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Choosing The Right Flooring

Flooring choices for the home are about as plentiful as countertop options. There's something to suit everyone's taste and purpose and then some.

To choose the right material you'll need to consider a few things ahead of time, such as how the room is typically used along with your family's lifestyle. Also think about your priorities and whether you prefer ease of maintenance over aesthetics.

Taking a few moments to contemplate these considerations and prioritizing what's really important to you will help you narrow down your focus to a short list of good candidates.

Floors take up a lot of visible space and it's only natural to want them to look great. Just don't forget the practical aspects when making your choice. The right blend of fashion and prudence should result in the right product for your home.

Don't be afraid to think a bit "unconventionally" either -- in other words, it's easy to default to a wood floor for example, because wood is a great surface and has been around for centuries. But there are advantages to other materials like cork or laminate too. Take your time, think about how you live and match a floor that'll meet your criteria for performance and aesthetics.

What Should I Know Before Choosing?

flooring

Choosing the right floor relies on your making a wants and needs assessment. The "wants" part of the equation is usually easier since you've probably seen some materials that really appeal to you. However don't forego the "needs" analysis because the practical considerations are important determinants in making the right decision.

Each type of surface comes with its own individual advantages and disadvantages. Consider the following points and questions to help narrow your focus. You may already have a preconceived idea of the type of surface you want, but not all materials are suitable for every application.

  1. Which room or rooms are you considering?
    The function and location of the room will have some bearing on the best surfacing to use.

    An obvious example for illustrative purposes is that you don't want carpet in the kitchen or dining room due to the propensity for spilled foods and liquids. In contrast, a more subtle fact is that solid wood isn't suitable for basements due to the moisture issues associated with below-grade (below ground level) rooms.

    Rooms and spaces that adjoin entry doors from the outside are prone to seeing a lot more dirt and grit than an upstairs bedroom. No floor will last forever if the grit isn't regularly swept up but some materials do better than others in this situation. Either decide on a suitable material or commit to the upkeep required to maintain more delicate surfaces in these situations.

    Don't forget about the garage either - it's a room too. There's even specialized surfacing for the garage to help dress it up and help make it a more inviting space than just a place to park your car.

    The bottom line here is to choose a surface that's suitable for the function and location of the room. See the Pros And Cons table for more information on room suitability.

medium color wood floor


  1. Consider your family status and lifestyle -- do you have children, elderly or disabled family members? Do you have any pets?
    How you and your family live makes a difference in choosing a floor type. Children usually mean more wear and tear from running, banging and playing with toys.

    Some of the laminate products might be better in this scenario than site-finished solid wood due to the optimal wear characteristics of laminate. These products have factory-applied coatings that are designed to be very durable and scratch-resistant. The surface finish of a site-finished wood floor (one that's sanded and top-coated in your home) doesn't have the same durability characteristics as those factory-finishes.

    That being said however, a lot of the engineered wood floors (wood flooring that's pre-finished at the factory) are made with very durable surface coatings, similar to laminate.

    The grout seams associated with tile may be an annoyance or even a hindrance for family members with wheeled walkers or wheelchairs. The wheels could catch or "clunk" as they pass over the grout, especially wider grout lines.

    Pets like cats and particularly larger dogs have claws and shed. Hard surfaces work well for cleanup from pets that shed whereas carpeting might retain pet hair and dander. On the other hand claws can also scratch a wood floor. If you have big dogs with big claws, tile or wood/laminate flooring with the most durable surface finishes (like aluminum oxide) may be your best bet.


  2. Does anyone in the home suffer from asthma or respiratory allergies or have sensitivities to chemicals that aggravate these conditions?
    Carpeting can harbor allergens that are more easily cleaned up from hard surfaces. Carpet and other floor materials can contain higher VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that might contribute to ill health effects, particularly with those who are more sensitive to airborne allergens and contaminants.

    In these situations look for products that have lower VOC emissions. As an example, Armstrong® products that meet criteria for low-VOC emissions carry their FloorScore™ certification. The Carpet and Rug Institute identifies low VOC products with their Green Label designation.

hand scraped wood floor


  1. How much care and maintenance are you willing to put into the floor?
    Some materials have higher maintenance needs than others if you want them to last and maintain their aesthetic appeal. Wood should be swept or vacuumed often to avoid the dulling and scratching that comes with ground-in dirt. Stone or tile is durable although their finish will eventually succumb to a lack of regular sweeping.

    Standing water is better handled by vinyl or tile in comparison to wood. Think of mudrooms and bathrooms in this case. Melted snow from boots and shoes can go unnoticed for a while and you don't want to have to constantly check the mudroom to mop up any water.


  2. How important to you is your floor from a style and aesthetics perspective? Do you want a high-end expensive surface or will a more economical choice do?
    If you like the look of Brazilian Cherry but don't need to have real solid wood to make you happy, compare laminate with wood. You might be surprised to find a laminate that's a close match to real wood but for less money. If you're remodeling or building a new home you can apply the savings to something that provides greater service and satisfaction in the long term such as upgraded appliances or cabinets.

  3. Get out and test drive your short list of choices.
    If at all possible, visit several showrooms or building supply outlets that sell the types of materials you're interested in. Looking at pictures and reading about them is one thing but actually seeing them in person and standing on them can help solidify your decision on which product is right for you. This is particularly true with laminate floors, where you can really see if the appearance is close enough to the real thing or not.

    Take some samples home with you (the kind you don't have to return) and subject them to your own trials to see if they meet your standards for things like stain resistance, denting and scratching. Drop things on them and and check the results. Snap together a couple of pieces of laminate and then let some water sit on the seam for a while. How does it hold up?

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What Are My Choices?

There's really a wide range of choices available to you when it comes to flooring as you can see by the list below. The key to making a good choice is matching your performance

expectations with the appropriate material. As an example, the kitchen is a room that sees a lot of traffic and it's prone to food and water spills. A floor surface that's durable (will stand up to traffic, grit, etc.) and easy to clean is a good choice here.

By the same token, a bathroom floor experiences a lot of moisture so flooring choices that can stand up to this type of environment long-term are the best choice. Laminate probably wouldn't be the best option given its seams and the susceptibility of it's backing material to damage from moisture.

The information below is a breakdown on your various flooring options plus the pros and cons of each. Don't necessarily use the pros/cons as 'absolutes' but as points to consider in deciding what's the best fit for you. See the Publisher's Comments below for a bit more on this subject.



Vinyl

vinyl flooring samples

Vinyl is still a mainstay of floor covering material. Its easy-to-clean surface and wide range of available colors and patterns make it a versatile, economical and low-maintenance choice. There are lots of vinyl choices that incorporate new technologies in texturing and durability for a more modern and realistic look.

Pros Cons

Affordable

Resilient - provides "give" and cushion underfoot

Easy to maintain

Wide range of colors/patterns available including new textures

Good sound absorbing qualities

Can be laid without seams depending on the size and shape of the room

Not as eco-friendly or made with sustainable materials as other choices

Susceptible to cuts and tears (i.e. such as when moving/dragging heavy objects over it such as refrigerators)

Not a renewable surface like wood

Not heat tolerant and can scorch or burn

Seamed/tiled vinyl offers paths for spilled liquids to get to the backing and subfloor

Susceptible to permanent dents from table and furniture legs and even pointed-heeled shoes

Edges and seams may be visible and interrupt the decorative pattern depending on the quality of installation




Laminate

laminate floor samples

Laminate Flooring mimics the look of other floor materials by employing a picture of real wood, stone or tile covered with a wear-protective layer. Some laminates are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing while costing less too. There are plenty of brands and products to choose from such as Armstrong laminate, Quick-Step, Shaw and Mannington to name a few. Care of laminate flooring is relatively easy, armed with a sweeper and a little knowledge on how to take care of it.

Pros Cons

Durable - some use advanced coatings designed to stand up to heavy traffic

Less costly than wood particularly for higher end exotic woods

Can be applied over existing floors

'Glueless' laminate is portable - they can be removed and reinstalled elsewhere (though some warranties become void if the floor is disassembled more than 3 times)

Many style options both in wood and stone patterns

Installation process is simple enough for someone with do-it-yourself skills

Requires full replacement when worn out - no refinishing possible

Seams between planks and edges present a path for spills/water intrusion which can cause edge-swell

Floating-floor characteristic results in a hollow sound if no acoustical underlayment is used




Wood

blond hardwood floor

The beauty and natural variability of real wood flooring is hard to beat. There's a whole realm of choices available with wood floors starting with species like maple, oak, hickory, and birch all the way to the exotic woods like Merbau, Jatoba and Teak.

If those choices don't resonate with you how about floors made from old growth Douglas Fir, antique wide plank heart pine or even extinct American Chestnut? Reclaimed wood flooring offers these options using wood salvaged from sunken logs, old structures and other similar sources. There's a bonus too in that it's an eco-friendly choice since no new trees are consumed.

You also have a choice on whether to use solid wood or engineered wood. Solid wood is just what the name implies - solid from top to bottom. Engineered wood consists of a top layer of real wood bonded to several other layers of wood beneath it, similar to plywood. Solid wood can be purchased prefinished or it can be finished on-site using unfinished hardwood stock. Engineered wood is usually purchased prefinished. Solid wood and some engineered wood floors are capable of being refinished several times.

Pros Cons

Durable and long-lasting particularly when well maintained

Renewable - can be refinished several times

Wide diversity of style choices available from stain color to type of wood species

Provides a warmer feel than stone, tile or concrete

Economical choice over the long term due to it's renewability

Pre-finished wood does not require on-site finishing and its associated inconveniences

Susceptible to scratches and wear from grit and dirt

Susceptible to damage from extended presence of moisture and liquids (not recommended for the bathroom)

Can develop squeaks and creaks over time due to loosening between the wood and nails that fasten the planks to the subfloor

Susceptible to gaps or "cupping" (curving of the wood surface) with normal humidity changes if improperly installed

Floors finished in-place require room(s)to be vacant for several days to allow sanding, staining and finishing (not necessary with pre-finished wood however)




Bamboo

bamboo floor samples

Bamboo floors look and feel like wood except bamboo is really a grass and can actually be harder than some woods. Its attraction lies with its environmental sustainability (the bamboo plant matures in roughly 4 to 7 years and regenerates after cutting), its dimensional stability (it expands and shrinks less than wood) and its hardness, given proper harvesting and processing techniques.

Pros Cons

Environmentally friendly - bamboo (which is a grass) is harvested from sustainable bamboo plantations that regenerate every 4-7 years

Hardness on quality bamboo material is consistent with some hardwoods

Good dimensional stability - expands & contracts less than hardwood

Resistant to moisture (but excessive moisture exposure is detrimental)

Longer warranties up to 25 years on some products

Carbonizing (natural coloring) process produces color through the bamboo making chips or scrapes less noticeable (however carbonizing also reduces the hardness)

Bamboo is an 'engineered' wood and contains glues which may give off higher levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) due to formaldehyde content

Quality of the bamboo can vary - cheaper products may not have the durability and quality of higher-priced bamboos from more established manufacturers

Bamboo doesn't have the grain variation that wood has with its numerous species

Bamboo floors are still young within the marketplace relative to hardwood - time will tell as to their long-term durability and quality




Linoleum

linoleum floor samples

Linoleum is an all-natural product, made up of linseed oil, wood or cork flour, mineral fillers and pigments that are combined and applied to a jute or canvas backing. It's sometimes confused with vinyl but it's natural ingredients provide a more environmentally friendly material than vinyl. It's resilient like vinyl which makes it more comfortable to stand and walk on.

Pros Cons

Environmentally friendly product - made from natural materials

Contains natural anti-bacterial properties due to its linseed oil content

Available in click-tiles (floating floor) for easier do-it-yourself capability (as opposed to trickier glue-down sheet and tiles)

Color goes through the material which helps to hide chips and scratches

Naturally anti-static - helps prevent the attraction of dust

Good durability and wear properties (linseed oil oxidizes as it ages imparting strength over time)

Won't melt (like vinyl) if a burning match or hot object is dropped on it

Lots of rich colors are available (many more than when your great-grandmother had linoleum floors)

May not be suitable for wet environments (like bathrooms) due to its porosity unless it's sealed (recommendations vary with manufacturer however)

Retains a distinctive (but temporary) scent from the linseed oil content when new

Glue-down installation may require professionals for proper results and seaming




Cork

cork flooring samples

Cork offers some very tangible benefits. It's naturally water resistant and repels the development of mold and mildew because of it's anti-microbial properties. Cork has both sound and temperature insulating properties and it's abrasion-resistant too. Cork is obtained from the cork oak but the tree isn't consumed in the process. Rather, the cork is from the bark of the tree which is harvested every several years making it a sustainable product choice. A broad number of cork sources provides a range of products to choose from.

Pros Cons

Resilient - provides cushion underfoot

Warm surface due to its natural insulating properties

Provides a unique look and various design styles

Mostly a natural product (except for adhesives that bind the cork particles together) and derived from a sustainable environmental process

Good sound insulating properties

Durable and abrasion resistant despite its 'softness' due to its density

Has anti-microbial properties and is naturally resistant to mold and moisture

May require re-sealing periodically to restore the protective finish (depending on the type of finish used)

Some cork products may contain urea-formaldehyde based binders which can be a health concern due to off-gassing of VOCs (volatile organic compounds)

Will fade with exposure to light

Despite its resiliency it will indent under consistent loads (like furniture legs, etc.)




Carpet

carpet as a floor choice

Carpeting offers a warmth and softness not found in other surfacing options but it's obviously not for all applications. Carpeting not only comes in a wide variety of colors and patterns but in many different textures as well, making it a versatile style option. There's plenty of choices too, from established brands like Karastan®, Shaw®, Mohawk® and others. There's even carpets for kids. New synthetic fiber technology gives you better alternatives for stain resistance, greater resiliency and even "green" carpeting choices. If natural fibers appeal to you, wool carpeting is still the measure that all synthetic carpets try to emulate, with natural resilience, durability and softness.

Pros Cons

Comfortable material from a tactile and visual perspective

Endless variety of styles, colors, patterns and textures to choose from in addition to several different fiber types

Quiet - acts as a good sound insulator

Softer surface offers greater cushion and may prevent injury from falls (particularly with infants and elderly)

Easy to replace (more so than wood and tile)

Acts as a good insulator although it can be used with radiant heat provided it's matched with a low-insulating cushion

Hides some irregularities in subfloor that wouldn't be possible with a tile floor (without correction)

Not as effective as other surfaces for radiant heat systems (due to the insulating qualities of the carpet and pad) though it is possible with lower-insulating cushions

Stains more readily and spills are harder to clean up as opposed to hard surfaces

Harbors allergens and dust unless regularly vacuumed and cleaned (dirt and allergens can also be ground into the carpet over time making them harder to extract)

Potential source of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) contributing to poorer indoor air quality

Susceptible to damage from water/moisture that can initiate mold growth




Tile

tile floor in kitchen

Tile provides almost infinite style and decorating variety. There's practically an endless range of styles available and the ability to combine them within a floor plan offers even wider design options. Tile is durable, long-lasting and works well with in-floor radiant heating systems.

Pros Cons

Endless variety of styles, textures and colors

Durable surface that can last for years

Flexibility in where it can be used - above, at or below grade

Low maintenance requirements (sweeping and damp mopping)

Works well with radiant floor heating systems

Resistant to stains and wear and won't fade, burn or melt

More easily repaired than other floor types (individual tiles can be replaced)

Cost effective (life-cycle vs. cost)

Has good "thermal mass" properties that help with heating and cooling

Won't dent or scratch like wood can or develop impressions like resilient flooring

Grout lines can trap dirt and/or stain and can also be a hindrance to wheelchairs and wheeled walkers

Hard surface can break dropped items and be uncomfortable to stand on for long periods of time (non-resilient)

Can be a cold surface during cooler periods of the year if not used in conjunction with an underfloor radiant heat or passive (solar) heating system

Glossy and smooth tile surfaces (as opposed to matte finishes) are slippery either wet or dry and present a slipping hazard




Concrete

decorative concrete floor

Concrete can be a decorative and durable floor while providing a real design statement. It's basically a creation-in-place so you have limitless design options in the way of colors, patterns, borders and textures. Floors can be styled to mimic stone or brick or just about whatever style you can dream up. Their natural coolness offers cooling benefits in warmer months and they can be combined with radiant floor heating systems to warm them up in colder months.

Pros Cons

Relatively easy to clean and maintain (sweep, damp mop)

Provides an innovative and unique style and appearance

Countless design opportunities (colors, dyes, stamping, painting)

Good way to utilize a concrete slab foundation home (since the concrete floor is part of that construction method)

Doesn't hold allergens, mold and dust mites like a carpet or floor with penetrable seams might

Can mimic the look of different types of textures such as stone and tile

Very compatible with radiant heating systems

Hard surface can break dropped items and be uncomfortable to stand on for long periods of time (non-resilient)

Requires a sealer and periodic re-sealing depending on the amount of wear due to its porous nature

Susceptible to cracks as a natural part its life cycle

Can stain if not sealed or sealer has worn away

Subject to wear from dirt and grit despite it's hardness




Stone

picture of cleft stone floor tiles

Stone is typically made up of pieces of actual stone cut into various sizes of tiles. Stone provides a durability and beauty that's difficult to duplicate in the man-made world. There's a range of colors to choose from depending on the type of stone, anywhere from neutral tan and gray to purple and red. Stone is also a good surface to use with radiant floor heat systems.

Pros Cons

Offers a unique and visually appealing style

Durable and long lasting

Works well with radiant floor heat systems and passive solar heating due to its thermal mass

Also advantageous for passive cooling in warm climes due to its thermal mass (the stone cools during cooler times of the day and helps retain some of that coolness as the day heats up)

Provides a natural variability in color and pattern

Hard surface can break dropped items and be uncomfortable to stand on for long periods of time (non-resilient)

Smooth stone can be a slippery surface particularly if wet

Some stone types have higher maintenance requirements than others and require precautions to avoid staining and other forms of deterioration

Can be a cold surface during cooler periods of the year if not used in conjunction with an underfloor radiant heat or passive (solar) heating system




Recycled Materials

recycled glass floorGlassPLANK Photo Courtesy of Glass Recycled (glassrecycled.com)

As the 'green' movement in building materials grows, new products continue to become available that are made out of reused, recycled or reclaimed materials. Floors are no exception. Whether it's terrazzo made from recycled glass bottles or reclaimed wood dredged up from the bottom of a river, there are plenty of options available if you're looking for some interesting flooring that also has a light environmental footprint.

Pros Cons

Has environmental benefits via the use of sustainable and/or reclaimable materials

Provides a unique look and style option depending on product choice

Some products may not have a track record of durability and longevity based on relative newness in the market

May be more costly than other less "green" alternatives depending on specific product



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Publisher's Comments
Don't Let The Pros & Cons Paralyze You

With every choice we're confronted with there's always the highs and lows, plusses and minuses that inevitably have to be considered. With them we make a more informed decision. Without them, we leave more to chance.

The pros and cons presented above are there to help you get a little more acquainted with the characteristics of the different flooring products. They're points to consider. But leave them at that and don't get too wrapped up in finding one product that doesn't have any drawbacks -- they don't exist. Instead, use them in conjunction with the answers to the questions you considered above about how the room will be used and your family's lifestyle.

Sure, vinyl tiles have seams that could possibly allow spills or moisture to get underneath and cause problems with the subfloor or adhesive. But how long do you typically allow a spill to go without being wiped up? Probably only seconds. So it's probably not an issue for a kitchen floor. But what if you're talking about a mudroom where standing water from melted snow might go unattended for a while? In that case, maybe the "con" has more weight.

Choices primarily involve making tradeoffs and these 'pros and cons' points are simply there to help you tip the scales in one direction or another. They fine-tune the process and that should be the extent of it.

Practicality has its purpose but if that was the only criterion for making decisions life would be pretty dull. So have some fun. Choose a surface that appeals to you, consider the 'pros and cons' to add some balance and then go with your gut. There's no right or wrong answer -- only what works 'best' for you.

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Finding A Local Flooring Contractor

If you know the type of flooring you're interested in but don't know where to start looking to find a flooring contractor perhaps the form below can help. It's a little tool that you can use to find local flooring sources who can provide more information and free quotes about the type of floor you're considering.

Click on the appropriate button for the type of flooring you're interested in and fill in your zip code. In a short while you'll be contacted by local flooring contractors that may be able to help. There's no obligation whatsoever and it's a convenient way to start your flooring project on its way to completion.

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