What’s more important in a new floor: durability or style? Eighty percent of us take the practical route, says a 2019 survey of flooring consumers conducted by market research firm Mintel. We want floors that can take a beating, with style a secondary consideration.
Yet recent tests by Consumer Reports show you can have both durability and good looks from many types of flooring, including engineered wood, laminate, porcelain tile, and vinyl. Even hardwood flooring can maintain its shine and warm glow if it’s installed in the right places.
Indeed, homeowners no longer have to choose between form and function. Advances in printing technology have allowed manufacturers to create vinyl flooring that’s a dead ringer for reclaimed barnwood and porcelain tile that easily passes for Calacatta marble. And unlike the faux flooring of the past, today’s products eliminate pattern repetition and incorporate texture for a double dose of realism.
We’ve analyzed key areas in a typical home and chosen the top two flooring materials to meet the challenges in each. Follow our suggestions and you’ll have floors that will continue looking great for the long haul and hold their own against countless assaults from foot traffic, sunlight, moisture, and even bleach.
Kitchen & Mudroom
Grit-covered shoes grind in dirt, raincoats drip, chairs drag back and forth, and heavy cans crash from the countertop to the floor. Simply put, the kitchen and mudroom require the hardest-working flooring in your home.
Though wood remains a widely used aesthetic choice, it won’t stand up well to that assault: Our tests show that, in general, wood floors are far more prone to denting than other materials, and with very few exceptions, foot traffic is tough on the finish.
Top Choice: Porcelain Tile
A natural fit for high-traffic areas of the home, porcelain tile outperformed every other flooring material we tested for resistance to scratching, and resisted dents very well, says Joan Muratore, CR’s lead test engineer for flooring. Plus, porcelain tile comes in a range of styles to fit any décor. You can get small-format hex tiles for a traditional early-20th-century house, for example, or 4-foot faux reclaimed-ash planks that, when laid tightly together with a matching grout, will convincingly create the look of wood. Tile is also a low-maintenance type of flooring, never requiring more than a vacuuming and mopping, and it’ll last a lifetime.
Sheet vinyl floors became popular with homeowners in the 1950s (sometimes with layer upon layer put down as tastes changed) for several good reasons. First, it’s an affordable way to cover an expansive space. Of the products we tested, vinyl planks and tiles came in, on average, at $3.44 per square foot, more than $1 cheaper per square foot than porcelain tile. These vinyl materials are also one of the easiest types of flooring to install yourself.
“Customers constantly mistake the luxury vinyl planks on my showroom floor for real wood,” says Joan Slaughterbeck, owner of Slaughterbeck Floors in Campbell, Calif., who has installed luxury vinyl planks throughout entire homes in Palo Alto and other upscale Bay Area communities.
Today’s vinyl is also more durable than it was in the past, but some vinyls may be prone to scratching. Keep fresh felt bumpers on the feet of kitchen stools, and buy an extra bundle of planks now to ensure that you have a perfect match down the road. If any planks get damaged, you can remove them and install replacements as needed.
Bathroom & Laundry Room
These floors don’t face the stress of foot traffic or the constant sunlight that can fade solid and engineered wood. Rather, the flooring threats in these rooms come in liquid form. Bathers splash, showerers drip, and toilets overflow. Sometimes so do we: “Let’s just say a lot of guys think their aim is better than it really is,” says design-and-build contractor Mark Mackmiller of Eden Prairie, Minn. Urine can stain and even etch into some natural stone flooring, particularly marble, and bleach can affect the finish of some flooring (particularly wood and laminate, in our tests).
Top Choice: Porcelain Tile
Even purists who refuse anything but real wood should seriously consider porcelain tile for their bathrooms and laundry room. After all, tile is a traditional choice in these rooms because it holds up well in wet places, says architect John Cole of Fryeburg, Maine. Porcelain also allows for design-forward, barrier-free showers, where the bathroom floor extends straight into the shower without any lip.
To avoid slippery-when-wet floors, choose a more textured product rather than one with a highly polished surface. And for a bathroom floor that’s warm and welcoming in the morning, you can install an electric heating element under the tiles connected to a timer control. This move adds around $600 to the cost of an average bathroom remodel, by one estimate.
Once again, for a less expensive (though less durable) type of flooring that’s an alternative to porcelain tile, turn to vinyl, which will cost roughly 50 percent less than tile, based on the materials we tested.
All the vinyl tiles and planks we tested received an Excellent rating in our test for resistance to moisture. Luxury vinyl tiles, which tend to imitate stone, and luxury vinyl planks, which mimic wood, will deliver the most realistic looks. They can even be laid in the pattern of your choice, just like the real thing.
Dining, Living & Family Rooms
Though it’s true that furniture feet, pet claws, stiletto heels, and kids’ toys with wheels can damage a wood floor, any other material can feel substandard in these cozy common areas. “There’s a reason real estate ads mention wood floors,” Slaughterbeck says. “Hardwood also adds value to your home.”
Top Choice: Solid Wood
By this we mean prefinished wood flooring such as the 14 products we tested (10 of which earned Very Good or Good scores overall), as well as unfinished wood flooring, which gets sanded and finished on site. (CR does not test unfinished floors because much of what we analyze is related to the finish.)
There are plenty of reasons to opt for prefinished planks. You won’t have dust from sanding or fumes from finishing to contend with during installation; depending on how it’s installed, you might be able to walk on the floors right away; and prefinished flooring also tends to be less expensive. Perhaps most important, the factory-applied finishes are significantly tougher-wearing than what your contractor would be likely to apply once the floor is installed.
Runner-Up: Engineered Wood
Though it mimics the look of solid wood, engineered wood flooring has just a thin veneer of finished wood, such as oak or maple, attached to a plywoodlike substrate. Engineered wood provides several significant advantages over solid wood. The varieties we tested cost $4 per square foot, on average; prefinished solid wood averages $5.86 per square foot. And with an engineered product, you can affordably get an exotic wood species, such as Brazilian walnut or tigerwood, both of which tend to be more scratch- and dent-resistant than oak or maple.
Engineered wood floors are also less susceptible to seasonal shrinking and swelling because the layers in the plywood backing are arranged with their grain in alternating directions. Some can even be installed directly over a concrete subfloor, which isn’t always possible with solid wood. In fact, engineered flooring is often low-profile enough to install over an existing floor—representing a huge potential savings. Still, this choice lacks the longevity of solid wood, particularly for the (very) long haul. In certain household environments, a wood floor might need refinishing every decade or two. Most engineered products can be refinished just once (depending on the thickness of the top “wear” layer), vs. solid wood, which can be refinished four or five times.
Of the 14 engineered wood products we tested, we recommend only one.
Enclosed Porch or Sunroom
Depending on how exposed your porch is, this floor might contend with intense sunlight, rain blowing in through screens, a concrete subfloor (which limits your options because you can’t nail planks directly to it), recreational-equipment storage, and even freeze-thaw cycles if it’s installed in a three-season room.
Top Choice: Porcelain Tile
This durable material will stand up to most of the abuse it gets in these rooms. In addition to faux wood and stone, porcelain tiles can be designed to look like handmade ceramic tiles, a welcoming choice for these casual hangouts. If your porch isn’t fully heated and protected from the elements, make sure to choose a tile that’s rated for outdoor use in your climate.
Runner-Up: Engineered Wood and Vinyl
If you’d rather pass on cold-to-the-touch tile—and your porch is weatherproofed and heated—engineered wood offers a warm, this-room-is-not-an-afterthought look. Engineered wood flooring can also usually be installed over a concrete subfloor. But for a porch that’s exposed to weather, you’d do better with an exterior decking product, such as a tropical hardwood, composite, cedar, or pressure-treated pine.
Be sure to look at the manufacturer’s installation specifications before buying an engineered wood for such a space, Muratore says. “They may suggest adding a vapor barrier or some kind of underlayment when installing over a concrete floor,” she says.
“Vinyl, especially plank styles that mimic wood, can provide an attractive alternative,” Muratore adds. In our tests, vinyl does well with moisture and with ultraviolet rays like those produced by the sun, she says.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re refinishing this subterranean space as a rec room, a playroom, an in-law suite, a wine cellar, or a man cave: The biggest threat to a basement floor isn’t from above; it’s from below. A concrete floor—especially one that’s below grade—might be damp constantly. And if the area floods, any porous material can absorb the water, expand, and buckle, Mackmiller says.
First things first: Make sure to choose a flooring that is rated for installation over below-grade concrete. And, Mackmiller says, read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. In a basement, the surface needs to be installed as a “floating floor,” that is, one that attaches only to itself and not to the subfloor below. This way the entire surface can shift as moisture and temperature levels change, without pieces of the flooring buckling or coming loose.
Top Choice: Vinyl
“With the exception of engineered wood, every category of flooring we tested scored Excellent in our two 24-hour moisture tests,” says CR’s Muratore, referring to processes that include leaving a wet sponge on the surface for the entire period—to check for spot damage—and submerging the floor entirely. But basements can be subject to persistent moisture, ranging from dampness wicking through the subfloor to pooling from storms or plumbing failures.
Vinyl and porcelain, which contain no wood fibers, can stand up to the worst of these conditions. Basement tile tends to feel uncomfortably cold underfoot, and heating it with an electric floor-warming system is extremely inefficient (not to mention expensive), given the cold ground underneath. So vinyl is the clear winner when it comes to basements. It also offers a wide range of formal and informal looks to fit whatever vibe you’re creating.
Dense fiberboard topped with an image sealed under clear plastic, laminate is another affordable choice. (Of the flooring we tested, it’s the least expensive, costing 50 cents less per square foot than vinyl, on average. Our top-rated vinyl model, Congoleum’s DuraCeramic Sierra Slate, comes in at $5 per square foot.) It’s also easy to install yourself. Use it in basements that have no leaks or persistent moisture on the walls and floor. For the most convincing look of real wood, choose a product with wide planks that simulate individual floorboards. Placing the flooring over sound-dampening foam underlayment will lessen the hollow sound it can make underfoot.
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