Considering new flooring? You’ve got some decisions to make. While your grandparents might have just had the option of solid-oak strips, nailed in and finished onsite, you now can choose from myriad materials and finishes. Still, you want a flooring company that provides solid advice and top-notch installation at reasonable prices.
Choosing a flooring type is the first step. Here are some of the most popular options.
Solid wood strips or planks. Standard three-quarter-inch-thick solid-wood flooring 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 a floor than to invest in a new one.
Solid wood is also durable but not indestructible — most solid-wood flooring dents easily and wears faster than other options. It can also be discolored by sunlight and can warp and buckle in moist areas. The biggest drawback to solid wood is price: Good-quality prefinished flooring costs from $8 to more than $14 per square foot, installed.
Engineered wood. Engineered-wood flooring consists of layers of wood glued together and topped with a hardwood veneer. Compared with the alternatives, engineered wood best mimics the real thing. In general, better-quality products have thicker veneer layers than lower-quality ones. If you can afford it, consider only flooring with veneers at least one-eighth-inch thick.
Engineered wood tends to dent easily and even a little moisture can cause permanent damage. Many factory-applied topcoats tend to scratch easily. But at $5 to $10 per square foot installed, engineered-wood costs considerably less than solid wood.
Laminates. Made of dense fiberboard topped with a photo image protected by clear plastic, laminates can mimic nearly any type of flooring. But many laminate products use a repetitive pattern that’s a giveaway they aren’t 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. What gives laminates an advantage is price: Good-quality flooring runs $4 to $7 per square foot, including installation.
Vinyl. When you walk across the floor of a supermarket, school, or hospital, you’re likely treading on vinyl. 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.
In addition to durability, vinyl’s main selling point is price. Even the highest-quality varieties are relatively inexpensive, from $2 to $6 per square foot, installed. But, unfortunately, even the best vinyl products look like, well, vinyl.
Linoleum. 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 eco-friendlier than most other flooring options — and it is durable, easy to clean, and not easily damaged by moisture.
Linoleum comes in rolls, tiles, and planks or strips cut to look like wooden pieces. Most linoleum products are inexpensive, from $4 to $8 per square foot, including installation.
Other options. Bamboo and cork are renewable resources that offer distinctive looks. But they’re also the priciest options.
Finish options. Once you’ve settled on a type of flooring, you’ll have to decide what you want it to look like. Do you want a natural light finish, or a dark mahogany or walnut finish? For solid- or engineered-wood flooring, you’ll also have to pick a wood species.
Narrow down the forest of choices by getting samples — lots of them — and taking them home. Compare them in both daylight and after dark.
Selecting a supplier and installer and getting good prices. You want to buy from a supplier that provides good advice, offers a wide variety of products, performs high-quality installation work, promptly makes things right if things go wrong, and charges a reasonable price.
Nonprofit Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook has ratings of local flooring suppliers and installers for quality and price. You can view Checkbook’s ratings of companies free of charge until the end of June at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/floors.
Checkbook’s ratings show that many area flooring companies consistently fail to satisfy their customers. What’s disturbing is that so many of the negative comments are related to workmanship — buckling, uneven gaps between planks, incorrect stains — and other problems that could have been avoided.
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 Checkbook’s undercover shoppers did for a sample of local retailers. When collecting prices, specify the exact product you want. Include a description of the work areas, with measurements. Ask companies to total their prices for the entire job. Get all details in writing.
Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found that you can save a lot by shopping around. To supply and install flooring for a 432-square-foot room using Mullican Muirfield solid-wood flooring, prices quoted by local suppliers ranged from $4,029 to $5,790; using the Shaw Lakeside engineered-wood flooring, prices ranged from $3,781 to $6,000.
Checkbook’s shoppers were unable directly to compare prices at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Lumber Liquidators. These chains mostly sell products supplied exclusively to them, and this “private labeling” prevents a shopper from comparing prices. For the closest equivalent products offered, Home Depot’s prices were consistently lower than average. But prices at Lowe’s and Lumber Liquidators were only about average.
Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers evaluated.