Which Flooring Options Are Best for Your Home
There are no home decorating challenge quite so frustrating as old, worn-out floors. You can paint the walls, add accessories, and even replace furniture on a budget, but replacing an entire floor is a much bigger job.
That doesn’t mean you just have to live with your ratty old carpeting or scuffed-up vinyl. These days, there are lots of different flooring options, including several that are very affordable. Vinyl, laminate, and ceramic tile can all cost as little as $1 per square foot.
However, you can’t just pick up one of these cheap flooring choices at random and expect it to work in any space where you plunk it down. Each type of flooring has advantages and disadvantages, and a type that’s ideal for one room could be a terrible choice for another.
So before you get started on your flooring project, it pays to do a little research on the different kinds of flooring and learn about their costs and benefits. Then, you can find a floor that fits both your space and your budget.
Types of Flooring to Consider
No one type of flooring is ideal for every room. For example, hardwood is consistently popular because of its warm, classic look, but it doesn’t hold up well to moisture or rough treatment. Here’s a look at the pros, cons, and costs of several popular types of flooring, as well as some ideas about where they can work best.
Solid wood has been one of the most popular types of flooring in the U.S. for decades. Its construction is about as simple as you can get – wooden boards or planks about 0.75 inches thick, which are installed by nailing them to a wooden subfloor.
Solid wood flooring comes in either strips, which range in width from 1.5 to 2.5 inches, or planks 4 to 8 inches wide. It can be made from many kinds of wood, from domestic species such as oak and maple to exotic varieties such as Brazilian cherry or purpleheart.
Wood flooring can be sold either finished or unfinished. If you choose unfinished flooring, you will need to sand and finish it after installing it. According to Consumer Reports, prefinished wood flooring typically costs less and involves less work. Also, the factory-installed finishes are usually more durable than anything you could do yourself.
Wood is a renewable resource, but it isn’t always harvested in sustainable ways. Cutting trees without planting new ones in their place, or cutting them faster than new ones can grow, contributes to global warming. If you want to be sure your wood floors come from sustainably managed forests, look for flooring certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or the SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative). You can also look for reclaimed wood flooring, which has been recovered from old buildings that have been torn down, but it’s much harder to find and can be more expensive.
People love solid wood flooring because it looks great in any style of home with any decor. It’s also very long-lasting since it can be refinished up to five times to remove surface scratches. Experts say adding hardwood floors can increase the resale value of your home as well.
Wood floors are fairly easy to clean; just sweep them regularly and mop up all spills promptly. And installing them yourself is a reasonably easy DIY project, allowing you to save money on the job.
The biggest downside of hardwood floors is that they don’t stand up well to rough handling. They can warp if they’re exposed to moisture for a long time, making them a bad choice for bathrooms or laundry rooms. They can shrink and swell due to changes in temperature, and they’re vulnerable to scratches and dents. As a result, they need to be refinished as often as once every 10 years to maintain their looks, according to Consumer Reports.
Wood flooring is best for spaces that don’t get lots of traffic, such as living rooms, halls, and bedrooms. Consumer Reports recommends it as the overall best choice for living rooms, dining rooms, and family rooms. Some people use it in kitchens, but Consumer Reports advises against this, saying that wood flooring can’t handle the onslaught of dragging chairs, dropped cans, or grit-covered shoes
According to HGTV, wood flooring typically costs $3 to $8 per square foot. However, choosing exotic wood can raise the price to as much as $14 per square foot. If you have your wood floors professionally installed, it will add $5 to $12 per square foot to the price.
2. Engineered Wood
Engineered wood flooring looks just like solid wood, but it’s made in a different way. It has a thin veneer of natural wood on top, showing the grain, with layers of less expensive plywood underneath. That makes engineered wood both cheaper and sturdier. Some types of engineered wood have even more stability with backing made from recycled wood fiber mixed with stone dust.
Like solid wood flooring, engineered wood comes in a wide variety of wood types, patterns, and board widths. Engineered wood can be nailed down like traditional wood flooring, glued down, or installed as a “floating” floor on top of a foam or cork underlayer. Some engineered wood flooring comes with a special tongue and groove system that clicks into place to form a tight seam without glue or nails.
Engineered wood floors can give you the look of solid wood at a marginally lower price. That makes it easier to afford exotic woods such as tigerwood or Brazilian maple, which are more resistant to scratches and dents. They’re more stable than solid wood and less sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, making them a reasonable choice for a basement room, unlike solid wood.
Many types of engineered wood flooring can be installed directly over a concrete subfloor, something that isn’t always possible with solid wood. Some are even flat enough to install on top of old hardwood floors, saving you the work and expense of ripping out the old floor before installing the new one. And the clickable type of flooring is especially easy to install yourself, saving you even more on installation costs.
Like solid wood, engineered wood can scratch and dent easily. It’s less durable than hardwood over the long run because it can only be refinished one to three times. After that, you risk wearing through the veneer to the plywood underneath.
Engineered wood can work well in all the same spaces as solid wood. In addition, it’s suitable for basements and enclosed porches. Consumer Reports calls it the second-best choice for a living area, next to solid wood.
HGTV says the price of engineered wood is “comparable” to solid wood. However, DIY Network says it’s a bit cheaper at $2 to $7 per square foot. Consumer Reports found an average price of $4.32 per foot for engineered wood flooring, as compared with $5.85 for solid wood. Professional installation will cost about the same as for hardwood.
Bamboo is a fast-growing grass that can produce flooring with the look and feel of hardwood. It’s become popular recently as an eco-friendly alternative to wood flooring, but experts caution that it isn’t always a greener choice.
Just like hardwood, bamboo flooring is available in both solid strips and engineered planks. It comes in several different patterns that show the grain of the grass in different ways. Flat-grain bamboo flooring has darker stripes across the boards, showing the nodes in the bamboo; vertical-grain bamboo flooring has long, narrow strips packed tightly together; and end-grain bamboo has lots of little short strips.
HGTV describes bamboo flooring as “tough and durable.” Like engineered wood, it’s available in forms that are easy to install. Also, many people consider it a more eco-friendly alternative to wood flooring. According to Slate, bamboo grows much faster than most trees, absorbs carbon from the atmosphere more quickly, and can grow in a variety of climates.
Although bamboo is a renewable resource, most bamboo planks are made in and shipped from Asia, which adds to their carbon footprint. Also, many bamboo farmers rely heavily on fertilizers and pesticides that harm the environment. And finally, some bamboo flooring manufacturers use glues high in harmful formaldehyde. Slate concludes that you need to do careful research to be sure the bamboo flooring you’re considering is truly greener than hardwood.
In addition, bamboo flooring varies in durability. The cheaper varieties are vulnerable to scratches and dents, just like wood flooring.
Bamboo flooring works in all the same places as wood. It’s suitable for living areas, hallways, and bedrooms. However, it may not be sturdy enough to use in a kitchen or mudroom.
According to HGTV, bamboo flooring costs about the same as wood at $3 to $8 per square foot, but installation can be a bit more expensive at $7 to $12 per foot.
4. Ceramic Tile
Ceramic tile is made from a mixture of clay and shale that’s fired in a kiln like pottery. It’s a hard material that comes in a huge variety of colors, shapes, and patterns. HGTV warns that not all ceramic tiles are tough enough for flooring, so it’s important to make sure the ones you buy are rated for use on floors.
There are four main types of ceramic tile:
- Glazed Ceramic. This type of tile has a glass-like coating that can give the tile virtually any color or texture. Glazed ceramic tile is practically maintenance-free.
- Porcelain. This tile is fired at very high temperatures, making it extra-hard and durable. It’s available either glazed or unglazed. Both types are stain-resistant and work well in outdoor rooms.
- Quarry Tile. This unglazed ceramic tile has a slightly rough texture, making it more slip-resistant than glazed tile. However, it’s not available in as wide a range of colors.
- Terracotta. This unglazed tile comes only in earth tones. It’s less durable than other tiles and needs regular sealing to prevent stains.
Tile comes in many colors and shapes, so it can fit in with any style of home. Thanks to modern printing technology, it’s also possible to create ceramic tile with virtually any pattern. It can mimic the look of natural stone or even wood, though it won’t feel like wood underfoot.
Tests at Consumer Reports found porcelain tile to be the most durable type of flooring, resistant to scratches, dents, and moisture. It’s also very easy to clean. Glazed ceramic and porcelain tile require very little maintenance, though other types need more.
Tile feels cold and hard underfoot, and it makes footsteps sound louder. Glazed ceramic tile can also be slippery unless it’s coated with a special anti-slip finish.
Durability varies depending on the type of tile you choose. Terracotta tile requires regular sealing. Glazed tile is easy to clean and maintain, but the lines of grout between the tiles can stain if you don’t seal them regularly. And although tile is a durable material, it’s not that easy to fix if a single tile happens to crack.
Consumer Reports says porcelain tile is the best choice for high-traffic areas, such as kitchens and mudrooms, as well as for wet rooms such as baths and laundry rooms. It’s also ideal for an enclosed porch or sunroom.
Because tile comes in so many styles and sizes, it varies widely in price. It’s possible to pay less than $1 per square foot per tile or as much as $100 per foot for some specialty tiles. However, Consumer Reports says the average price it found for porcelain tiles was just below $5 per square foot. Professional installation adds $4 to $12 per foot, according to HGTV.
Laminate flooring is constructed much like engineered wood, with a thin veneer over layers of plywood or compressed fiber. However, the top layer is not wood but a photograph under a clear plastic coating. That means laminate can look like wood, stone, tile, or just about any other material.
Laminate comes in either planks or tiles. Most of them are floating floor systems, which you can install right over your old flooring with no glue or nails.
Laminate can mimic the look of wood or stone for much less money. It’s also easy to clean and requires very little maintenance. It’s a hard material that resists scratching and scuffing better than real wood.
Laminate is easy to install over an existing floor, saving you time and money on your flooring project. Consumer Reports says the material is easy to install yourself, but HGTV cautions that it takes “patience and ingenuity” to fit the planks around corners and through doors.
Like tile, laminate can be slippery when wet. Also, if water stands on it for any length of time, it can get in between the layers of the material, causing the planks to warp. Unlike real wood, laminate can’t be refinished when it wears out, only replaced. That can make it a less cost-effective choice than wood or tile over the long term.
Laminate is a good material for high-traffic areas, such as kitchens, foyers, and playrooms. Consumer Reports says it’s also a reasonable choice for basements as long as they have no problems with leaks or standing water. It’s best to avoid this material in wet rooms, such as bathrooms and laundry rooms.
Laminate can cost anywhere from $1 to 7 per square foot. If you don’t install it yourself, add another $2 to $5 per foot for installation.
Vinyl is a type of resilient flooring, a flexible material that feels a bit softer underfoot than rigid wood or tile. It’s made from a layer of PVC (short for polyvinyl chloride) plastic over a layer of felt. Cushioned vinyl has a thin layer of foam as well, making it more comfortable to walk on. Thicker vinyl flooring can have a textured surface to make it look like wood or stone.
Vinyl flooring comes in several forms. Sheet vinyl is a large sheet of flooring that you unroll, cut to size, and glue to your subfloor. You can also buy click-style vinyl planks, similar to engineered wood or vinyl tiles, that you glue in place one at a time. Some vinyl tiles come with a peel-and-stick backing, so you don’t need to add any adhesive before laying them down.
Vinyl is a tough material that stands up to both moisture and heavy traffic. It’s comfortable to walk on and warmer on bare feet than tile. It’s also inexpensive and durable; according to HGTV, a good-quality vinyl floor can last 20 years.
Like tile, vinyl comes in a wide range of colors and patterns. It can convincingly simulate the look of almost any other material. A flooring dealer interviewed by Consumer Reports says customers often assume the luxury vinyl planks on her showroom floor are real wood.
Plank vinyl and peel-and-stick tiles are easy to install, though sheet vinyl can be difficult. You can install vinyl over an existing vinyl floor as long as it only has one layer. Plank vinyl is also easy to repair – just remove and replace a damaged plank – and all types of vinyl flooring are very easy to clean.
Vinyl flooring varies in quality. You’ll have less choice of color and pattern with cheaper types, and they often have a fake look. Although vinyl is more durable than it used to be, Consumer Reports still found it’s more likely to scratch than any other type of flooring. Also, if you install it directly over a subfloor with no underlayer, it can have a hollow, echoey sound when you walk on it.
One of the biggest complaints about vinyl is that it’s not eco-friendly. According to the State of New Jersey Department of Human Services, PVC is “a major source of phthalates,” plastic softeners that have been banned in toys because they harm children’s health and development. When Consumer Reports tested vinyl flooring for phthalates, it found only low levels in the air and on the floor surface, but it still warned that parents of toddlers should use caution with this material.
Vinyl is appropriate for kitchens, baths, and other wet rooms. It’s also suitable for rooms that get a lot of traffic, such as mudrooms. Consumer Reports recommends it as the best choice for a basement since it can tolerate moisture and doesn’t feel as cold as tile.
Vinyl is an inexpensive flooring, costing $1 to $5 per square foot. Consumer Reports says the average cost for the vinyl planks and tiles it tested was $3.41 per square foot. Installation adds another $1 to $2 per foot, according to HGTV.