Choosing the right floor covering – wood, stone, laminate, engineered wood, cork, bamboo, vinyl, linoleum, carpet, ceramic, porcelain… - isn't easy; there are many elements to consider - price, quality, wear and water-resistance, and so on. This guide is a brief introduction to each product.
Cheap and Discount flooring options
Flooring materials such as wood or stone are typically expensive, and you should pay attention to low-priced products, sold by online companies and big improvement stores. Low prices often mean low-quality. Wood flooring and stone flooring prices vary a lot within their categories. There are several grades - in the case of stone - and significant differences within each type. It may be better to buy a “clone” of wood (laminate, or other wood-look flooring product) or a "clone" of stone (glazed porcelain and ceramic imitating stone…) than to buy a low-quality wood or stone flooring.
Bamboo is a great alternative to wood. Bamboo flooring has the same warmth and beauty of wood flooring, and is harder and more wear- and water-resistant than most woods.
But be cautious with discount bamboo flooring. Problems like cupping and warping are common in products made with soft and young bamboo, harvested before maturing.
See, for details: Bamboo vs wood flooring
Laminate is a cheap alternative to wood flooring. It’s easy to find laminates at prices between 1/3 and 1/6 of solid and engineered wood flooring.
Laminate is made from wood fibers and vegetable wastes, and has a special wood-look decorative surface...
But laminates aren't all created equal. Laminates vary in their wear-resistance and overall quality. Some look and sound like wood, but others are poor imitations.
There are two different manufacturing technologies - the High-Pressure Laminate (HPL) and the Direct-Pressure Laminate (DPL) – and the core of the laminate varies in its density and water resistance. And you should consider these issues, and look for a seal of quality (NALFA, in North America).
Engineered wood flooring involves a top layer of real hardwood, and a core of thin sheets of vegetable materials glued together much like plywood. That is, engineered wood involves a layer of solid wood at its top, but not at its core.
And though many people dismiss engineered wood because of its core, that same core makes engineered wood more structurally stable and more water-resistant than solid wood.
Anyway, engineered wood is not a cheap alternative to solid wood. High-quality engineered wood is almost as expensive as solid wood, and should be selected carefully.
See, for details: Engineered vs. Hardwood Flooring
The best flooring materials
There isn't a ‘best’ flooring material. It will always depend on preferences, goals, price, climate... Wood and stone flooring are highly valued by homeowners, but they are expensive, and they require more maintenance than most other flooring alternatives. Porcelain flooring can imitate stone and be harder and very impervious. But some ceramic tile can also be a good alternative to porcelain, etc. And the same happens with the “wood group”: solid wood and bamboo flooring are in direct competition, but laminate, or engineered wood or even cork or linoleum can be in some cases excellent alternatives.
Cork flooring has moderate prices and excellent thermal and acoustic insulation properties. It adds warmth and comfort to rooms, but its low density and weight makes it less resilient than most other flooring materials.
Cork is prone to scratching, indentation, wear and water problems. In other words: it requires careful maintenance and proper use.
See, for details: New Cork Flooring Pros and Cons
Stone flooring is a wide category, with very different types of stone and grades. Contrary to what many people think, quality varies a lot within each type of stone. And most stones are softer and more porous than people imagine - which can turn stone flooring into a headache.
Be aware of potential pitfalls and low-priced stone. Low prices often mean low-grade stone with defects, faults, high filler, non-uniformity or high porosity. Also think twice before installing stone. Use it selectively.
See, for details: Granite and other Stone Flooring
Ceramic tile can be an excellent and cheap alternative to stone. But all depends on the type of ceramic… Ceramic tile is a wide category that includes traditional unglazed tile – terracotta, quarry tile… - but also several types of glazed tile.
Glazed tiles come in wide variety of colors and patterns, sometimes imitating stone (and even wood) and have excellent wear- and water-resistance. But there are also low-quality and low-priced products.
Which is best: glazed or unglazed ceramic?
Unglazed ceramic (terracotta, Saltillo, quarry tile…) has a natural and rustic look. Glazed ceramic comes in a much wider set of patterns and colors and is more stain and wear resistant, and is mostly maintenance-free.
Porcelain flooring is a special type of ceramic tile, extremely hard and impervious. Like ceramic, it can also be glazed or unglazed (full-bodied).
Porcelain tile is excellent for rooms and areas of the house where there is a high risk of moisture penetration, and also for some outdoor uses.
Porcelain is now much more cheaper than some years ago: you can buy porcelain tile at prices as low as $1,5-$2 per square foot, though average prices are a lot higher.
Vinyl is a low-cost and flexible flooring choice, with good wear- and water-resistance, mostly used in bathrooms and kitchens.
But vinyl is an environmentally-unfriendly plastic (do not confuse vinyl with linoleum…) and in some cases a source of volatile organic compounds (VOC's) and indoor air quality contamination.
Often referred to as "vinyl", linoleum is in fact a very different product, made from natural elements: linseed oil, wood flour, cork dust, tree resins, ground limestone and mineral pigments…
Linoleum is inexpensive, easy to clean and a healthy flooring product, largely used in center cares and hospitals due to its natural bactericidal properties. A popular flooring some decades ago, linoleum is now regaining market share with its new colors and patterns.
The problem with linoleum is its moderate wear-resistance and maintenance requirements. Though water-resistant, linoleum is porous and excess water can be a problem.
See, for details: True natural linoleum flooring
Is carpet flooring doomed?
For those who still love carpet, there are now some new and healthier carpet products (and area rugs). Just do not forget the reasons why carpet has fallen out of favor: it may be a cause of allergies, has a small lifespan and is prone to stains and water problems.
Carpet flooring has fallen out of favour with most consumers, but there are still people who love carpeting. For them there are now new environmentally-friendly and healthy carpet choices that do not release harmful VOC's or other chemicals and are recyclable - solving the problem of billions of pounds of carpet disposed of each year.
You just have to choose carpet – and rugs - made from natural wool, sisals, jutes, sea-grass, vegetable-dyed yarn, and to avoid products with vinyl backing.
These sustainable and healthier carpet and area rugs come at competitive prices and with multiple colors and patterns.
See, for more details: Natural Wool vs Sisal and Synthetic Carpet
Besides common oak, cherry, maple and other traditional wood flooring options, the market is currently offering other less common “wood” options: eucalyptus, bamboo, cork... and also laminate, engineered wood, salvaged wood...
Be aware of the pros and cons of wood flooring and its maintenance requirements. Pay attention to issues like the dryness of the wood, or the installation and finishes; they can be more important than the hardness of the wood.
Most flooring buyers are aware of the importance of the hardness of the wood; harder woods are more scratch-resistant (see box)..
Hardwood flooring is better for high-traffic rooms, of for families with pets and kids, but if that isn't your case and you are looking for a more inexpensive option, some softwoods with a good finish (to increase its wear-resistance) can be an equally good choice.
More and more homeowners are now buying wood flooring with factory-applied finishes - typically aluminum-oxide finishes -, designed to protect the wood for very long periods (20 years or so) and to ease installation and to make it less expensive.
But there is a catch: possible vertical misalignments, that you can't solve by sanding.
Some people are now installing wood flooring in kitchens and basements, or even in bathroms. But that's risky. Even laminate and engineered wood - though more moisture-resistant - may not be the right choices.
Ceramic and porcelain tile, or well protected stone or natural linoleum and vinyl are much better choices.
Take also into consideration the dryness of the wood. Many hardwoods are now kiln-dried to a moisture content of 6-9%, for a minimum rate of expansion and contraction, and you should them. Moisture can lead to squeaking and buckling; and that's too common to be ignored.
Wood flooring should not be installed directly over concrete, and both tongue-and-groove boards and wide-width planks need to be nailed into the sub-floor..
A good engineered wood flooring can be as expensive as solid wood, but it is more structurally stable and less prone to moisture problems and warping. The problem is that it can’t be sanded so many times as wood flooring.
Laminate flooring is a very cheap alternative to wood. It looks like wood (though it isn't real wood), and can be installed by homeowners.
See, for details: Laminate flooring vs. solid and engineered wood
Solid bamboo flooring is manufactured by gluing together bamboo strips with resins and adhesives. The way the bamboo strips are glued, woven and pressed makes solid bamboo flooring a somewhat engineered product, more stable and less prone to warping and moisture problems than solid wood flooring.
See, for details: Quality bamboo flooring
The types of salvaged wood vary a lot: chestnut, hemlock, poplar, walnut, cypress, long-leaf pine... often reclaimed from warehouses and factories built during the 1800s and early 1900s…
Just do not expect low prices. Salvaged solid wood flooring products are often of very high quality, with excellent stability and strength, but their prices are typically higher than those of common hardwood flooring (not to talk of laminate) and the availability and the range of choices are limited.
The way the engineered wood or laminate wood is manufactured - by using resins and other chemicals, and by curing the mixture of wood-vegetal products under extremely high pressure and heat – gives them an enhanced structural stability as flooring products. Anyway, engineered wood and laminate have their own limitations. They can't be sanded and finished (laminate) or can only be sanded one to three times (engineered woods). On the other hand, the look – rustic and antique –, though highly appreciated by many people, may not please you…
Home Depot and Lowe's are good places to begin your search of wood flooring products. But there are also other smaller specialized suppliers, and big online companies selling wood flooring at very low prices; be aware, anyway: you should be informed before embarking on the task of buying flooring online.
Prices vary a lot: 3-$18 per square foot. Average wood flooring prices are often 2 or 3 times higher than laminate, and higher than cork or even bamboo flooring, and very similar to the prices of engineered wood.
Read our book (Print and Kindle ebook versions);
Save thousands of dollars;
Avoid costly mistakes and pitfalls.
Our Video on Flooring: