A Comprehensive Guide to Laminate Floors

by Sam Ferris
Dark Laminate Floors in Living Room
Photo courtesy of Mohawk Flooring.
The world of wood look flooring hasn't been limited to hardwood for a long time There's vinyl, wood look porcelain, and, of course, laminate floors.

The real thing is still king, but laminate flooring is no peasant. It has become a popular flooring option for families and tight budgets across the U.S. Indeed, laminate flooring's calling card is its authentic wood look combined with a lower price point than the real thing. And ever since click and lock installation was introduced in the early 2000s, that popularity has only gotten bigger.

This guide delves into all the basics about laminate flooring, from cost and installation to durability and the rooms in which it works best. After we cover the basics, we offer comparisons to laminate's two toughest competitors: hardwood and vinyl. There's no doubt you'll see why its popularity continues to grow along the way.?

How it?s made
The science behind laminate floors isn?t too complicated. According to the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA), laminate flooring has four layers:
  • The balancing layer: located at the bottom of the laminate piece, it helps stabilize the floor.
  • The core layer: the core layer is a high density fiberboard soaked in resin to protect the floor against moisture.
  • The pattern layer: this paper thin layer has the wood or stone prints that you?ll see on the floor?s surface.
  • The wear layer: A durable layer comprised of clear melamine resin, which protects the floor from scratches, stains, and moisture.?

The cost
Laminate floors are generally affordable. If we had to rank flooring types by cost, laminate floors would be middle of the pack (see below ? highest to lowest cost):
  • Hardwood
  • Travertine
  • Porcelain/laminate?
  • Carpet
  • Vinyl

Pencil in anywhere from $2 to $5 per square foot on your budget sheet for the cost of laminate floors, not including installation. The starting price point is typically around $2 per square foot. For comparison?s sake, hardwood floors generally start around $5 per square foot.

Scratch Resistant Laminate Floors
Laminate floors can withstand scratches from paws and footprints. Photo courtesy of Mohawk Flooring.
Durability and longevity
The wear layer on laminate floors is very durable. Because it?s made with clear melamine resin, it can handle scratches, scuffs, and stains well.?

Its kryptonite, so to speak, is water. If it gets too wet, it swells, which can cause your floors to warp.?

You can install laminate floors with the snap of a finger ? or a simple click, rather.

All laminate installations are floating, meaning there isn?t any glue or adhesive involved. Similar to certain types of vinyl, laminate floors come with a click and lock system that makes installation easier than other flooring types.

The only other thing you?ll need is a pad, which acts as a moisture barrier, reduces noise, and helps protect your laminate floors from water damage.

Fact or fiction: You can install laminate floors over existing floors.

It?s a fact (for hard surfaces only ? you can?t install it over carpet), though we don?t always recommend it. Think about it: laminate adds another layer of thickness to your floors. That?s a problem for rooms with doorways ? you?re going to have to trim the bottom of your doors to make sure they open correctly.

Laminate floors are considered low maintenance. They don?t require any special polishing for upkeep. Clean them with a damp mop (not too wet ? remember, laminate doesn?t mix well with moisture) or specialized laminate cleaner.?

Living Room Laminate Floors
Laminate floors are perfect for living rooms. They can provide wood looks and last under heavy foot traffic. Photo courtesy of Mohawk Flooring.
The best places to install it
Laminate is an indoor-only flooring ? it won?t last on patios. Like hardwood floors, you also shouldn?t install laminate floors in designated wet areas, i.e. kitchens and bathrooms.

If you?re set on installing laminate in one of these spaces, visit the floor?s manufacturer website or ask your salesperson to find out installation guidelines. Some laminates may be suitable for kitchens and bathrooms.

So where should you install laminate floors? These rooms are your best bets:
  • Bedrooms. Laminate is softer on your feet than tile is, and it?s an excellent alternative to run-of-the-mill carpet.
  • Hallways and living rooms. Given hardwood flooring?s price tag, laminate is a good compromise for spacious areas in your home. You get the wood look at less cost.
  • Home offices. Scuffs and scratches from furniture are no match for laminate floors, and you won?t see any lasting furniture imprints like you will with softer surfaces like vinyl and carpet.?

Laminate floors vs. vinyl floors
Though laminate and vinyl floors both have wood looks, there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Why laminate has the upper hand:
  • It adds more value to your home. Screen printing technology has made vinyl a contender for America?s most popular flooring, but laminate flooring has a closer appearance to real hardwood, something home buyers will better appreciate.
  • Laminate padding is less expensive than vinyl adhesive. You?re not just paying for floors ? you?re paying for installation requirements, too. You?ll shave some dollar off your bill with laminate padding.

Why vinyl may be the better option:
  • It costs less. Exceptions aside, vinyl is usually less expensive than laminate. For those on a tight budget, vinyl should be at the top of your wish list.
  • It?s more versatile. You can install vinyl in any room in your home, including kitchens and bathrooms. If you?re remodeling a kitchen or bathroom, buy vinyl instead of laminate.

Laminate and vinyl do share some of the same benefits. Don?t let these factors be deal breakers:
  • Installation. Both have DIY-friendly installations. All laminate floors feature click and lock installations. Some vinyl floors do, too. Glue-down vinyl planks are more tedious to install.
  • Longevity. Laminate and vinyl perform well in high traffic areas because they have high scratch resistance. If installed and maintained properly, both floors will last a long time.

Laminate floors vs. hardwood floors
All things considered, the decision to buy laminate vs. hardwood floors almost always boils down to cost. You?re looking at several dollars less per square foot with laminate. If you?re buying floors for a large area, the savings add up.

A few more advantages to laminate:
  • The installation is easier. So easy, in fact, that you can probably do it yourself if you?re up for it. Hiring a professional hardwood flooring installer, on the other hand, is a must.
  • It?s more scratch resistant. Have kids and pets? Steer clear of hardwood unless you?re prepared to deal with the inevitable scratches. It?s harder to scratch laminate floors.

That said, hardwood floors do have some clear-cut advantages over laminate:
  • It lasts longer. Yes, hardwood scratches more easily. But plywood is stronger than laminate. Engineered floors are built with several layers of plies, which increases their ability to last for decades.
  • You can refinish them. This is part of the reason why hardwood floors have better longevity. Usually you won?t need to ? today?s hardwood floor warranties last for up to half a century. The option is there should?
  • Homebuyers want them. We?ve said before that hardwood floors are the thing homebuyers want most. Laminate floors can?t compete with the value boost that hardwood floors give your home.

Neither floor functions particularly well in high moisture environments. Laminate and hardwood also require more delicate cleaning than other floor types. A dry mop and special cleaner typically do the trick.

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