Laminate Flooring Buying Guide
What is Laminate Flooring?
The first brand of laminate flooring, Pergo, hit the consumer market in the mid-eighties and quite literally revolutionized the flooring industry.
Laminate planks consist of four of five layers made from a variety of materials including foam, cork, wood chips, and sawdust. These layers are bound together through various processes including gluing, pressure and heating.
What’s special about laminate flooring (and where it derives its name) is the laminated top layer which is printed to mimic natural material, primarily wood and stone. This top layer on high-quality brands is hard to distinguish from the real thing in both texture and color from visuals alone.
Why Choose Laminate Flooring?
The next logical question to ask is why to buy laminate flooring over other options. There are a number of great advantages that make laminate a top choice for many homeowners and even commercial property.
The cost of installing laminate flooring can vary wildly but generally speaking, laminate flooring is cheaper than natural wood or stone floors which it mimics. Hardwoods, for example, are aesthetically pleasing but are out of the price range of most homeowners.
Laminate plank technology is advanced such that most people can’t tell the difference between real wood and laminate simply by looking at it. All things considered, the laminate is an affordable alternative to real stone or wood.
Easy to Install
Laminate floors are typically sold in pre-finished planks that click together in a place like a jigsaw puzzle. Some models are designed to fit so tightly together that you don’t require nails or adhesive to install.
The new floor fits on the existing floor so there is no need for an expensive remodeling project. Simply lay an underlayment material and install the new floor over it. Although we suggest that you get professional help to install, even an amateur DIY can figure how to install. Lastly, the process is quick such that a team of professional installers can complete a whole house in just a few days.
It’s hard to miss at first glance but laminate floors are much more convenient to handle than hardwood planks. The latter come in 8 feet length planks on average while you don’t typically see laminate planks more than 4 feet long.
The shorter planks are easier to transport, store and handle during installation. This simple size difference has a significant impact on large projects in terms of time, money and effort.
Installing natural floors in certain areas of the house such as bathrooms and kitchens is ill advised but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a hardwood look in the kitchen. Laminate planks feature a transparent top layer which protects an image layer right beneath it.
This image can be virtually anything from ceramic tile, stone, wood to brick. Laminate by design requires minimal maintenance even areas prone to dampness so you don’t have to sacrifice aesthetics for practicality. Laminate offers just the right balance of both.
Goes Over Existing Floor
Laminate flooring is as versatile in its application as carpeting and it’s hard to think of anywhere where it can’t be installed. If you have a damaged floor, it might be cheaper to install a laminate layer over it rather than rebuild the floor. As long as the underlayment is made from good material and is smooth, you shouldn’t have problems with moisture in any room of the house.
Easy to Maintain
Laminate planks are easy to clean and maintain since the first few top layers don’t contain any natural material. The top protective layer is also designed to resist dirt and stains so you rarely need more than a damp mop or cloth to clean.
The most you need to do is mop and vacuum regularly otherwise you don’t have to worry about specialized cleaning equipment or products.
Good Indoor Air
The nature of laminate flooring and its compact and uniform design makes it resistant to bacteria and mold. Most flooring is also treated with anti-bacterial and anti-allergen products for this very purpose. This feature makes the floor appropriate for a house with people who are allergy prone or those suffering from respiratory illnesses.
The high-quality top layer makes laminate flooring especially resistant to the elements. The floor can be comfortably installed in high traffic area which is always a concern with natural wood.
The flooring is also UV resistant which means you can install it on a porch or other outdoor space without worrying about wearing quickly. It doesn’t fade like stone and hardwood does when exposed to direct sunlight so it’s also a good option for your sunroom.
Doesn’t Crack or Stretch
Finally, home heating and cooling systems mean that there are constant spikes in temperature. This change means that the floor expands or contracts depending on the temperature. Because natural wood adheres onto the subfloor, it has no room to expand or contract to cause it to crack and stretch over time.
This isn’t a problem with laminate flooring since it ‘floats’ over the sub floor. The fact that it’s not tied down to the subfloor means that it can expand and contract without damaging.
Disadvantages of Laminate Flooring
Just as is the case with other types of flooring, there are a few disadvantages associated with laminate flooring. It is important to have a balanced view before making a final decision.
Lacks Natural Feel
Most of the mid-range to high-range looks so much like real wood or stone that you often can’t tell the difference; until you walk on it. Laminate can feel unnatural and cold which can be disappointing especially considering how realistic the floor looks.
Can Be Loud Underfoot
Laminate flooring isn’t usually advised for residences with poor sound insulation because the floor planks can be loud underfoot. A cork or sheet foam between the floor and subfloor may help to minimize the noise but this may not be enough.
Laminate floors produce a loud, hollow noise as you walk on it. It’s still a great choice if you don’t mind the sound.
Can’t Be Refinished
Installing a high-quality wooden floor often means that you never have to replace your floor again. The planks can be refinished several times over as they fade with age. The same cannot be said for laminate flooring. Once the plans fade or are damaged, there is no choice other than to replace.
Hardwood floors are pricey but they outlast laminate and can be refinished several times.
Some materials used to make laminate flooring are derived from formaldehyde which raises VOC emission concerns. Some models are made to specifically get around this issue so it’s worth looking harder if you are concerned about this.
Qualities to Look For In the Best Laminate Flooring
There are a few important factors you need to consider when buying a laminate floor. A checklist such as the one we used for this guide would prove invaluable in this case. Below are a few practical considerations so you don’t have to wait till after installation to find out how well the flooring works.
You can tell how durable a laminate floor is likely to by simply checking the Abrasion Class Rating (AC Rating).
AC1: This rating is generally referred to as moderate residential and is at the lowest end of the price range. The option doesn’t offer much in terms of durability and is generally designated to bedrooms, closets and other light traffic areas.
AC2: This rating is used for general residential applications and can handle moderate foot traffic. Laminate planks in this category are generally very affordable. You may want to install these in living rooms, dining rooms and other areas that don’t see too much foot traffic. This rating is very popular and is what you are likely to see in most homes.
AC3: This rating refers to moderate commercial or heavy residential and typically includes premium brands. You can install these floors comfortably virtually anywhere in your home including heavy traffic areas such as hallways and entryways. These are also durable enough to install in a small office that sees light foot traffic.
AC4: This is typically used for general commercial applications. You can still install AC4 laminate floors in your home especially if you have a large family or aren’t constrained by a budget. These floor planks are also appropriate for heavy off-street traffic such as in boutiques, cafes, and offices.
AC5: This rating is for heavy commercial use and you are likely to see these planks in government buildings, department stores, and other busy commercial buildings.
At the very least, the laminate flooring should be even, tight fitting and level so that it fits snugly on your subfloor. The appropriate style is a matter of personal preference although there are a few areas to consider.
Color: You are at liberty to choose your favorite color but there are a few things to remember so you don’t get disappointed. First, the floor will most likely look darker once installed than it does on the sample. The reason is you are likely somewhere different from the room it will be installed. Keep in mind that lighter colors tend to reflect light while darker ones absorb it. You may want to get input from a professional because the color on the sample can look dramatically different once hundreds of boards are involved.
Tone: This is very close to color but also makes a big difference in how the floor will look once installed. Again, you may need professional input on this if you are thinking about dark or medium brown in regards to tone. The range of brown tones, for example, may include red, black or yellow. The tone is especially important if fitted furniture is a part of your interior décor plan.
Grain: Just like real wood or stone, laminate floor planks come with different grains. Examples include repeat patterns, bird’s eye, bold and notches. Keep in mind that each floor plank might have a slightly different grain so the installed floor can look very different from the sample. An interior designer can help you figure out which grain might be most appropriate.
Plank Width: Plank widths can range anywhere from 3 ½” to 5″. Narrower planks are a good idea if you are going for a traditional look while wider planks are easier and quicker to install.
Texture: Laminate flooring also has a texture which is also a practical consideration when buying. Options include hand-scraped embossed grain on the top layer or embossed in registration. Laminate flooring technology has improved a great deal over the years to include small details that mimic natural materials better than ever.
Edges: Laminate planks naturally have edges and which one you pick is largely a matter of personal choice. Beveled edges are great for a traditional or rustic aesthetic while a French bleed gives a dramatic appearance. Eased edges best mimic prefinished hardwood. Again, a designer can help you figure this part out to get the details just right.
Finish: Laminate finish is the same as gloss or vanish or hardwood. These laminates are available in a variety of finishes depending on what you want. Typical options include high gloss, semi-gloss or stain.
Warranties for laminate flooring vary widely and range anywhere from 5 years to 30 years and even a lifetime. Of course, it makes sense to go for a longer warranty. Keep in mind that the quality of the warranty is related to the price. You see longer warranties on premium products.
One area that buyers lose on is failing to understand the full terms of the warranty. Some warranties cover only the middle layers and not the top wear layer. This means that if the top layer fades or is damaged even after two years, a 30-year warranty is basically useless. Make sure that you understand exactly what the warranty covers.
Personal Considerations for Choosing Laminate Flooring
Aside from the actual features of the laminate flooring, there are also personal factors you need to consider to ensure you make the right choice.
Laminate floors are typically charged per plank and the cost can vary dramatically from one model to another. The only thing you need to understand here is the price speaks volumes about the quality of the product. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should go for the most expensive plank but know that two dollar planks are available but you’ll be back shopping for a new floor in no time. Try to hit the mid-range products if you are on a tight budget.
Alternatively, buy according to thickness. Anywhere from 8mm (mid range) to 12mm (premium quality) is a safe bet.
Size of the Project
The size of the project determines how many planks you will buy. Many sellers are happy to give a discount for buying more material so a large project may not be nearly as expensive as you would think. It is also worth considering paying a contractor to install the floor for you. There are a few details that are easy for an amateur to miss but can play a significant role in the outcome.
You typically get about the same price across the board for the same type of laminate planks. The cost of transport and how much contractors charge in your location can significantly impact the cost of the project.
Finally, factor in the type of subfloor you have when picking which laminate floor to install. Some types need you to install a cork or foam subflooring before laying the planks. Premium models typically come ready to install right on the existing subfloor. Make sure what you get matches what you have. Generally speaking though, laminate floorboards can be installed on virtually any existing floor which is one of the reasons why they are so popular.
Where Can You Install Laminate Flooring?
The beauty with laminate flooring is it can go virtually anywhere in the house. There are no limitations as you find with natural wood floors for example. A few ideas by room may offer more insights as to where you might be comfortable installing the flooring.
Entrances and Foyers: You shouldn’t deliberately expose laminate flooring to constant moisture but a few simple contingency measures can make this a perfectly suitable option for your foyer and entrances. Lay a shoe carpet or mat over the floor in these areas to protect it from snow and rain.
Dining Rooms and Living Rooms: As long as you get the correct abrasion class rating, you can comfortably install the flooring in living rooms and dining rooms regardless of how much foot traffic these areas receive. A word of caution is to lay protector pads under furniture to protect the top layer from dings, scuffs, and dents.
Bathroom and Kitchen: These areas are notoriously difficult to floor as you only have a handful of options. The high moisture presence in these rooms makes wood flooring a no-go-zone. You can still enjoy the same wood look in your kitchen and bathroom with high-quality laminate flooring. Premium brands, for example, work extremely well in these rooms with little concern for durability. You only need to make sure you wipe up spills as soon as possible.
Dens and Offices: Finally, you can also extend the laminate flooring to your home office or den. First, pick a laminate floor with a high AC rating because an office chair can quickly wear down the top layer especially in the area around your work station. It is also a good idea to lay a plastic down under the office chair especially if it has wheels. The idea is to preserve the floor from abuse from the office chair wheels.
Types of Laminate Flooring
There are also a few different types of laminate floors particularly in how the planks are installed.
Again, there are a number of sub-categories of locking laminate floors;
Pre-Attached or No underlay: Laminate flooring is always installed over an underlayment material. The material is typically a thin foam padding or plastic sheet to protect the planks from moisture and for sound proofing purposes. You typically have to purchase the underlayment separately and install it yourself or get the floor installer to do it. Some models come with the underlayment already attached to the bottom of the planks so all you need to do is proceed with the installation. Be sure that the pre-attached underlayment is also protected against moisture otherwise you will still have to install one.
Glue-less Click: This locking type is by far the most common locking system. The planks lock together like a jigsaw puzzle so there is no need to use adhesive or nail down the flooring.
Pre-Glued: This locking system uses an adhesive but you don’t need to apply it yourself making work easier and neater. The system works by moistening the glued section to activate adhesive and then joining the planks together.
Glued: This locking system requires you to manually glue the pieces together. The result is a strong floor that is stable under foot. The downside is you have to pay more for materials and the installation can take longer than other types mentioned here.
The look isn’t the only thing that distinguishes one laminate floor from another. There are various surface types that you need to know about.
Embossed or Textured: The surface may either be embossed, textured or both. Textured laminates mimics the look and feel of real wood as closely as you would hope. Although embossing doesn’t correspond to the printed grain, you can’t tell just by looking.
Smooth: This is a plain finish like regular varnish common on hardwood floors. Some laminate brands offer gloss finishes and a selection from a low, medium or high gloss.
Embossed in Registration: This means that the wood grain and the embossing match exactly. This type of surface most closely resembles real wood.
Hand Scraped: This is also known as a distressed surface and is a fairly common style. Here, the laminate floor is designed to look old or distressed for an antiqued aesthetic.
Finally, there are different types of laminate looks designed to mimic natural materials. The top layer is fused with a photo image which means there is freedom to get virtually any kind of look on laminate flooring.
Wood Laminate: This is the most common type of flooring you’ll see installed or on the market. The varieties are endless. You can find virtually any kind of hardwood flooring in a laminate version.
Stone Laminate: These aren’t as common as wood and sometimes not as convincing but there are some premium planks that accurately mimic the look of real stone. It’s a great solution if you want the same aesthetic for a fraction of the price.
Tile Laminate: This is a fairly common option and as you can imagine, is an inexpensive alternative to tile.
Modern Laminate Flooring Trends to Consider
If you take your interior décor seriously, you definitely want to find out what the trends are and what you can do with your home. It’s always a risk following trends since once out of fashion the home can look outdated. Fortunately, natural stone or wood look is a timeless style. You can install it today and still have a beautiful home 20 or 30 years down the line as long as the floor is in good condition. Below are a few trend ideas to help with your interior décor.
Distressed & Weathered Look Laminate
Interior designers believe that this trend will last for at least 20 years. A distressed and weathered look isn’t for everyone but if you are impressed weathered hardwoods, a laminate version would be a great option.
Wire-brushed hardwood look is an especially good choice. Hardwood options to consider include Modena and classic hickory. Note that this is a very niche look so you want to be absolutely sure you are comfortable with the look before installation. Also be wary that not all of your guests will appreciate the weathered look,
Reclaimed Wood Look Laminate
The beauty of reclaimed wood is no two planks look alike. For the artistic leaning, the rustic reclaimed wood look is a great laminate flooring option. Reclaimed hardwood prices are prohibitive so it is nice to have a cheaper alternative if you are willing to overlook the fact that you aren’t really recycling.
A word of caution, there is only a limited amount of reclaimed hardwood on the market so the trend will eventually die off. Laminate is likely to soon follow.
Exotic Wood Laminate
Laminate technology has advanced dramatically since its introduction in the market and it’s difficult to point a hardwood look that you can’t get in the laminate. Exotic hardwoods are popular among the elite who have no qualms about importing from exotic locations. You can get the same look for a fraction of the cost as long as you are willing to fork out for premium laminate. These laminates are so convincing that many interior designers don’t catch the difference at first glance.
Exotic woods won’t go anywhere anytime soon but because of the prohibitive cost, they aren’t mass marketed. This is a safe choice for a stylized home and will look still look good for decades to come. Siberian tiger wood is a great choice here.
Bright, light blond is definitely a popular trend and works well to make the space look bright and big. These also don’t show dirt and dings quickly. This is still a very new concept and many homeowners haven’t yet jumped on the band wagon. If you are looking for a unique color that you won’t come across anytime soon, the blonde laminate is a good option. Interior designers are of the opinion that the look will hold for decades and more. Georgian Pecan and Glenview look especially great in this color.
White Washed Laminate
The first thing you think when you see a white washed laminate color is the beach. This color is great for recreating the mood and feel of a California beach house. This style is very trendy and modern and yet not out there compared to the blonde.
The only thing you need to remember is the white floor will show every single blemish on your floor from scrapes, dust, dirt and whatever else is on the floor. Still, the color gives the illusion of large and open spaces. The trend may wear out soon mostly because of the high maintenance required to keep it looking at it’s best.
The words that come to mind with the expresso laminate color are sleek, modern and chick. This is an understated yet strikingly beautiful look common in today’s urban and contemporary homes. Darker colors exude a sense of elegance while light colors give the illusion of space and brighten the room.
These colors will definitely stick to the future and is hard seeing them go out of style. Consider Mineral Springs Walnut for a light color and Rim-rock Pear for a dark color.
Flooring Patterns and Layout
A great and unexpected look is to lay the laminate at an angle (diagonally) rather than the traditional straight. This angle gives the illusion for expensive flooring which might not necessarily be the case.
It’s worth noting that the design requires more material but the result is more than worth the cost. This isn’t exactly a trend since it’s not very common but will definitely last for decades to come.
Wide Plank Laminate
Wide planks give the illusion for a bigger room and are perfect if you are looking for an elegant, expensive and modern design. This style has caught on that even manufacturers seem to be outdoing each other to come up with the widest planks. It’s not likely that the very wide planks will last long but a reasonable 8″-10″ will definitely look good over the long-term.
You shouldn’t have a problem getting a great laminate floor as long as you stick to the brands we have reviewed here. The biggest take away from this article should be you get what you pay for with laminate flooring. Buy cheap and you will likely be replacing your floors in a short time. Mid-range options are always a good investment if you are working on a tight budget.
Finally, be careful about buying based on trends alone. These fads often go out of style and you are left with an expensive installation that makes the house look dated. Solid hardwood looks virtually never goes out of style and is always a safe option.