If you’re thinking of replacing your worn-out and outdated flooring with shiny new laminate, you’ve come to the right place. Below you’ll find our best tips & tricks to guide you through the buying and installation process.
- Finding Quality Laminate Flooring
- Laminate 101
- Pricing Guide
- Evaluating Warranties
- Importance of Underlayment
- Installation Tips
- Maintenance Tips
- The “Perfect” Compromise
While laminate has built a bit of a bad reputation over the years, it’s making a comeback. Gone are the garish patterns of the past. Today’s laminate is trendy, durable and affordable.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at this popular resilient flooring.
Laminate Flooring Pros
Laminate flooring is making a comeback. Recent technology has enabled manufacturers to design laminate planks that replicate wood and natural stone. The latest styles feel like the real deal, too.
Designers are using high-definition printing and embossing techniques to mimic the patterns and ridges found in hand-scraped hardwood and burnished brick. They’ve even found a way to whitewash planks giving the illusion of a weathered appearance. You can also buy laminate flooring that replicates the look of honed or polished stone.
The latest trend — cement look laminate planks.
Laminate ranges in price from $1 to $11 per square foot. There’s a massive difference in quality between the two extremes. You have to be diligent when shopping around.
Your best bet is to stick with the mid-range products. These lines offer the high-end features without the pain of sticker shock. You can find a wide variety of quality laminate in the $3-$4 per square foot price range.
The lesson here: research and shop around.
If you have kids or pets, laminate flooring could be the solution to your problems. It holds its own against liquid assaults (though not quite as well compared to vinyl plank) and stands up to muddy pawprints like a champ.
You won’t have to follow your toddler with a mop, but you will have to wipe up spills before they dry. While laminate is durable, excess liquid can cause problems. There’s a big difference between stain-resistant and stain-proof. See the ‘Cons’ section below for more on this.
Nothing ruins a whitewashed floor quicker than grape juice.
Laminate warms up living spaces and makes bedrooms feel cozy and inviting. You can install laminate anywhere in your home. Well, almost anywhere.
You can use laminate flooring in kitchens and bathrooms; however, it’s not the best choice. Laminate and humidity don’t play well together. There are water-resistant options, and even waterproof laminate options available, but they will cost you.
If you do choose laminate for a kitchen or bathroom, do your homework— make sure it’s built to withstand splashes and moisture.
5. Allergy Friendly
Seasonal allergy sufferers take heart; laminate won’t make you sneeze. It doesn’t hold dust and dirt like carpet. It’s also resistant to bacteria and mold.
A word of caution though, the adhesive and chemicals used in laminate can trigger allergic reactions. If you or someone in your home suffers from asthma or another severe respiratory condition, resilient flooring may not be the right choice.
When in doubt it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Whether you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor or standing at the sink, you won’t walk away with sore feet or an aching back.
7. Easy to Install
If you enjoy a do-it-yourself project, laminate flooring is for you. It goes down in a matter of hours and takes little effort to install. You can float laminate over your existing floor – with the exception of carpet – as long as your subfloor is in good condition.
Remember to let the flooring acclimate a few days before installation; otherwise, you’ll risk warping due to fluctuations in humidity.
Alternatively, you can choose to glue the laminate directly to the sub-floor.
8. Easy to Maintain
Laminate requires little maintenance. Unlike wood, you don’t need to wax or buff laminate. In fact, doing so causes more harm than good.
The only tools you’ll need are a vacuum or dust-broom, and a laminate-friendly microfiber mop.
So, now that we’ve accentuated the positive – let’s delve into the negative. It’s time to reveal the downside of laminate flooring.
Laminate Flooring Cons
- May Contain Toxins
- Can Look Unnatural
- Hollow Sounding
- Zero Refinish Possibilities
- Laminate isn’t Biodegradable
- Won’t Increase Resale Value
- Susceptible to Staining
- Susceptible to Moisture Damage
1. May Contain Toxins
Laminate flooring can cause problems for those with sensitive immune systems. That’s because many laminate manufacturers use chemicals containing volatile organic compounds, commonly referred to as VOCs. These toxins release fumes into the air that can aggravate present health conditions or even cause some to appear.
The Environmental Protection Agency has written numerous policies to limit the use of these chemicals. And scientists are developing ways to reduce the risks. However, regulation and control are spotty at best.
Always look for laminate that has low or no VOCs, is FloorScore certified, and CARB2 compliant. These are non-negotiables. Substandard materials are dangerous, and your health is worth more than saving a few dollars.
Use caution when purchasing store brand laminate. Make sure the salesperson shows you the manufacturing paperwork.
2. Can Look Unnatural
While laminate flooring imitates the look of hardwood or stone, you can tell the difference. Pricier brands look and feel more realistic, but cheaper lines scream fake. Make sure you examine the boards up close, so you’ll get a look you love.
If your heart’s set on hardwood but you’re installing laminate, stagger the boards and the patterns. This gives the flooring a natural appearance and helps ease the sting of settling.
3. Hollow Sounding
Walking on laminate flooring is easy on your feet, not your ears. Underlayment will reduce the acoustics, but your laminate may sound hollow. If your house is ordinarily noisy, this shouldn’t bother you.
However, if you’re sensitive to noise or live in a library, laminate can drive you insane. Of course, the easiest way to fix that would be to employ a no shoe policy. Just be careful, laminate can be slippery.
4. Zero Refinish Possibilities
As with all resilient floors, laminate can’t be refinished. Once it’s ruined, it must be replaced. If you’re planning on staying in your home for the next 30 years, laminate may not be the best choice.
Even with a longer warranty, chances are you’ll have to replace this flooring. Repair kits are available for minor damage and can extend the life of your laminate for a few years. But, all in all, it may be better to opt for hardwood.
5. Laminate isn’t Biodegradable
Unlike wood, laminate flooring won’t break down after you remove it. Instead, it sits in a landfill, forever. That’s because it contains chemicals that make it dangerous to incinerate.
While science has found ways to recycle some layers of laminate flooring, many products are a long way from achieving a green building seal of approval. There are exceptions – such as laminate made from recycled materials. When in doubt, check the product’s label.
A good indicator is the NALFA seal. Products must meet or exceed stringent guidelines to earn a thumbs-up from this independent authority. Another bonus, NALFA certified laminate contains zero VOCs.
6. Won’t Increase Resale Value
Installing laminate flooring will have little to no effect on the resale value of your home. If you’re not planning on selling, this won’t be an issue.
But if you have dreams of packing up and moving, laminate won’t help your cause. Laminate has come a long way. But buyers are finicky, and laminate may still carry an undesirable label.
7. Susceptible to Staining
Despite the fact laminate is easy to clean, it can stain. If you’re naturally clumsy or live with someone who is, consider other options. And if you have pets — laminate can add to your stress level (we’ve taken a look at some pet-friendly laminate flooring options here).
If liquid lingers on your laminate, the results won’t be pretty. Combat the problem by wiping up stains as soon as you notice them, and always put mats under your pet’s food and water bowls.
8. Susceptible to Moisture Damage
Stains aren’t the only stressors. Moisture and humidity can cause new floors to look old and worn. The liquid can seep beneath the seams and cause lifting.
Humidity and moisture are laminate’s natural enemy. That’s why you’ll need to monitor levels in damp areas. You can do this with a simple $20-$30 meter, or invest in a dehumidifier for added assurance.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about something more pleasant — shopping. Before you roll your eyes, we promise this is the fun part. We’re going to explain how you can find high-quality laminate — within your budget.
How to Find Quality Laminate Flooring
The first way to look for high-quality laminate is to check the flooring’s AC rating. This rating system is used widely in the flooring world and was developed by the European Producers of Laminate Flooring. The higher the AC rating, the more durable the laminate.
For residential use look for laminate with a rating of AC2 of higher. If you expect heavy foot traffic opt for AC3 or AC4. These floors are rated for heavy residential and general commercial use. Be aware the price goes up as the floor rating gets higher.
Another way to tell a floor’s quality is to check the thickness. As with any type of flooring, you’ll want to consider your transitions. Height differences can cause tripping hazards, but thicker material has better insulation.
At the top of the spectrum, 12mm laminate looks and feels realistic. It offers superior durability and optimal comfort. Unfortunately, it costs quite a bit more than thinner options.
The next option down is 8mm. You can find 10mm flooring, but it’s not that common. Most brands carry planks that are either 8mm or 12mm.
Since the wear layer isn’t affected by overall plank thickness, it’s a matter of preference. If sound or heat retention isn’t an issue, don’t get hung up on numbers.
Remember you can beef up the thickness with a 2-3mm underlayer. You can find beautiful 8mm laminate for a fraction of the price. Don’t bust your budget if you don’t have to.
The last piece of advice is to check manufacturer ratings on the North American Laminate Flooring Association’s website. NALFA is a group of flooring professionals and manufacturers dedicated to improving the quality and safety of laminate flooring.
This group researches and establishes the performance and quality of laminate planks, tiles, and sheets. You can find out more by visiting them online or stopping by the Floor Covering Leadership Counsel’s website. Besides manufacturer ratings, NALFA also keeps a database of trusted installers.
Though not required, knowing the manufacturing process sets you apart as a knowledgeable buyer. It strengthens your bargaining power and sets the tone for a better shopping experience. It’s also interesting. So, let’s take an in-depth look at the making of laminate floors.
Starting from the top, lets peel back the layers, and uncover what’s really underneath your feet.
Laminate flooring consists of 5 distinct layers. Alone the layers perform separate functions, but when fused together through pressure and intense heat they form what we know to be laminate flooring.
The first level is the topcoat, or protective layer. This clear-coat either adds sheen or gives the laminate a matte appearance. It’s made of aluminum oxide or another strengthening compound coating that’s hardened and tested for scratch resistance and durability.
Next up is the pattern layer. As you probably guessed, this is the layer we see; the coloring, the print, and the texture. Curiously enough, the process starts with a photograph.
That’s right; the manufacturer uses large segmented pictures and high-definition ink to replicate the shades and graining found in natural materials. Then the finished paper is infused with resin and adhered to the core.
The core or substrate layer lies in the middle. Depending on the manufacturer, the base is comprised of either high-density or medium-density fiberboard, commonly referred to as HDF or MDF.
MDF is made from wood waste fibers combined with wax and resin, heated and pressurized to form panels. It’s denser than plywood but not as strong as HDF. High-density fiberboard is processed like MDF but constructed from wood chips or pulp.
Both materials aid rigidity and resist humidity.
Melamine or plastic make up the backing or bottom. This strengthening layer plays a crucial role: keeping your floor stable. The bottom layer adds another level of moisture resistance and strength. It displaces the stress from floor traffic and repels dampness – reducing the risk of warping, swelling or bowing.
There are a number of factors that can have a notable impact on the overall price for your project. Two, of particular note:
1. The Type & Quality of Laminate
You can find bargain brand laminate flooring for close to $1-$2 per square foot. But cheap floors may not last long; maybe 2-5 years, if you’re lucky.
If you’re installing laminate in a rental home and expect to replace the flooring eventually, this may be a good option for you. But be responsible, make sure the laminate comes from a reputable company. Otherwise, you might inadvertently risk the health and safety of your tenants.
The next step up is where quality meets budget-friendly. At $2.50-$5 per square foot, mid-priced laminate is a sure bet. It’s durable, stylish and usually comes with an attractive warranty. Mid-range flooring should last at least 15 years.
High-priced laminate appeals to discerning buyers that aren’t overly concerned with costs. These floors are the most realistic looking, but at $6 per square foot or higher, you might fare better with authentic hardwood. Laminate floors at this level are warrantied to last 20 years or more.
When you’re calculating your total cost for laminate floors, do yourself a favor: remember to include the price of subfloor preparation, demolition, tools, and supplies. You’d be surprised how much padding, molding and waste material can add to your final bill.
2. The Size of Your Project
The more material you have, the cheaper the installation process will be (generally speaking) on a per sq ft basis.
Also, certain scenarios (large rooms, for example) often require less cutting and trimming. Contractors have been known to give discounts based on job ease/complexity.
Expect to pay about $20-$25 per hour, at a minimum, for a reliable contractor. The cost of labor will likely add $2 – $3 to the overall cost of the material, per square foot.
Evaluating the Warranty
Companies love to promote their warranties as a way to convince buyers of quality. While a written guarantee offers some assurance, these documents are often filled with fine print and confusing escape clauses. Be careful; warranties can seem like they’re written for your protection, but that’s usually not the case.
Once you pull out the magnifying glass and look a little closer, things get a whole lot clearer. Those limited lifetime warranties are often gimmicks. Most of the time they don’t include damage caused by pets, stains, dampness or things like… life. If they do cover wear, it’s usually restricted to 5 years or less.
Another common trick is to blame problems with flooring on improper installation and maintenance. The moral of the story, be sure about what you’re buying before the money changes hands. Go online and check consumer complaint forums (as well as reviews posted by FloorCritics commenters).
Keep in mind; people tend to write reviews when they’re angry. A few bad reviews are common. But, a hundred? That’s a red flag.
Armstrong Premium Lustre
Armstrong laminate flooring has received mixed consumer reviews. While the company has been around for ages, customer service tends to be haphazard. The Premium Lustre series is Armstrong’s high-end laminate line.
These Armstrong planks are 12mm thick and 5” wide. All 4 styles mimic the look of hardwood floors. You can expect to pay between $4-$5 per square foot.
Mohawk Chalet Vista
Mohawk has several lines of laminate flooring, from neutral, classic finishes to the trendy high-gloss & distressed options. The Chalet Vista series is considered a mid-range line. Planks are 8mm thick and 7” wide.
Reviews for Chalet Vista have been favorable, with most complaints focusing on installation issues. It seems consumers have experienced multiple problems with the locking mechanism.
This Mohawk series averages $2-$3 per square foot and comes with a limited lifetime warranty.
Shaw Matterhorn laminate flooring is one of the brands newest lines. There aren’t many reviews available, but the collection looks promising.
Planks are a whopping 13mm thick, 8” wide and just over 6 feet in length. Matterhorn is available in 3 shades and averages around $4 per square foot.
Color choices are limited to 12 shades that replicate various wood species including oak, cork and teak. Consumer reviews are overwhelmingly positive for both the brand and series. The best part: Balterio costs under $3 per square foot.
Mannington’s Restoration series is one of their most diverse collections. Planks come in and 58 shades and mixed lengths ranging from 3” to 8”. Mannington laminate is made in the United States and carries multiple certifications.
The Restoration collection is water and stain resistant. In fact, Mannington guarantees that your floors won’t stain if spills are cleaned up within 72 hours. If you love the look of driftwood, take a peek at their Keystone Oak shade; it’s stunning.
Like most manufacturers, Mannington generally has mixed reviews. If you choose this series, you can expect to pay about $4 per square foot.
Tarkett Fresh Air
Tarkett’s Fresh Air laminate line is one the brands biggest sellers. It’s phthalate free and certified pet and allergy friendly. The Tarkett Fresh Air collection features 10 colors, 12mm thick planks, and a 25-year warranty.
This multi-length flooring installs with a T-lock system and features a realistic beveled edge design. You can buy these Tarkett planks for roughly $3 per square foot.
Pergo Outlast Plus
When you think laminate, Pergo is usually the first brand that comes to mind. Although consumers have a love/hate relationship with this brand, the Outlast Plus collection receives high-marks in both durability and style.
This series carries a rating of AC4, meaning it’s durable enough for commercial settings. The manufacturer also claims this line is fully waterproof, and suitable for bathrooms, basements, and kitchens.
Pergo Outlast Plus is available at your favorite big orange improvement store and sells for $3 per square foot.
Bruce Park Avenue
The Park Avenue collection from Bruce flooring is among the brand’s mid-priced lines. The series features 6 rich wood tones and 12mm thick boards. Park Avenue is suitable for both above and below ground installations.
Reviewers either love this flooring or hate it. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. It’s worth noting that Bruce’s customer service is mentioned in several reviews – and not in a good way.
Nevertheless, the Park Avenue collection sells for $3.50-$4 per square foot.
TrafficMaster laminate is made by Shaw flooring. Despite its cheap price tag, this laminate gets excellent reviews. TrafficMaster is thinner at around 7mm, but at $1-$2 per square foot, it’s not a bad choice for light traffic areas or second homes.
There are several lines available to choose from, and the color and texture options are endless. You can find this laminate at most home improvement stores or online.
Once you choose your brand and style, you’ll need to consider installation. Here are a few tips to help get you started.
Importance of Underlayment
Underlayment may or may not be attached to the bottom of your laminate. If not, you’ll have to add it during installation. Flooring and home improvement stores sell rolls of underlayment specifically for laminate.
Prices vary, but expect to spend between $0.25 – $0.75 per square foot.
Underlayment serves multiple purposes.
- It acts as a barrier between the subfloor and the laminate, stopping moisture and mold from creeping to the surface and damaging your new floors.
- It also masks and levels minor subfloor imperfections, correcting low spots or dips.
- Underlayment suppresses noise and prevents those annoying creaks and squeaks from revealing your late-night refrigerator raid.
- It adds a level of insulation that feels soft underfoot, and holds room temperature.
- As a bonus, this multi-tasking layer also repels bacteria and dust mites.
Remember, if your flooring comes with this padding attached, do not add another layer. If you’re shopping for underlayment separate from the laminate, make sure it’s manufacturer approved and includes a moisture barrier — not all do.
Whether you’re installing the laminate yourself or hiring a pro, the process should be painless. Unfortunately, problems do come up, but they’re rare and relatively easy to solve.
There are two ways to install a laminate floor: with glue, or without. Glueless installation is the easiest route for a DIY installer. If your subfloor is adequate, you’ll breeze through the steps and finish on schedule.
After you lay the underlayment, click the boards together at the seams, working in rows. The process is similar to assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle, without the hassle of disassembling and re-boxing the pieces. You might even be able to trick your kids into helping.
When you’re done, remember to check for gaps or loose boards. If you find any, use a rubber mallet and a piece of laminate to tap the offending board back into line.
The other option is to glue the planks. Floating floors might be easier to install. But, if you anticipate spills, consider the glue route. The adhesive acts as a seal between the boards and keeps liquid from getting underneath.
Remember: glue is tricky to work with. You may want to hire a professional to tackle the job.
We’ve all heard the claim: “Laminate is easy to maintain.”
Well, yes. And no…
For daily cleaning, a microfiber broom or a vacuum for laminate flooring will do the job. But when your floors need a little more attention, things can get tricky.
Laminate falls into the gray area of cleaning. It’s not as fussy as wood or stone, but there are a few guidelines. If you use the wrong cleaner, you’ll cause yourself a lot of aggravation and risk ruining your floors in the process.
Murphy’s Oil may work on wood, but it leaves streaks on laminate. The same goes for pine scented cleaners; they leave a residue.
You can use vinegar but, do it sparingly. Make sure you rinse the solution off; don’t allow the vinegar to sit. Over time this acidic cleaner will strip your floors of their protective layer.
In a pinch, it’s safe to use an ammonia-based cleaner. But don’t make a habit of it. Like vinegar, ammonia can break down seals and coatings, leaving your floor dull and damaged.
To keep your floors in top shape, wipe spills before they dry, use mats under pet dishes and padding beneath your furniture. Keep your pet’s nails short and save the stilettos for the dance floor.
If your laminate suffers from gouges or rips, don’t lose sleep. Drive to your nearest home improvement store and pick up a laminate repair kit. These kits cost under $20 and work like magic.
The repair compound comes in an easy-to-use syringe and dries within minutes.
The ‘Perfect’ Compromise
If you’re having doubts about purchasing laminate, consider engineered hardwood. It’s a cross between solid hardwood and laminate. Sounds cool, right?
This hybrid flooring combines wood veneer and laminate. Instead of a wear-layer and image, manufacturers bind veneer to a laminate backing. The result: affordable flooring you can refinish.
Engineered hardwood usually costs between $3-$7 per square foot and comes in a large assortment of styles and patterns.
Before you get too excited, understand that you can only refinish these floors once or twice. But barring that, engineered flooring might be the perfect compromise.
When shopping for flooring, the smartest thing you can do is weigh your options and find the best compromise between style and quality. Online ordering is convenient, but you should always visually inspect the product before you decide to open your wallet.
Photos aren’t a good indicator of coloring or quality. So, even if you’re planning an online purchase, visit the stores first – or order some samples from the manufacturer’s website.
Don’t forget to ask for paperwork certifying the laminate you purchase meets safety and quality guidelines. If you have doubts about a brand, go online and read the reviews. Yes, they’re subjective, but they’ll usually contain common complaints.
Laminate flooring is a major purchase. Don’t settle; make sure you choose flooring that makes your home look and feel exactly the way you imagined.