How do we re-install hardwood floors without losing our minds?
December 14, 2022 7:00 AM   Subscribe

We need to replace the hardwood floors in our (owned) apartment. They've been here long before we moved in (so at least 30 years), when we had them refinished but couldn't afford to replace them. But now, in addition to overall wear and tear which we've tried to overlook, there are actual holes in some places. These aren't beautiful original-to-the-brownstone floors that can be saved. But we need to live here. How do we do this?

It's not the entire floor (our bedrooms are all okay, and the bathrooms are tiled) - just the main living area, which consists of a large open room and the kitchen (which has a fairly standard amount of floor cabinets, refrigerator, and an island), and the hallway that leads from that area to the bedrooms (and bypasses a bathroom). Plus we have furniture, some of which (dining table and couch) will be difficult if not impossible to put into a bedroom if we stay here during the process. We do have the ability to stay with my in-laws for a few weeks if necessary.

So I guess my questions are
- how long does this take?
- how does it work with the kitchen? Do they remove everything / all the lower cabinets and re-install it? Ours is from Ikea and also around 15 years old, so I don't know how sturdy it is for a re-install. We can't afford new floors + a new kitchen. Are we screwed? Or they just install around the cabinets and it's too bad, so sad for whoever buys our apartment whenever we sell it? The current floors are an unusual design and we would not be replicating it. (I hate that idea, but would hate it less if it's a common thing).
- Can people live through this while it's happening, or do we need to vacate (obviously we would need a solution with the furniture and would have to get takeout)?
- Where does the fridge go?
- If you've been through this process, what other things am I not thinking of?

I'd love to ask about costs, too, but I know that's a moving target (especially post-covid). But any and all insights are appreciated.
posted by Mchelly to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What type of flooring are you planning to have put in? Engineered or prefinished installation is a pretty different experience than site-finished.

We've had all three of those done. For engineered/prefinished, the installation is fast. I don't remember exact timelines but I want to say when we had the entire main floor of a ~1800sf house done with prefinished hardwood, it took maybe 2 days? In another house we had some engineered hardwood installed in a few rooms (not a complete floor) and that took less than a day. In both cases there was some work still to be done afterward, like painting or touching-up trim, but the main flooring was done. I think you could live in the house while this is done as long as you are tolerant of dust and noise and have a way to get in and out and move around without being in the way of the workers. If it's such tight quarters that you'd be on top of each other, I think you'd be much better off getting out of there for a day or two and letting them do their thing.

For site-finished hardwood, we had it done in a medium-sized area and I think it took about 4-5 days, and then IIRC they said we needed to wait a week or two beyond that before putting down heavy furniture or rugs or anything. So probably at least a couple of weeks before things are fully back to normal. This is a much less pleasant process than prefinished/engineered. Lots of dust from sanding, and then nasty fumes from the stain and other products (even if you use "safe" versions it smells bad). I would definitely not recommend staying in the apartment if you're having the floors finished on site. That said, of all of the flooring projects we've had done, this one had the results we're the happiest with, so in our case it was worth the inconvenience.
posted by primethyme at 7:27 AM on December 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

There are so many "it depends" in here.
If they're taking up the old floor, that's going to take an extra day or two depending on the old floor.
If they take up the old floor, does the subfloor need to be redone?
What are you putting down? Some flooring can do down on the existing flooring. Engineered flooring goes in super fast. If you're putting down new strip flooring, that takes longer but it's still surprising how fast a team can work. What takes longer is the finishing. Polyurethane takes time to dry and to completely harden like primethyme said. This is also not really pet friendly because of hair and footprints.
As for cabinets? Again depends - is there baseboard or rubber molding on the cabinets? They may need to take those out. If there is no molding or baseboard, they may put engineered flooring up flush to the cabinet.

tl;dr - make your decision for what you want then bring in a contractor and figure out the how and how long.
posted by plinth at 7:51 AM on December 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

If I wanted new hardwood floors, I'd seriously consider using Steller Flooring. They have a clever installation system designed for DIY types to be able to install themselves, and it also allows you to easily replace individual pieces as necessary, or even just pop them up for cleaning. (Full disclosure I know the people who invented the product/started the business but I do think it's a cool product and I've been impressed with the quality of DIY installations)
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:51 AM on December 14, 2022 [4 favorites]

Most people do not install their flooring under cabinets, so there can be minor height differences. I've seen a few people do it, especially for tile because tile is generally a designer product, so you can't necessarily buy the same tile years later. But I just did tile, and didn't install under cabinets, and it's not noticeable vs what was there before. So no, I would not consider it a standard part of the job to remove all your lower cabinets for a flooring install, unless your subfloor is absolutely un-salvageable.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:58 AM on December 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Also, when I did tile, it took 3 days, we did have to move *everything* out for them to work, and we still lived in the house.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:59 AM on December 14, 2022

The time and expense will depend on what flooring you choose and what's in place now. For example, you may be able to put peel-and-stick vinyl, bamboo, engineered hardwood, or carpet tile over your existing floors. If you choose pre-finished floors the installation can go very quickly and involve surprisingly little fuss. In my limited experience, it's fine to go around existing cabinets. Usually when buying flooring, you get 20% overage to account for waste - if you want to accommodate possible future kitchen renovations, maybe get more overage.
Flooring I put in recently was installed around existing file cabinets and finished in place, so it took days to dry, but a few years ago I had click-in-place hardwood put in a small bedroom in a city rental - removing the old carpet took half a day and putting the new floor in took the rest of the day.
posted by jcrcarter at 8:13 AM on December 14, 2022

plinth reminded me of a factor I should have considered. All of my examples where cases where we were replacing carpet with wood. Carpet comes up fast. I do think they're right that if they're removing old wood flooring that will probably add some time.
posted by primethyme at 8:56 AM on December 14, 2022

Are you doing this yourselves? The biggest complication is moving things out of the space to be refloored. I did this myself when I purchased my house last year. I hadn't moved furniture in and was redoing the kitchen anyway. It only took me and my mom about 1.5 days to pull up the old floor. The most time consuming/annoying aspect was removing the nails that were left behind after the planks had been pulled, pulling off the baseboards, and getting rid of the wood/underlayment mess. I would 100% not plan on having it redone under your existing cabinets unless you also want to overhaul your kitchen. I don't think it will be noticeable enough to you or future owners to bother with.

Install time will vary drastically by plank size. We did 2" planks and it took forever (3 long days for me) but I can see how something thicker 8-10" would take fare less time. After that, finishing. Sanding, sanding, and more sanding. Lots of cleaning and vacuuming in between. Then sealing, whatever method you go with, will take at least another 48 hours. Add a week or so to allow for air out. Even the most natural VOC free option creates a lot of fumes that you do not want on your furniture or belongings.
posted by coldbabyshrimp at 1:43 PM on December 14, 2022

If the existing floor is structurally sound, your best bet may be to install engineered flooring over the top of it, meaning it also installs around and up to the base of kitchen cabinets. You would obviously have to remove all furniture etc, although you could move it all to one side, lay the flooring on the other side, then move it all back again to do the other side.

If you have to remove the existing flooring because it's not sound, this is a much more involved job, but could still be done in (eg) two sections so you have somewhere to store all your stuff and can still move around your home. You may be able to cut the flooring around the kitchen cabinets (flush with the base of cabinets), but this may create structural issues in the support for the cabinets where existing floorboards would be cut between joists, so you may have to install some extra joists to maintain support for the cabinets. This would include finishing the flooring in two sections, adding a fair bit of time for the whole job.

Dismantling the cabinets may be an option - they are almost certainly just screwed together and you could start by removing the benchtop (screws will be inside the cabinet going up into the benchtop), then systematically dismantle the cabinet sections (they will come out in one or more boxes - you don't need to dismantle the actual cabinet boxes) and kick panels. Keep all the screws etc and just re-assemble in reverse order. The ease of this also depends on whether there is plumbing or electrical in the cabinets. It should be pretty easy to look inside the cabinets to investigate how easily they'll come apart before you decide.

If you can move out while the work is happening, it will be much easier and go quicker because you can put almost everything in other rooms and you'll just have to move the bigger pieces around a few times to get access.

Whatever you decide, it's going to be a major inconvenience for at least a few days, but you only have to do it once in your lifetime and the results will be worth it.
posted by dg at 2:58 PM on December 14, 2022

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