Nothing grounds a stylish room better than a well-considered floor. Yet floors often get short shrift when it comes to deciding how to put a room together. Many of us tend to focus instead on paints and palettes, textiles and fixtures, and furnishings large and small. A word of advice: Think of the floor as the starting point for all else that follows and get to know the pros and cons of each type of flooring material before committing to one. After all, rethinking a flooring decision postinstallation will cost you time, energy, and money (tearing out a room’s flooring to start over from scratch is much more painful than a new paint job or a window treatment swap-out).
Choosing flooring isn’t as simple as finding the most aesthetically pleasing product. To get started, Home Depot’s merchandising manager Stephanie Martinez recommends taking a good look at your space and how you use it. “The best flooring materials for your home depend on your lifestyle and price point,” she says. “From there, you can select between the wide range of flooring options by matching your style preferences to your budget.”
Martinez also advises homeowners to consider the layout and foot traffic in each room, as well as how much maintenance you’re willing to take on. How visible will the floor be? Do you plan to cover it or make a deliberate statement with the material? When making such considerations, ELLE DECOR A-List designer David Mann of MR Architecture + Decor says he adheres to one simple but steadfast rule: “We always avoid floors that are too light, with very few exceptions, or too dark for most practical applications, since they show dust and dirt too easily,” he explains.
Beyond the tried-and-true choices, watch for forward-looking developments in flooring as well. For a recently completed project in Manhattan, Mann experimented with an environmentally friendly epoxy flooring made of a plant oil–based resin. “The completely seamless, off-white flooring was relatively easy to install and was about the same price as a new wood floor,” he adds. “The overall effect is completely beautiful. It’s very streamlined in a futuristic way.” These and other more ecologically conscious new floors are increasingly available to consumers. Take it from David Bois, founder and CEO of Senso, the manufacturer of the resin floor that Mann used recently. “Our artisanal plant-based surfaces offer customizable beauty while reducing carbon emissions by up to 96 percent,” he explains. “Rather than toxic epoxies, our VOC-free systems contribute toward a healthier planet.”
Whether you’re starting from scratch with a whole new floor or looking to make the most of an existing one, we’ve got you covered. Read on for the ins and outs of the most common types of flooring.
Hardwood floors are strong, durable, and great looking in equal measure. Installing a new wood floor, or maintaining an existing one, adds value to any home. With regular cleaning and repairs as needed, a hardwood floor should last for several decades or longer. You can choose from a variety of tree types, including oak (red or white), cherry, walnut, hickory, ash, pine, birch, maple, and bamboo.
Wood floors are the classic choice for many architects and designers. “Our go-to flooring is wood,” say Mann. “It’s warm, beautiful, flexible in applications, as well as practical. We tend to prefer carpeting as second floors, to soften more private spaces in residential use as well as to absorb sound.”
For all their well-known pros, hardwood floors have a few cons. They are susceptible to damage, particularly scratches and dents. You’ll want to consider limiting their exposure to excessive wear and tear, especially if you have pets or children. Watch out for water damage, too; kitchen and bathroom floors, for example, generally hold up better with flooring that can handle high-moisture environments.
Finally, mind the finish, which can alter the look as significantly as the hardwood material itself. Certain types of hardwood floors can be refinished up to five times, according to Martinez. And, if you want to switch things up, she adds, “you can change the sheen to match a newly decorated room.”
- Warm, classic look
- Wise return on investment
- Extremely durable and long-lasting
- Can usually be refinished
- More expensive than other options
- Prone to scratches, dents, and water damage
- Not an easy DIY option for installation
Laminate and Engineered Wood Flooring
If you like the warm look of hardwood floors but are put off by the price of installation, maintenance, and repairs, consider laminate flooring. As its name suggests, laminate flooring is composed of several layers (four is the standard) of a composite wood material bonded together. The top (or wear) layer is treated to be resistant to scratches, stains, and fading, though excessive moisture may cause some laminates to warp. Beneath the wear layer is one with a high-resolution image of a natural material. Options include wood grains that mimic pine, maple, oak, cherry, and more, in addition to laminates created to look like organic stone or ceramic tile.
For the price (about one third to half the cost of hardwood floors, by some estimates), it is a reliably accessible, less worrisome alternative. It’s also an easier DIY option than traditional hardwood floors. Many homeowners opt for laminates for their resilience. Martinez of Home Depot cites those and other factors for laminate’s popularity. “It delivers the look of real wood at an affordable price,” she says. “Laminate requires less maintenance due to the protective scratch coating and is easy to install with click-lock technology.” She recommends waterproof options, including the Pergo and Home Decorators Collection brands from Home Depot.
Engineered woods are the newest alternatives to solid hardwood flooring. They fall between laminates and hardwood floors in price. Like laminates, these floors are manufactured using a bonding process, with a wear layer of hardwood veneer (oak, pine, and birch are common options) fused to a plywood base. The wear layer can range in thickness by several millimeters; for residential use, a 3 to 4mm wear layer should suffice. In high traffic areas, look for something closer to 6 mm. If you are considering radiant heating, engineered floors are a great option. Many, like Home Depot’s Lifeproof brand, offer a durable, waterproof surface that’s impervious to warping due to changes in heat or humidity.
- Affordability (less expensive than hardwoods)
- Reliably mimic the look of organic materials (wood grain and stone)
- Easy to install, even as a DIY project
- Cannot be refinished; once it’s damaged, it may need to be replaced
- Easy to clean and maintain
- Can accommodate radiant heat (unlike hardwoods)
Linoleum and Vinyl Flooring
These two options are often confused for one another, but they are not the same. Both are available in sheets and tiles, in a wide range of colorways and patterns, and are easy to care for. The biggest differences between them are their composition and price. Linoleum is naturally biodegradable, made from linseed oil (which gives it its name), flax, and cork, with natural pigments added for color. It generally wears harder and lasts longer than vinyl, especially in homes with considerable foot traffic, or pets (it’s resistant to scratches).
Architect John Keenen of K/R NYC is a big fan of linoleum for its looks as well as its easy care. “It swings high and low,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve used sheet linoleum in different applications,” he says, “from high-end residential interiors to galleries and more modest, funkier spaces.” He especially likes its seamless appearance. “Linoleum looks almost poured, and yet it’s much softer in feel, with better acoustical properties than poured floors. I installed it in the entryway of my apartment more than 20 years ago and it still looks fantastic.” He prefers Forbo’s linoleum line for its durability and nice selection of colors, including black, which “gives the look of a freshly paved interior street.”
Vinyl flooring is extremely durable, cost-effective, and easy to install. Its PVC core means it’s completely waterproof. Martinez of Home Depot calls it “the perfect option for homeowners looking for luxurious style and durability, without the high price point.” It is available in a dizzying range of styles. “While being budget-friendly, it comes in lots of styles from wood-look planks to stone-look tiles.”
- Easy to care for
- Generally affordable
- Available in a wide range of colors, patterns, and looks
- Prone to water damage with high exposure
Tile floors are a world unto their own. The range of available options is impressive, as well is the range of price points, from affordable options like penny tile to very high-end, gorgeous veined natural stones. They can even be installed in a variety of patterns—think herringbone, running bond, and basket, to name just a few. Like hardwoods, the choice to install stone or ceramic tile is not only an aesthetic one, but also a good investment. Tile floors increase home values, generally, and can also make a bold style statement.
As for durability, ceramic tiles are generally easy to clean, and they hold up to considerable wear. They are not as vulnerable to water damage as wood floors, making them a practical choice in hardworking spaces like bathrooms, kitchens, utility rooms, and mudrooms and entry spaces.
Natural stone tiles can be more prone to chips, stains, and scratches than ceramic tiles, especially if left unsealed. Clay-based ceramic tile is less likely to show damage from regular wear and tear. The hard surface of both stone and ceramic tiles makes them less warm and cozy underfoot than wood floors, however, though you can always lay down area rugs to counter that effect.
- Water-resistant (a good choice for kitchens and baths)
- Easy upkeep
- Extremely durable; doesn’t scratch, stain, or fade the way that woods do
- Available in endless sizes, patterns, colors, shapes, glazes, and price points
- Not DIY-friendly, requiring additional labor costs
- Stone tiles need to be sealed
- Not as warm and comfortable underfoot as hardwoods
Cork is celebrated for its softness, comfort, and sustainability. Thanks to the naturally elastic properties of the tree bark from which it’s made, cork has some give to it, which helps a floor feel especially nice underfoot. Cork is popular in kitchens because you can stand comfortably on cork for longer periods, as when you’re prepping meals and chopping away at the countertop. It’s also more sound-absorbent, environmentally conscious, and affordable option than hardwood flooring. (After vinyl and linoleum, it is likely the easiest on any budget).
Cork is sold in a surprisingly wide range of colors beyond the basic grown, in tiles or planks. Unlike cork floors of the past (or the kind you may be more familiar with from bulletin boards), cork flooring is pretreated with Loba AT, a water-based floor finish, to resist moisture and withstand average wear and tear.
Deep scratches and scars can be harder to treat, however, so you might avoid cork if you have rambunctious pets or in areas with heavy foot traffic, like entryways. It is a nice option in children’s rooms and play areas, however, not only for the comfort factor beneath those tender young feet but also for some much needed soundproofing. Though it’s generally durable, cork flooring can fade with sun exposure, so be mindful of its placement, and consider rugs or other coverings in super sunny spots.
- Sustainable (made from tree bark)
- Deep scratches can be hard to treat (not pet-friendly)
- Can fade with sun exposure