More options make for tougher decisions, as anyone who has helped a homeowner with product selection knows. That makes choosing flooring especially difficult.

March 31, 2002


Solid wood, like this 3/4-inch Canadian maple strip floor, is moisture-sensitive and should be installed above grade.

More options make for tougher decisions, as anyone who has helped a homeowner with product selection knows. That makes choosing flooring especially difficult. Pattern and color aside, the material choices include bamboo, carpeting, ceramic tile, concrete, cork, laminate, linoleum, rubber, stone, vinyl and wood.

Broadly speaking, vinyl and carpeting are the least expensive materials, with wood, tile and stone on the high end. Ditto for installation costs. These days, however, every type of flooring comes in a range of price points, as evidenced by the R.S. Means CostWorks 2002 table. Looking at a 2,500-square-foot home, the table provides economy, average, custom and luxury options for covering every inch of the floor.

Contemporary flooring products tend to be thin and flexible, allowing you to install them directly over existing floors and saving the labor costs of tearing up the old floor. That also reduces inconvenience for the homeowner, but itÆs not always the best option. When switching products, be sure to consider how the new surface will work with the existing substrate. If youÆre upgrading to tiles from vinyl, you need to make sure the floor joists can support that added weight.

No rooms of a home come with hard-and-fast flooring rules, but kitchens and baths, as high-moisture, high-traffic areas, require special consideration. Cork, vinyl, laminate and tile are moisture-resistant; laminate and tile tend to be the most resistant to fading, staining and scratching. Carpeting in bathrooms can be prone to rot, and stone, even if sealed, can be stained by a kitchen spill.


Most hardwood flooring is made from white or red oak; other common species include maple, birch, beech and pecan. Hardwood flooring comes in strip, plank and parquet forms; strips with tongue-and-groove edges are the most common. Usually cheaper than hardwoods, softwoods used for flooring include fir, hemlock, and yellow or white pine.

Solid wood floors are sensitive to moisture and shouldnÆt be installed in basements, although they can work on above-grade concrete slabs. They must be nailed down.

Engineered wood floors are better for high-moisture areas. In addition, if your customer wants to use an expensive wood but canÆt afford solid, you can do it for less with engineered wood by requesting that the top finish layer be different from the layers below. These floors can be nailed, stapled, glued or even floated.

For customers who donÆt require a custom finish, pre- finished wood provides a manufacturerÆs warranty and saves you several days of labor.

In recent years, bamboo ù a grass, not a wood ù has become a popular alternative to wood. It provides a wood look while being harder than oak or maple, as easy to install as engineered wood, and flame-resistant.


In addition to being more affordable than some other flooring products, vinyl costs less to install. For one thing, it can be installed around in-place fixtures and cabinets. And if the existing floor is level, you wonÆt have to tear it up.

Instead, you can put an underlayment of 1/4-inch plywood over the old floor. This option can be especially appealing if the existing floor is vinyl because old vinyl flooring might contain asbestos, and removing it would require hiring an abatement contractor.

Vinyl sheet flooring comes in 6-foot, 9-foot and 12-foot rolls, with 6-foot the most common. It wonÆt last as long as natural substances, but the thicker the wearlayer, measured in mils, the longer-lasting ù and likely more expensive ù it will be.

Often referred to as vinyl, linoleum differs from vinyl in that it is made of natural ingredients such as linseed oil, cork and tree resins.


Laminates can give the look of exotic woods such as olive at a cheaper price point and work in moisture-prone rooms where solid wood doesnÆt.


Because laminates are designed to ôfloatö over subfloors and donÆt have to be glued to a substrate, theyÆre fast and easy to install. The only required underlayment is a thin plastic sheet.

Laminates come in planks and squares of all shapes and sizes, with a tongue-and-groove type edge on each side for fitting them together. Water-resistant glue placed between planks helps seal out the moisture. Some new laminates, however, donÆt even require glue.

The melamine used in the backing and core gives the product its moisture resistance and durability, while the aluminum oxide in the wearlayer makes the surface difficult to burn, scratch or stain. The decorative layer, a photograph of a floor, allows laminates to take on the appearance of wood, stone or tile.


Ceramic tiles can look like stone and are often cheaper.


Ceramic tile is, for the most part, scratch-, fire- and water-resistant, and therefore quite durable.

The Porcelain Enamel Institute has classified ceramic tile into five groups. Group I is primarily wall tiles but also includes floor tiles for bathrooms with light traffic. Groups II and III are for residential use, while groups IV and V move into commercial applications for heavy traffic and also wet areas such as swimming pools.

Glazed tiles are more common than unglazed, which are more durable and show less wear and tear. Even so, glazing prevents water absorption and makes the floor stain-, fire- and fade-resistant. Dirt and sand can scratch the glazing over time, especially shiny glazes, which are softer than satin and rustic finishes.

Denser tiles absorb less moisture. Impervious tiles (less than .5% moisture absorption) are used outside and considered frostproof. Vitreous tiles (less than 3%) are used outside but can crack during a thaw. Semi-vitreous (3-7%) and nonvitreous (absorb more than 7%) are used only inside.

Keeping the new tile floor flush with adjacent floors almost always requires tearing up the existing floor and putting in an underlayment. Even slight unevenness can cause tiles to crack later on.


Like tile, stone is scratch- and fire-resistant. However, most stones are porous and absorb moisture, which can lead to stains or even to etching (from acids in orange juice or coffee, etc.). Sealing stone floors can prevent this.

Polished stone requires regular application of a commercial polish.

Stone can be ordered in slabs but usually comes as tiles, about a foot square, made of granite, limestone, sandstone, slate or marble.

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