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How to Choose Laminate Flooring: A Buyer’s Guide

Laminate flooring is one of the great developments in home improvement of the past 50 years. It's inexpensive, durable and prefinished, but best of all, an intermediate DIYer can install it with just a few tools. Most of the various styles are installed by just snapping together the planks-no glue or fasteners required. In fact, the trickiest part is choosing the product! That's what we'll tell you about.

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Types of laminate flooring: Two Styles of Laminate Flooring

Types of laminate flooring: Two Styles of Laminate Flooring

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There are two types of laminate flooring. Both come in packages of snap-together planks about 1/4 in. thick. But here's the difference: Engineered wood is made from layers of real wood glued together with each layer perpendicular to the one below and above it for better stability. The top layer is a high-quality thin layer of hardwood coated with acrylic finish. Plastic laminate, on the other hand, is completely artificial, with a layer of melamine on the bottom, a resin-saturated fiberboard center, and a woodgrain print on the top that's protected by a layer of clear hard plastic. Engineered wood is for purists who prefer the look of natural wood. But you pay for reality. On average, it's about double the cost of plastic laminate flooring. Its thin top layer of actual hardwood makes it more susceptible to dents, scratches and staining. But unlike plastic laminate flooring, it can be rejuvenated up to three times with careful sanding and refinishing. Because of that, you can expect it to last longer than plastic laminate—if you locate it away from water-prone and high-wear areas. If you're planning to sell your house in a few years, consider that buyers may appreciate and pay more for the look of real wood. Plastic laminate is for those who want the look of wood flooring in a place that gets wet or seriously abused. The bulletproof topcoat and plastic internal components make laminate floors extremely durable. They stand up to moisture, pet claws, in-line skates and sand-infested flip-flops much better than engineered wood floors. Manufacturers have come light-years in making the wood-grain print look very realistic. Most people can't even tell it's not real wood.

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Don't Forget LV Flooring!

Don't Forget LV Flooring!

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Laminate floors aren't the only option for durability and ease of installation. Next time you're at the home center, take a gander at luxury vinyl (LV) flooring. There's luxury vinyl tile (LVT), which looks like ceramic tile, and luxury vinyl plank (LVP), which mimics wood (shown here). Both types are extremely resilient, about the easiest flooring in the world to install and completely waterproof. Since luxury vinyl is so pliable, it's a great choice over uneven subfloors.

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Don't Forget the Underlayment

Don't Forget the Underlayment

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All laminate flooring needs foam underlayment. Don't skip it. Underlayment prevents the floor from clicking on the subfloor as you walk across it and makes it feel a bit softer. It also makes the planks easier to install because it evens out small inconsistencies in the subfloor. Some underlayment has self-adhesive tape to join one row to the next. Others call for separate tape. Be careful to use whatever is required. Go ahead and buy the special laminate and wood flooring installation tool as well. You'll need it to pull together flooring ends where each row abuts a wall.

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Choose a Finish Based on Lifestyle, Not Just Looks

Choose a Finish Based on Lifestyle, Not Just Looks

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If you lead a quiet life, choose whatever flooring style appeals to you. But if you have one of those crazy households with kids, pets and lots of visitors, be a bit more careful. Flooring with a varied grain pattern, a low-gloss finish or distressed or hand-scraped patina will look much better, much cleaner, much longer than flooring with a glossy, monolithic grain pattern.

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Avoid Wide Planks Unless the Substrate is Perfect

Avoid Wide Planks Unless the Substrate is Perfect

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The directions will tell you the amount of slab or subfloor unevenness tolerated by the brand and type of flooring you buy. Over an uneven floor, wider planks will be harder to snap together, end joints won't stay flush with one another and there will be more gaps beneath the planks that you'll feel when you walk across the floor. So if your concrete or wood subfloor is quite uneven, you're better off selecting a narrower plank style, and being thorough when you apply the floor leveling compound.