woodbine Windmill, about $1.70 per square foot uninstalled; armstrong.com

Durability: Better

Photo by Ted Morrison

Overall thickness: 0.100 inch

Wear-layer thickness: 10 mils

Warranty: 15 years

Other attributes: Realistic texture mimics underlying stone, wood, or tile pattern.

Shown: CushionStep Alvina Brownstone; about $2.70 per square foot uninstalled; armstrong.com

Durability: Best

Photo by Ted Morrison

Overall thickness: 0.125 inch

Wear-layer thickness: 15 mils

Warranty: 25 years

Other attributes: Special urethane top coat offers enhanced protection against stains and microbes.

Shown: CushionStep Spanish Saltillo, about $4 per square foot uninstalled; armstrong.com

Is It Healthy?

A chief selling point of vinyl flooring is that it's easy to clean, an obvious health benefit. In addition, some manufacturers top their products with antimicrobial coatings or embed wear layers with particles of silver, a potent germ killer.

The knock against vinyl has more to do with indoor air quality. This is due to the potentially lung-irritating and headache-inducing VOCs that are off-gassed by vinyl flooring and the glues traditionally used to hold it down. If you want to breathe easy, choose FloorScore-certified coverings and adhesives, which meet the building industry's most stringent indoor-air-quality standards. For a list of FloorScore products, go to rfci.com.

Style: Sheet

Photo by Ted Morrison

Widths range from 6 to 15½ feet. Choose one that fits your floor with the fewest seams.

Seagrass Strands

Photo by Ted Morrison

Two layers of foam give this textured flooring extra springiness.

FiberFloor Easy Living Seagrass in Oriental, about $2 per sq. ft.; tarkettna.com

Classic Curves

Photo by Ted Morrison

The "grout lines" are recessed, just as with real ceramic tiles.

FiberFloor Easy Living Antonia in Taupe Brown, about $2 per sq. ft.; tarkettna.com

Luxe Limestone

Photo by Ted Morrison

It has the appearance of pricey tiles but without the expense or hard-to-clean grout.

AirStep Evolution Tuscan Paver in Sand, about $2.75 per sq. ft.; congoleum.com

Multicolor Stripes

Photo by Ted Morrison

Plant-based ingredients keep this woven sheet supple.

Bolan Botanic in Lotus, about $6.50 per sq. ft.; matsinc.com

Quarried Slate

Photo by Ted Morrison

The colors and textures of stone are captured in vinyl.

FiberFloor Easy Living Savana Flagstone in Fossil, about $2 per sq. ft.; tarkettna.com

Style: Tile

Photo by Ted Morrison

Sizes start at 6-inch squares and go up to 24 inches.

Wood Block

Photo by Ted Morrison

It looks like it's made of beefy end-grain cherry blocks, but it's only ⅛-inch-thick vinyl.

ASI Organic Vinyl End Grain, about $5 per sq. ft.; archsystems.com

Metallic Shine

Photo by Ted Morrison

An acrylic floor finish maintains this tile's silvery lustre .

MXF Series #3, about $12 per sq. ft.; aronsonsfloors.com

Rich Veins

Photo by Ted Morrison

Irregular edges need to be grouted, adding to this tile's stonelike realism.

Adura Corsica in Coral Reef, about $5 per sq. ft.; mannington.com

Sky Blue

Photo by Ted Morrison

Vinyl gives VCT squares their vibrant color and stain resistance.

Alternatives Aqua Spring, about $1.50 per sq. ft.; congoleum.com

Style: Plank

Photo by Ted Morrison

Embossed strips, 3 and 4 feet long, allow you to have a floor that looks and feels like wood for a fraction of the cost.

Stained Hickory

Photo by Ted Morrison

Glue these planks down, or lock their edges together to make a floating floor.

Adura Plank Timber Ridge in Weathered Saddle, starting at about $5 per sq. ft.; mannington.com

Bleached Walnut

Photo by Ted Morrison

Each plank of this floating floor sticks to its neighbor.

Luxe Plank Peruvian Walnut in Tropical Coast, about $4.30 per sq. ft.; armstrong.com

Five Ways to Cover a Floor

Photo by Lilyana Vynogradova/iStockphoto

A pro should tackle sheets, both loose laid and glue down, but DIYers can install most tiles and planks. Here are the details to help you choose the right method.

Peel-and-Stick Backs

Photo by Ted Morrison

Factory-applied adhesive secures tiles to concrete, wood, or existing flooring. Easy for DIYers to put down, but surface prep is critical to get a strong bond.

Shown: Race Day Levant in Midnight Black, about $3.65 per sq. ft. uninstalled; bltllc.com

Peel-and-Stick Edges

Photo by Ted Morrison

Adhesive strips on the edges of tiles and planks create a floating floor that's simple to install and doesn't depend on the condition of the subfloor to stay bonded.

Shown: Array Stanton tile in Courtyard, about $2.50 per sq. ft. uninstalled; shawfloors.com

Click-and-Lock Edges

Photo by Virgil Bastos

Tiles and planks with this feature snap together without adhesive, so they float over the subfloor. DIY-friendly, as long as the surface is dead flat.

Shown: Adura Plank in Acacia with LockSolid click connection, starting at about $5 per sq. ft. uninstalled; mannington.com

Loose Laid

Photo by Ted Morrison

For heavy sheets made with rubbery backings, double-sided tape holds edges in place. Best if installed by a pro.

AirStep Evolution Terrace in Mocha, about $2.75 per sq. ft. uninstalled; congoleum.com

Glue Down

Photo by Ted Morrison

If you want to keep your tile or sheet floor indefinitely, bed it in a trowel-applied adhesive over a clean, dry surface.

Shown: North Terrace Alterna tile, which has joints that can be grouted, about $6 per sq. ft. uninstalled; armstrong.com

Where to Use It: Kitchens

From the start, cooking spaces have been the favorite place to put vinyl because it doesn't mind messy spills, dropped pots, or frequent cleaning.

Shown: Ultima Nobility sheet in Royal Gold, about $2 per square foot uninstalled; congoleum.com

Where to Use It: Kids' Rooms

Vinyl is a thrifty, fun way to dress up play areas and bedrooms. And crayon scribbles wipe away easily.

Shown: FiberFloor Easy Living sheet in Elegant Cherry Light, about $2 per square foot uninstalled; tarkettna.com

Where to Use It: Bathrooms

Photo by Simon Whitmore/IPC Media

Seamless sheets offer the best protection from splashes. Vinyl does become slippery when wet, so make sure a bath mat is in place before stepping out of a tub.

Similar to shown: SobellaOmni HD Rustica sheet in Peppercorn, starting at about $3.40 per square foot uninstalled; mannington.com

Where to Use It: Utility Rooms

Vinyl flooring can bear the brunt of all the dirt, snow—and, yes, muck—tracked into mudrooms, or the detergent and water spills in laundry areas.

Shown: Naturals Collection Macedonia sheet in Agate, about $3.60 per square foot uninstalled; mannington.com

Where to Use It: Finished Basements

Vinyl has no qualms about the dampness commonly found in rooms that are below grade.

Shown: FiberFloor Easy Living sheet in Cameron, about $2 per square foot uninstalled; tarkettna.com