Last updated November 2023
Floor Shows: How to Get on Great Footing at a Fair Price
It used to be that if you wanted wood flooring, your “choice” was solid-oak strips, nailed down and finished on-site. But in recent decades, new flooring has taken giant steps forward. Options now also include reclaimed wood, more-eco-friendly bamboo, engineered hardwoods, and durable vinyl and laminates that look great. No matter what material you choose, you’ll want a flooring company that provides stellar advice and quality installation for a reasonable price.
Solid-Wood Strips or Planks
Still hard to beat: 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 an existing floor than to invest in a new one. Click here for ratings of refinishing companies. Refinishing will cure most ugly stains, scratches, and uneven wear.
Solid wood is durable but not indestructible; most solid-wood flooring (except for the most expensive bamboo options) 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 $10 to over $15 per square foot, installed. Exotic hardwoods can cost much more.
Solid-wood flooring is graded #2 Common, #1 Common, Select, or Clear. Clear has 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 lend a space a unique look.
Some wood species are harder and more difficult to dent than others. Hardness is measured via the Janka Hardness Test, which determines 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.
As to durability, engineered wood tends to dent easily and moisture, even from small spills, can cause permanent damage. Factory-applied topcoats often 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.
In general, high-quality engineered-wood flooring costs slightly 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 styles use a repetitive pattern—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 laminate flooring runs $5 to $10 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, planks, or strips. In addition to durability, vinyl’s main selling point is price: Even the highest-quality varieties are relatively inexpensive, from $4 to $8 per square foot, installed. Unfortunately, vinyl products can still look like, well, vinyl—but manufacturers continue to improve product appearance and texture to better mimic wood or stone flooring.
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, planks, or strips. In general, thicker products are better quality. Most linoleum products are inexpensive, from $3 to $8 per square foot, including installation. But the best-quality linoleum products, which mimic wood, are expensive, at $10 or more per square foot, installed.
But Wait, There’s More
Other options include bamboo and cork, which are renewable resources that offer distinctive looks.
Selecting a Supplier and Installer—and Getting Good Prices
Here at Checkbook.org, you’ll find customer reviews for flooring suppliers and installers. You’ll see that many area flooring companies—especially large national chains—consistently fail to satisfy their customers. Many of the negative comments are related to workmanship—problems that could have been avoided had workers been more diligent or had proper supervision.
Once you’ve selected a product (or narrowed down the choices), contact top-rated 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 work areas with 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.
The table below illustrates how widely prices vary. Our undercover shoppers asked for stores’ prices to supply and install three different models of solid-wood flooring and four models of engineered-wood flooring for a 432-sq. ft. room. We used these prices to compute the price comparison scores reported on the table. These scores show how each store’s prices compared to the average price quoted for the same job. For instance, if two stores quoted on the same jobs, and one store has a price comparison score of $125 while a second store has a score of $100, this means that the first company’s quotes averaged 25 percent higher than the second store’s.
Note that it was difficult for us to compare prices at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and LL Flooring (formerly Lumber Liquidators). These national chains mostly sell products that are supplied exclusively to them by the manufacturers. This kind of “private labeling” is designed to prevent you from effectively shopping around.
Since we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to compare pricing at the big chains, we report prices for flooring products that were, in our judgment, the closest equivalent products offered.
For what we considered comparable products, Home Depot’s prices were consistently among the lowest of the stores we surveyed.
No matter what flooring you want or where you want to buy it, the prices we collected clearly indicate that even for a small job you can save thousands of dollars by shopping around.