The floor has an immense impact on your perception of a home. Unless you have wall-to-wall carpeting everywhere, you have some sort of hard-surfaced flooring. The ideal floor is bullet-proof—impervious to foot traffic, pets, and water, and is as decorative as you want. A floor can serve as a muted background for more colorful accents or can become a design element unto itself. If you are thinking about a new floor, there are lots of choices—many DIY-friendly, some not so much—and a broad range of materials and prices.
Solid Wood Flooring
Solid wood flooring has been the traditional choice in flooring and is still one of the most popular choices today. A large amount of wood flooring is manufactured here in the U.S., from native woods like oak, maple, ash, walnut, and cherry. But flooring made from imported woods like Jatoba is also available. Most solid wood flooring is ¾” thick. Wood strip flooring is typically manufactured in standard widths of 2 ¼” and 3 ¼”. Wider widths are usually referred to as planks.
Strip and plank flooring are usually sold in random lengths. Strip flooring boards and some plank flooring comes with tongue-and-groove joints milled along edges and ends, to create a strong, flat installation of interlocking joints. Installation is typically done by “blind-nailing” at an angle through the tongue of each flooring board and into a plywood subfloor, using a special flooring nailer. Plank floors that feature wider boards without milled T&G edges are face-nailed to the subfloor, with fasteners left exposed, or counterbored and covered by wood plugs. Most solid wood flooring is installed unfinished; then the flooring is sanded, stained and sealed with a hard, clear finish, or simply left natural with the protection of clear finish coats. Alternatively, it’s possible to find wood strip flooring that comes with a factory-applied finish. Being able to walk on and use a new wood floor as soon as it’s installed is sometimes an advantage. Materials can cost $3 -to $10 per square foot.
Advantages: Different wood species are available, including flooring made from reclaimed lumber. Solid wood flooring can be refinished multiple times and can last the lifetime of the house.
Disadvantages: Susceptible to moisture damage, pet stains, etc. Installation is usually a pros-only affair.
Engineered Hardwood Flooring
Intended to resemble solid wood flooring, engineered wood flooring is manufactured by bonding a thin (typically 1/8” thick) “wear layer” of solid wood, to a plywood or composite substrate. Like solid wood strip flooring, engineered wood flooring has edges that interlock, but the laminated strips are not as thick. You can find engineered wood flooring in thicknesses that range from around ¼” to around 5/8”.
Many different wood species and styles are available, and the factory-applied finishes are usually very durable. This type of flooring is especially popular in remodeling applications where you want the look of a solid wood floor, but without the mess of sanding and finishing or the extra flooring thickness that can cause problems with headroom or threshold transitions. Unfinished engineered wood flooring is available in more limited amounts, but most folks prefer to order factory-finished material. DIYers can look for “floating” or glue-down flooring that is easier to install because no nailing is required. Materials range in cost from $1 to $5 per square foot. NOTE: When shopping for engineered wood flooring, make sure the material you buy has a top wear layer at least 1/8” thick. Less-expensive flooring will have a thin veneer wear layer that is more easily damaged and can’t be refinished.
Advantages: Many different wood species and styles are available. Can be DYI-friendly, so cheaper to install, especially the prefinished styles. Certain species, like bamboo, are very long lasting. More resistant than solid hardwood to moisture, so some types can be used on basement concrete slabs.
Disadvantages: Most styles can’t be refinished more than two or three times.
Another engineered product, laminate is made of a tough synthetic substrate that’s bonded to photo-realistic patterns (woodgrain, faux stone, etc.) that are protected by a clear wear layer. Laminate is installed by first covering the subfloor or existing floor with a thin mat made of high-density Styrofoam or cardboard; the planks snap together with or without glue. Cost for materials runs between $0.75 per square foot to $4 per square foot.
Advantages: Extremely wear-resistant, very easy to install, cleans up with a damp mop, can be installed over an existing floor, can even be moved to a new installation.
Disadvantages: Can’t be refinished. Some people object to the sound that laminate makes when walked upon.
Sold in sheets, tiles or planks, in styles, patterns and colors that range from faux wood to stone to colorful floral patterns. Sheets and interlocking planks are installed as a floating floor, tiles are adhesive backed. Sheet vinyl costs $0.75 to $4 per square foot; tile costs range between $1 to $8 per square foot; planks run about $5 per square foot.
Advantages: Very DYI-friendly to install (except for sheet goods, which should be installed by professionals), water-resistant, long-lasting, easy to clean, slip-resistant, comfortable, and economical.
Disadvantages: Made from PVC, and has a potential for VOC off-gassing from vinyl and/or adhesives; cannot be refinished.
This material has been a popular kitchen floor for the last 150 years. Linoleum flooring is made from natural products like linseed oil, jute, and binders. It comes in sheets and tiles. You can buy tile that glues to the subfloor, or tile that clicks together with interlocking joints, for a floating floor. Many patterns and colors are available. Sheet linoleum costs $2 to $2.50 per square foot; tiles average around $3.50 per square foot.
Advantages: Made from natural ingredients. Long-wearing retains color even when scratched.
Disadvantages: Sheet installs not recommended for DIYers. It’s not waterproof, so it should be sealed annually to maintain its water resistance.
Available in ceramic or porcelain; the latter is much harder and more wear resistant. Thousands of styles and sizes are available. The tile itself costs between $0.50 per square foot and $15 per square foot, but you also have to add the cost of the backer board, adhesive (thin set mortar), and grout, plus hand tools and the rental of a tile saw if you’re installing it yourself.
Advantages: Extremely hard surface, long-lasting, impervious to water. Great for kitchens, bathrooms, entryways, and laundry rooms. Relatively easy to install, can be installed over concrete, or cement board; works well when installed over radiant heating.
Disadvantages: Can be slippery when wet. Must be installed on a stable subfloor; any movement in the subfloor could cause cracking.
Slate and Other Natural Stone
These natural flooring materials share many characteristics with tile and require similar tools and materials for installation. But unlike tile, natural stone will contain irregularities that give any installation a more natural or rustic appearance. With the right tools and some research, it can be, like tile, an approachable installation for a homeowner. Materials range from $5 per square foot to $35 per square foot.
An extremely versatile medium, concrete floors can be stained with different colors or decorated with overlays, patterns, and designs. New or existing floors are etched, polished, decorated, and then sealed. One variety of concrete flooring known as terrazzo has been used in Europe since the sixteenth century, and is characterized by its use of mosaics, colors, and patterns. Costs for concrete floors can range from $2 to $6 per square foot for a simple one-color treatment to $15 to $30 per square foot for complex inlays, patterns, and multi-color stains.
Advantages: Hard, extremely durable, waterproof surface; also works well with radiant heat.
Disadvantages: Profession installation recommended.
A thick paint applied to a concrete floor, usually in a garage, as a decorative, protective layer. Available as water-based or solid epoxy, the paint comes in many colors and textures. The concrete must be free of cracks and spalling, swept clean, prepared according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and dry before the paint can be applied. Color flakes can be added for accent and slip resistance, then followed by a clear coat. Cost runs between $0.50 and $1.20 per square foot. Coverage for water-based epoxy runs to about $1.40 per square foot for the longer-lasting solid-epoxy.
Advantages: Brightens up drab garage spaces. Made to resist oil and fluid spills, the epoxy surface is easy to clean.
Disadvantages: Installation, while technically simple, is labor-intensive. The slab must be dry and chemically clean. Any significant moisture within the slab may cause the epoxy to peel or flake.
Carpeting is the renovator’s dream flooring, because it can be installed over almost any existing floor. Indoor/outdoor carpeting can even be installed on a basement slab. Carpeting is made from a number of different materials, and each has its advantages and price points. Synthetics such as polyester and polypropylene are wear- and stain-resistant, don’t fade easily and are relatively inexpensive – about $1-$3/sq. ft.
Nylon carpeting, about $2 -$5/sq. ft., is long-lasting, easy to clean and a good choice for high-traffic areas. The more expensive materials are natural products such as sisal, cotton, and wool. While sisal is tough and very long-wearing, cotton has a soft feel but stains easily. Wool has a thick texture, is comfortable underfoot and stain resistant. Expect to pay between $5-$15/sq. ft. for rugs made from these fibers. On the DIY-side, carpet is also available in peel and stick tiles that are much easier to install. Made from synthetics such as polyester, these tiles cost between $1-$3/ sq. ft.