The most inexpensive way to get the wood look
Few flooring materials are as visually appealing as wood. We install a lot of traditional solid-wood flooring, but many of my customers are opting for one of the alternatives to solid wood because it usually costs less.
The most inexpensive way to get the wood look is with sheet vinyl (about $2 per square foot installed). It comes in patterns that mimic a wood-strip or parquet floor. Vinyl is a real bargain, and it can be a good choice in a sunroom or family room. But it is not nearly as durable as other options, and it doesn't quite look like the real thing. I have seen some patterns that make you reach down and tap it to be sure, but for the most part this flooring has a plastic look.
A second option is to install an engineered wood floor (about $7 to $11 per square foot, unfinished). This flooring comes in strips the same width as traditional wood, but it is about half the thickness. It's laminated wood, like plywood, with a top veneer of whatever wood species you want. We glue the flooring directly to a concrete slab or wood subfloor. Because it is unfinished, we recommend this type of flooring when the homeowner wants us to match an existing wood floor. For about $1 more per square foot, you also can buy a prefinished version of this flooring.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind if you decide to go with this flooring. For one, the surface veneer is relatively thin, so you have to be careful when sanding. It also can be a challenge to install this flooring because it is thinner than traditional wood flooring. On some jobs we've had to adjust the floor framing, add another layer of subflooring or even pour a slightly thicker slab so old and new floor levels would meet. You have to plan ahead.
We've had very good luck with a third choice: laminate flooring from companies like Formica, Pergo and Wilsonart ($8 to $15 per square foot). We've installed dozens of these floors, and my customers love their durability and the way they look. This flooring, roughly 3/8 in. thick, has a very tough top layer that resists wear and is nearly impervious to stains (see illustration). It is typically installed over a thin foam pad, which helps to make the finished floor quieter while smoothing out minor imperfections in the subfloor. Unlike other types of flooring, this one is not nailed or glued to anything but itself: The tongue-and-groove joints are glued together, and the whole floor floats on top of the foam pad.
No, it's not real wood, but it can be installed much more quickly, which saves time and money. And best of all, it's trouble-free. I've never had a single callback on any of the laminate floors we've installed. I certainly can't say that about wood.
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