Committing to flooring: 3 questions help you choose

Susanne Clemenz | Improvement Center Columnist | January 17, 2013

With flooring, as with relationships, it's easy to fall in love with the sample. A clear-eyed assessment helps predict long-term compatibility with your home and lifestyle. Consider four popular flooring choices -- wood, carpet, vinyl and linoleum -- and ask yourself these three questions before you lay down your money and your flooring:

  1. Is the product time-tested?
  2. What mistakes can be foreseen and avoided?
  3. What are the best uses for each product?

Wood flooring: ageless beauty

American pioneers often cleared wood from their land to create plank floors for homes and barns. Today we seek those very planks in reclaimed lumber warehouses. But by the late 1800s, manufactured tongue-and-groove planks and improved transportation made wood floors available and affordable.

The 1940s brought us pre-finished wood flooring, and in the 1950s Federal Housing Authority regulations required wood flooring in new home construction. In recent years, tough wear layers have been added.

In an article for Floor Daily (an online industry site for Floor Focus magazine) writer Jessica Chevalier states "...in terms of flooring trends, renters and buyers ... share a preference: an increasing partiality for hard surface flooring, and the hard surface of choice is wood (or a wood look)."

Should wood be your happy-ever-after floor?

  • Quality and styles: With natural wood floors, stains or wear can be sanded and refinished. Better yet, many natural wood planks are now fused to a tough wear layer, lessening maintenance and extending floor life. Less expensive are wood laminates -- manufactured wood-fiber planks with similar wear layers applied over realistic images of wood grains. Hundreds of grain patterns and finishes are available in woods and wood laminates.
  • Wood flooring mistakes: Don't overspend in relationship to neighborhood values. If kids, pets, wheelchairs or tracking grit indoors are problems, forfeit all-natural floors in favor of wear-layer versions. In flood-prone areas, mold and saturation can be threats. In that case, impervious decorative concrete, real tile, and stone are smart alternatives.

  • Appropriate rooms for wood: Install wood floors anywhere except kitchens, bathrooms, and utility rooms. Installation in such rooms can often void warranties. Mold under soaked floors can be a health hazard. Door mats and entry rugs reduce dirt and wear.

Carpet: the ultimate foot cushion

Like a spouse, carpet can be cozy, practical, and/or alluring. Although machine-made woven carpets were introduced in 1791, today's carpets evolved from the 1930's mechanization of hand-made chenille (tufted) bedspreads.

Post WWII, wall-to-wall carpets became the norm -- often over wood flooring. But in Warren Tyler's candid blog for the Floor Covering Institute he states, "Carpeting is losing share of the floor covering business - once nearly 80% it's now approaching 40%." One reason for that, he says, is manufacturers and consumers forget carpet is, after all, fabric. Beautiful fabric, to be sure, but when choosing carpet heed these qualifiers:

  • Quality and styles: Level loops, Berbers, plush and friezes (shags) are available at many price levels. Quality can depend on pile density and twist strength. Colors, patterns, and color blends are countless.
  • Mistakes with carpet use: Bold or non-neutral colors can limit decor changes and resale appeal. Solid and dark colors show lint, spots, and pet hair. Pet claws can snag some types. Deeper piles can be hazardous for mobility. Holes are hard to repair. Allergic reactions are possible. Carpeted kitchens or dining areas mean endless spots to battle. Light colors show spots and wear-patterns all too soon.
  • Appropriate carpet uses: Choose level loop carpet for the family room and home office; deeper carpets in the living room and bedrooms. Heavy traffic areas like entries, hallways and pivot points, or wet-use rooms like baths and kitchens need a color-coordinated hard flooring.

Linoleum and vinyl: everything old is new again

Linoleum was invented over 125 years ago. Its waterproof, tough, easy-to-clean surface came in sheets, tiles or patterned area rugs. Vinyl, introduced in the 1930s, was cheaper, easier to install, easier to maintain, and had a bevy of patterns and colors.

But the trend toward green living has given linoleum, an all-natural product with 126 rich colors and a new sealed surface, a comeback. As for vinyl, the addition of wear layers to wood flooring has reduced vinyl's appeal, but manufacturers have responded with gorgeous vinyl plank, stone and tile designs with life-like surfaces. Installation can be faster and cheaper than the flooring materials vinyl so artfully mimics.

  • Quality and styles: There are residential and commercial grades of both vinyl and linoleum. Linoleum's 126 colors even include wood-grained planks. Vinyl comes in rolls, planks and tiles and hundreds of designs, colors, and sizes. Some vinyl styles with self-adhesive flanges can float right over an appropriate existing floor.
  • Mistakes to avoid: Installing sheet goods or creating decorative inlays are tasks best left to professional installers. Unless it's a glue-down application, water can seep under vinyl in water-prone rooms. Some vinyls show scuff marks or can be pierced inadvertently.
  • Best uses for vinyl and linoleum: Glue-down installations are great for bathrooms, kitchens, and utility rooms. Installing vinyl or linoleum in heavy traffic areas such as hallways, staircases, and entries can save your wood or carpeted areas. Glued-down vinyl or linoleum, especially planks and larger tiles, can be used throughout the home, and rooms can be personalized with accent rugs.

As it is with falling for a mate, it's often too easy to choose a flooring based on surface appeal. It's equally important when making either commitment to objectively consider whether the shortcomings are ones you can live with for a long, long time.

About the Author

Suzanne Clemenz designed her passive solar home and remodeled two others. She worked with architects and contractors on floorplans, electrical, painting, windows, flooring installations, flood prevention walls and stonework, major drainage issues, an irrigation system and landscaping. She also completed real estate school.