Hardwood or Laminate? Choosing the Right Flooring for Your Lifestyle
This is an easy question to answer if you know what you want to accomplish. Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Are you moving soon or do you plan to live in your home for a while?
- Are you looking for something decorative or are you hoping to increase the resale value of your home?
- Are you looking for performance and durability or do you just want something a bit more aesthetically pleasing?
Your answer to these preliminary questions can help determine what type of flooring is best for you as both hardwood and laminate have wonderful features and benefits, but usually one is a better choice. Wood flooring is almost always more expensive with a much wider variety of patterns, colors, and qualities. However, laminate flooring is sold ten times more often in the US because it costs less. Although most laminate flooring is made to look like wood, there are a few tile patterns you can buy it in.
Benefits of Hardwood Flooring
Hardwood flooring comes two forms: engineered wood or solid wood. Solid hardwood must be nailed down – this is why you’ll never find solid hardwood floors in basements as they’re typically made of concrete. Meanwhile, engineered wood was invented to put anywhere solid hardwood can’t go.
Engineered hardwood is essentially several layers of wood glued together, all with a thin veneer on top of whatever species you have chosen.
There is a separate category of hardwood floors that are sanded and finished after they are laid down. They are always a solid ¾” thickness and used mostly in new homes where people are not living yet. When these boards have their finish applied, a man with a wide brush wipes it on two or three times over a couple days since the fumes are toxic and nobody can stay in the house while this is done.
Meanwhile a factory finished hardwood floor is baked with a series of finish coats, lacquers and aluminum oxides. Plus, factory finishes can provide aged or antique looking hardwood floors versus sand & finish boards.
Additionally, most solid hardwoods come in ¾” thicknesses and cost more to install because they have to be nailed down. Most engineered woods are thinner, 3/8” to ½” thick and can be nailed, glued or floated (explained below).
Benefits of Laminate Flooring
Laminate flooring is made exactly like engineered wood except the top layer is laminate instead of wood. Almost all laminate flooring has grooves in the sides of the boards that “click” to fit each other. All laminate has to be laid over a thin cushion and this process is called “floating”. Since laminate can only be installed in a floating system, it is not attached to the floor or walls but is floating over the subfloor with each board connected to each other. Laminate flooring manufacturers have made huge strides over the last decade, improving the quality, diversity, look, and value.
In addition, laminate is one of the best flooring values a homeowner can buy. Laminate is incredibly scratch resistant – which is good news since you’ll be walking all over it. It’s true that it doesn’t look quite as realistic as wood but some of the new laminates can fool even the most experienced flooring contractor. Most of the new laminates also come with a cushion attached, making installation faster and easier.
The Difference Between Hardwood & Laminate Flooring
What’s the difference between the two flooring choices?
For starters, hardwood flooring is exactly what you would expect; hardwood is milled down to a thickness you can walk on. Yes, there are over 50 different species you can buy (all of which can come in varying degrees of thicknesses), but it is real wood.
Meanwhile laminate flooring is a sheet of compound material (similar to plastic) that is laid over a board. The actual laminate is very thin but the boards they’re layered over vary in thickness. When you shop for laminate, one of the terms you’ll hear is “mills” referring to the thickness of the board beneath the laminate. They range from seven mills for the least expensive to 12 mills for the heaviest.
One of the biggest differences between hardwood and laminate is glued to a board and covered by some thin coats of finish. Although laminate manufacturers have vastly improved their technology over the years, you don’t get the depth of texture and color that real hardwood flooring has. If you live in an expensive home, I would advise against putting laminate into a primary room.
Another distinction is in the sound. Laminate comes with a cushion beneath it (when installed), so it has a hollow sound when walking over it. Some people dislike this as they think sounds cheap. If you buy a heavier laminate (like twelve mill instead of eight), the hollow sound is reduced. Most homeowners of expensive homes prefer a solid feel and sound that a solid hardwood gives them underfoot.
Of course, for many people, there’s it all comes down to the difference in price. Laminate starts under $1 per square foot while hardwood is closer to $4. The most expensive laminate runs about $4 with exotic hardwoods in the $20+ range. If you pay a contractor to install the boards, laminate is quite easy and runs from around $1.50 per square foot up to $2.50 for harder installs (e.g. oddly shaped rooms). Hardwood installation runs from $2 per square foot up to $5 for more difficult jobs. Sanding and installing unfinished hardwood floors is more labor intensive and can run up to $6 per square foot just for the installation.
Still Don’t Know?
When customers are choosing between hardwood and laminate flooring we always ask some basic questions.
For instance, if you’re looking for something that can take heavy wear and not cost you a fortune, then laminate is the best choice. It’s more scratch resistant than wood and costs less. You’ll have to live with the fact that it doesn’t sound “solid” when you walk on it and it doesn’t have the depth of grain pattern as real wood. If however, you don’t mind spending more and want to increase the value of your home, then hardwood flooring is the better choice. Hardwood flooring is something every realtor loves to talk about when selling a home because hardwood already has a “high value” in most consumer’s minds.
Guest post by:
Carpet Carl is the owner of Marion’s Carpet Warehouses, Oregon’s largest flooring retailer. He has spent 40 years in the flooring business and is among the country’s top consultants in product development. He contributes to articles in the National Floorcovering Magazines regularly and networks with the country’s top flooring dealers.