How to choose flooring
June 14, 2017 10:43 AM   Subscribe

We are going to rip up the carpets in our new home - specifically in the living room and dining room. We are not sure what is underneath the carpets, but the realtor claims it's plywood. So if there's no hardwood under there we need to make a decision on what to put down. Looking for advice.

Our new house was built in 1967 and has carpet in the dining room and living room. Upstairs is hardwood - it's light-coloured and according to what I've read, is probably oak? I thought that given this and given the trends in the '60s, there would be hardwood under the carpets but I asked our realtor to ask the realtor looking after the sale, and he says it's plywood (we don't get possession until the 28th or we would be checking this ourselves).

If it's truly plywood, we have to choose something to put down. My husband will likely do this himself. Honestly, both of us understand very little about this, and I want to make an informed decision. I understand that we have many choices and I don't know how to choose. I hear the latest thing is engineered hardwood. But should we consider laminate? And how do I choose whether it should be light-coloured or dark-coloured?


- dry climate
- we have a young child, may have more in the future
- we have a cat
- we are likely to get a large dog in the future

Thanks, I am overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information on the web.
posted by kitcat to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am pretty sure light v dark is a matter of taste and aesthetic requirements.

If the space is at all dim (as many "downstairs") areas are,) choose a light finish to make the space lighter.

Otherwise - if there is plenty of light - my personal preference is a dark wood finish as I find it recedes from the eye and makes the space feel bigger.

With pets, you want something that will be easy to sweep hair off of, so you want something fairly smooth (as opposed to the dark wood finish Core-tec I have, which is rather too textured to sweep easily and requires a puff kind of sweeper thing... it's the only thing I don't like about it and if I had pet hair to deal with it would make me insane.)

There are lots of fantastic options out there right now, you can't go too far wrong. I've had laminate, wood, luxury vinyl planking; was happy with all of them. The only floors that were very very bad were a parquet finish from the 70s which was terribly ruined by some water spilling on it; and travertine stone which is hell on the feet and everything breaks when stuff falls on it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:11 AM on June 14, 2017

Bamboo engineered floating snap-together.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:16 AM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

You know, another consideration is that we spill things in our house - a lot. Coffee sloshes. Popsicles drip. The cat knocks over glasses of water. And I am obsessed with having a clean floor - not to say that I rush to clean a mess immediately (far from it), but that I am miserable if I don't mop the floor once or twice a week.

Since [engineered] hardwood doesn't handle water well, does this pretty clearly indicate that bamboo or laminate are best for me?
posted by kitcat at 11:52 AM on June 14, 2017

Laminate will also not handle water well--it warps.

My parents have engineered hardwood over a concrete subfloor, and it looks extremely attractive (but did not deal well when their dishwasher decided to go kaflooey a few years back). I have laminate in the section of my own house that has concrete subfloor, as opposed to wood everywhere else, and I must say that I prefer regular oak hardwood. The laminate has scuffs from cat claws, bent corners in a couple of spots, etc.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:06 PM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you live in a warm climate with pets, consider sealed concrete floors with accent rugs/carpets. If you need it pretty, concrete finishes are pretty amazing now.

Concrete is durable, easy to clean, holds it's finish for long periods and with pets, it's a dream to vacuum. When people come over and spill stuff you just shrug and wipe it up.

Added bonus, the floor stays cooler on hot days.

Rugs will dress up your space to make it more YOU... and they can be switched out as you choose.

The one big downside has been the need to wear comfy slippers everywhere as the floors are really hard, but I really needed to up my slipper game anyway.
posted by bobdow at 12:18 PM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm looking at flooring right now!
In your case, it depends a lot on your furniture and style, but if I were you I'd go for stained oak floors and light colored walls. Use big area carpets for creating spaces and atmosphere. Almost all carpets can be washed at specialist carpet cleaners, and since you only have to do it once or twice a year, it is not expensive. (Day to day you vacuum them).
The space I need to find find flooring for is a small shed with an extra sleeping space. I'm going to use laminate there; the reason I don't generally recommend it is that it wears in a strange way I can't quite describe, and I'm never really happy with cleaning it. The reason I'm using it is that I'm not really decided on what to do with the space and it's a cheap solution that works OK while I'm thinking. I'm going to cover most of it with a cheap IKEA area rug. After going through a lot of laminates, I'm choosing a white-pigmented pine, because it was the least tacky.
posted by mumimor at 12:38 PM on June 14, 2017

Sorry, I don't want to threadsit but I have another question - if you stain your wood really well, is it more impermeable to water damage?

We've lived in a rental with laminate for 7 years and while it scratches, it's never been an issue for me with spills and cleaning.
posted by kitcat at 12:49 PM on June 14, 2017

Not concrete if you have small children! Do you know how often little kids fall and hit their heads on the floor? Also, it's really uncomfortable to stand on.

I've lived in a ton of places with hardwood floors and never had a problem with water damage from ordinary use - spilling a drink, drips, etc. It does scratch but that's fixable. We have laminate in our kitchen and I don't like it - it has some water damage from a dishwasher flood, it's peeling in places even though it's less than 5 years old, and it's just ugly.

If money isn't a serious consideration, check out linoleum or marmoleum, at least for your kitchen. It feels really nice underfoot, is long lasting, and comes in great colors, but it's a lot more expensive than sheet vinyl or click tile. It's also very eco-friendly, if you care about that aspect.
posted by john_snow at 1:02 PM on June 14, 2017

Laminate is horrible for liquids. I once did a bathroom in laminate, and then we adopted three boys. I'm shuddering now remembering the puckering swollen stinking mess that floor become because they wouldn't learn to sit to pee. Tore that up and replaced it with vinyl. Still required cleaning for the dried sticky pee rings that would grow from around the toilet, but the floor never deteriorated.

If you have pets, and are considering more don't do carpet. Heck, once you take out the carpet, you'll probably be so disgusted by what's under there that you'll be like us and decide to never put carpet in anywhere (rugs are still acceptable).

I did adhesive interlocking vinyl in the bathroom described, and that was all right. More recently I did lose lay luxury vinyl plank flooring (and did a ring of adhesive around the perimeter). It's only been there 1-2 months, but so far I'm happy with it. My only complaint is if you stand in one section too long, your feet sweat a bit which will make them sticky and the planks can come up with your foot when you move. I'm going to apply some additional floor adhesive in the areas where someone's likely to stand for a bit (kitchen counters).
posted by nobeagle at 1:06 PM on June 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you use wood, staining in itself won't make it more waterproof, for that you need some other treatment, either a varnish, that seals off the wood completely, soap suds that repeal the water, or oil that also repeals the water but in a different way.
Varnish is very efficient and also easy to maintain. My landlord prefers varnish - it has both the same positives and negatives as laminate, except you can regret, sand it down and apply a different treatment.
Soap suds are cheap, efficient and very stylish but in my view they are not easy to keep. If you do it wrong, the floor turns grayish. Also, with a soap-treated floor, you will eventually get a white-stained effect which is nice in some settings but can be difficult with toddlers and pets (speaking from experience here).
Oil is a bit of a pest to apply but after that is wonderfully easy to maintain and the wood looks great and is very soft to touch. I have done it in one room as a test and I love it, but I need to pull myself together to get the rest done because it is not easy.
posted by mumimor at 1:08 PM on June 14, 2017

Well-sealed/varnished hardwood floors won't have a problem with spills as long as you clean them up right away. It's chronic leaks (or areas that just get wet all the time, say around a sink), major flooding/spills that take a long time to dry, etc that cause issues. None of the floor types you're talking about are impermeable forever, but nor will they warp and disintegrate at the mere hint of a spilled glass of water or melted popsicle.

It's the varnish (usually polyurethane or "swedish" finish), not the stain, that creates the water resistance for wood floors. Stain is just your color choice, so go with whatever you like style-wise! Engineered hardwood means the top layer is already done at the factory, vs the old method of installing the planks and then applying the stain/finish.
posted by misskaz at 1:09 PM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I bought a remodeled house 16 months ago with bamboo flooring throughout. It looks great, but:

1. It scratches easy. My cats have been no problem, but I'd be concerned a medium/big dog would scratch it up pretty good. There are marks already from my writing desk chair being moved in and out and that has plastic feet.

2. I can't talk for all bamboo flooring, but the stuff I have does not like water at all. By my kitchen sink, where water has dripped onto the floor and not been mopped up immediately the finish on the top of the bamboo has cracked.

3. It lifted like crazy as soon as the weather changed. I live in LA and after the wet winter we had, parts of the floor buckled and lifted as the moisture caused the entire floor to expand. You're supposed to fit it with a gap under the baseboard to take into account some expansion/contraction, but mine was so bad I ended up having to pull up parts of it and re-cut the pieces to fit. In some parts I had to remove as much as inch to make it fit again.

Like I said, that's just my experience of this particular bamboo flooring, other brands may be better.
posted by AllTheQuestions at 1:23 PM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just want to say that you may find that it's not plywood beneath the rugs, but a wood subfloor made of a soft wood like fir. We ripped up our carpets, found the world's ugliest fir subfloor and had it professionally sanded & finished. It's soft, it shows scratches and has a very rustic feel but it's lasted 20 years and is only just now needing to be replaced or refinished.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:30 PM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have all hardwood floors and tile. Both are super easy to clean. Both are beautiful, but hard on knees and ankles. Dropped my coffee cup on the wood the other day and that finished it off. I believe it is so hard because the house originally had terrazzo floors through at least some of it and there is no space between the wood planking and whatever it's on top of. The finish on the wood is very durable and water repellent, but one thing did leave a splat-spot which is not removable - dark brown hair dye. I love my floors for the ease of cleaning, even the tile, but the hardness not so much.

One other thing to take into consideration - wood floors and tile can be very live. Sounds bounce rather than get absorbed like they do when carpet is around.
Strategically placed rugs and furniture do diminish this effect.
posted by Crystal Fox at 2:06 PM on June 14, 2017

I would mimic downstairs what you have upstairs. Use oak and stain it the same color. Wood is good: it continues to look ok as it wears (it's made to wear properly), is easily refinished and will increase the value of your home.
posted by vunder at 2:54 PM on June 14, 2017

A few points not already mentioned:

Laminate is very noisy. Even with a layer of foam underneath, it echoes when you walk over it. We had it in our kitchen for several years and, while bits of finish chipped off when a knife was dropped, having a 70-pound dog run back and forth across it innumerable times never scratched it. Otherwise, we hated it.

No matter what you put down for flooring, be prepared to paint a layer of Kilz on the subflooring once you pull up the carpet. It is a miracle at stopping any odors and, unless every prior resident of your house was a nonsmoker, never spilled anything that soaked through the carpet, and never had a pet pee/poop on the floor, it will smell. Probably a lot. But Kilz will definitely take care of it. Amazing stuff.
posted by DrGail at 3:15 PM on June 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

I loved my laminate floors in my previous house but they did warp in one place where we had a leak. I think if you glue each plank together rather than just clicking them in, they are more water resistant, but I still wouldn't risk it in your situation. I'd do hardwood, and just plan to refinish them when the kids are older.
posted by lollusc at 4:43 PM on June 14, 2017

Oh and we had dark laminate and it showed every cat hair. You'd have to clean it every day to keep it presentable. Go light.
posted by lollusc at 4:44 PM on June 14, 2017

Take a look at Luxury Vinyl Tile - it's like a hybrid of laminate and vinyl. It looks like laminate, but is much better with liquid and is fine even for bathrooms. It's very 'in' right now, and big box hardware stores will have many styles to choose from.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 5:32 PM on June 14, 2017

I'm a fan of engineered hardwood, for being relatively durable & reasonably do-able DIY to install. The factory finish is probably tough enough to deal with most spills, children, & animals, within reason. (Nothing is tough enough for flooding, except tiles). You do not want to fuss with staining and finishing for a DIY project unless you enjoy this sort of project. Dark flooring reflects dust & dirt, so don't go for that effect unless you have a cleaning service. Colour is a matter of taste, I personally like the mixed uneven medium/light style.
posted by ovvl at 5:42 PM on June 14, 2017

I have installed and repaired several different kinds of flooring. Laminate is very easy to install but under the decorative top is MDF and that will expand and pop the finish off if you get it wet. I believe that engineered hardwood is a veneer of hardwood on top of a similar MDF base. Laminate tends to be a little noisy but you can help by choosing a pad with sound dampening qualities. Vinyl planks can be peel and stick, which I am not a fan of. They also come in click together which, actually, is crazy easy to install and can be installed over a slightly uneven floor. However, that unevenness will show through over time. Thicker planks will look better and you only need a razor knife and a straight edge to install them. Actual oak planks aren't that bad to install. Rent the special nail gun that you stand up and hit with a hammer to install, your knees will thank you. Staining will only help preserve your wood a bit. Polyurethane it a few times, lightly sanding each time. Don't go for a high gloss, it will look like a gym floor.

If you are new to DIY, I think your best bet is the vinyl click together planks. Get a thick plank, a triangle, a straight edge, and a sharp razor knife and you will be good to go. Handles damp like a dream and doesn't need a pad. The dogs don't slip on it and it's actually rather quiet.
posted by Foam Pants at 5:56 PM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

The place I'm in now has laminate floors that are about 4 years old, and they are showing serious signs of wear. Worse, laminate wearing just looks shabby.

In contrast, I've been in plenty of places with hardwood floors that are many decades old, and while they certainly show wear, it usually just adds character. (The house I looked at where someone had made a campfire in the middle of the living room, not so much.)

So unless you are planning to sell in a couple of years, I'd go with a "real" material like hardwood, cork, linoleum (the made-from-linseed kind), or tile that will wear well, rather than something like laminate or engineered flooring with a thin veneer and a water-sensitive backing material. I've also been in some places that used nice plywood as flooring -- that kind of thing only works with the right aesthetic, but a bit of googling will bring up lots of photos if you want to look at alternative materials.

I've installed tile, hardwood, and laminate, and they are all a chore. Laminate is the easiest, but it's also the lowest quality option in my opinion. No matter which, you will have to deal with trim, doors, transitions, and whatever weirdness to discover when you rip out the old carpet.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:14 PM on June 14, 2017

We have a similar list of considerations for flooring, and when we buy a house, if there's pre-existing tile we plan to either do stained cement or wood grain tile . The wood look tile in particular I think is amazing because I'm always stressing about our dogs scratching wood floors, but I love the look of planks.

We also have a small child. Area rugs work great and can be replaced as needed.
posted by permiechickie at 7:48 PM on June 14, 2017

I dunno, I guess we're odd because we love our carpet. We have little kids and yeah things get spilled; we wipe it up. We've had big dogs and yeah, they shed and track in dirt; we vacuum. I get the carpets cleaned once a year, it could be done twice a year probably but with little kids I don't bother. In another year or two we'll start doing it more frequently.

I have travertine in my kitchen and while I love living with it I was surprised to find that it gets little holes in it very easily. We've had to fill the holes with a matching grout but it's irritating given the price of the material. But with water, juice, milk, and food spills, I wouldn't have anything but tile in the kitchen. Protip: get a really mottled pattern so that dust and hair are not so readily apparent.

One consideration: are you on a raised foundation or a flat slab? We are on a raised foundation and while it doesn't matter most of the year, the kitchen floor is very cold in the winter (tile plus cold air under the subfloor). The carpeted rooms are much less cold.
posted by vignettist at 8:08 PM on June 14, 2017

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