Wood floors are a perennial favorite for homeowners, but while almost everyone loves the look of hardwood flooring, actually living with it can be a bit challenging. Real hardwood floors are high maintenance, easily damaged, and tend to be a little on the pricey side. The good news is, in the last few years, there’s been a steep rise in the quality and availability of flooring options that look like wood, but aren’t actually made of wood entirely (or even in part!). Getting the appearance of a trendy hardwood floor is easier than ever, and many of the most popular alternatives offer a variety of advantages over the real deal.
Real Hardwood Flooring
Real hardwood flooring is made out of – you guessed it – 100% real wood that’s cut into planks that need to be professionally installed. If done properly, a real hardwood floor can last for the life of your home. Of course, even if you stick with authentic hardwood, you still have to decide what type of wood to use, and that isn’t a small choice. The hardness rating of the wood will determine how well it will hold up against everyday wear and tear (and for how long) while the stability rating will determine how much the wood will expand or shrink depending on environmental conditions (especially important in areas that are seasonally very humid or very arid, or if you’re planning on installing wood in a bathroom or basement). And of course, you’ll have to decide on the appearance – both the type of grain and the color of the stain. Exotic Ipe and Teakwoods are currently quite popular for their durability and beauty, while bamboo hardwood floors are prized for their environmental friendliness and water resistance.
Where It Works: When chosen with care, solid hardwood is a material that can be used in almost every room in your home. It has a beautiful, quality look that should last a lifetime.
When To Skip It: Authentic wood floors can be very expensive – quality hardwoods aren’t cheap, and less expensive ones won’t last as long. As well, hardwood doesn’t work well in humid spaces like the bathroom, and requires consistent care to retain it’s appearance, especially in high-traffic areas like a kitchen.
Engineered hardwood is a type of wood flooring that involves wood, but isn’t made of a solid piece of wood the way “real” hardwood is. Essentially, it’s a thin veneer of a hardwood of your choice bonded with layers of less expensive plywood. This has the distinct advantage of maintaining the authentic look and feel of hardwood at a dramatically lower cost, and with a greater degree of stability that makes them better for use in harsh conditions. Engineered hardwood flooring is also much, much easier to install; the multiple layers make it stable enough to install over existing, even slightly uneven flooring, and the manufactured shape allows the planks to click together like building blocks, allowing for very very easy assembly. Because the planks are shaped identically, if one board is damaged, it can easily be removed and replaced, unlike traditional hardwood. On the downside, the thin veneer of hardwood doesn’t stand up well to resurfacing, so if replacing a few pieces isn’t enough to cover up any damage, you’ll need to replace the floor entirely.
Where It Works: When you want the look and feel of hardwood but it’s out of your price range, or if you want to be able to install it on top of an existing floor or in a place like a basement that has fluctuating humidity levels.
When To Skip It: The primary drawback of engineered hardwood is that it absolutely cannot be resurfaced, so although it holds up better against water, it isn’t so good with normal wear and tear, and probably won’t last as long as a traditional hardwood floor.
Laminate is one very popular alternative to hardwood. Consider engineered hardwood flooring as a hybrid of hardwood and laminate – like engineered wood, laminate is made out of bonded layers, including a padded, moisture resistant base, a high density fiberboard core, a design layer, and a protective overlay. But unlike engineered hardwood, the design is not made of wood, but of a high definition photograph of wood. The protective overlay makes laminate flooring warm to the touch, but also means it doesn’t have the texture of real wood (though some are lightly embossed to try to imitate it). As well, because each wood design is limited to a certain number of planks, a laminate floor won’t have the natural variety of wood, and can even develop an unintentional pattern if it’s laid carelessly. But, like engineered hardwood, the planks are interchangeable and easily replaced (though you want to be sure to buy extra in case your particular pattern is discontinued).
Where It Works: Laminate floors work best in high traffic areas. Because of the protective layer, these are more durable in the short term against things like pet claws and children. Because laminate can’t be resurfaced, it won’t last as long as wood, but it’s a very affordable alternative for a kitchen or hallway that you know is going to see some abuse.
When To Skip It: If you don’t like to sweep. No, seriously – laminate is impressively durable against the type of traffic that hurts hardwood, especially water and foot traffic, but dirt or sand left on the floor can scratch or mar the surface.
You might be surprised to learn that the hottest trend in wood flooring not only doesn’t contain any wood, but is actually a sort of spiritual successor to the much-derided linoleum. Like laminate and engineered wood, luxury vinyl is made of layers, but in this case layers that add up to a total of about a quarter inch thickness – really a thin tile rather than a plank, though they’re shaped like a piece of wood. Like laminate, these consist of high definition images (though in this case they’re usually transparent to add visual depth) covered with embossed protective layers that are textured enough to feel similar to the real thing. The main advantage of vinyl flooring, though, is that it’s incredibly durable. Unlike real wood, it’s resistant to moisture, mold, and regular wear and tear, and it’s very, very easy to clean. Solid hardwood might last your home a lifetime with painstaking care and regular maintenance, but luxury vinyl flooring will hold up just as long with much less effort. Better still, unlike older types of linoleum, luxury vinyl tiles use a no-glue click installation and can be installed on top of an existing floor.
Where It Works: Where hardwood doesn’t: wet areas like the bathroom or areas of heavy traffic, or anywhere you want to get the look and feel of wood without the maintenance.
When To Skip It: If you’re trying to raise the value of your home, vinyl won’t cut it the way hardwood does. Or, if you’re especially fond of the feel and sound of walking on wood floors, vinyl can’t completely imitate it.
Wood Print Tile
Finally, the trendiest wood flooring option is one that you might not have heard of: wood print tile. These are actual genuine porcelain floor tiles the size and shape of wood planks, printed with high definition images of wood. Now, these are a really interesting twist, because most hardwood alternatives won’t add the same value to your home that real wood will, but ceramic tiles are generally considered to be in the same quality class, and will similarly improve the value of your home. And, unlike most replica wood, wood tiles often depict heavily weathered wood surfaces rather than pristine new planks, allowing for an aged, rustic look without either the aging or the rough, rustic finish. Wood print ceramic tiles are a little more cumbersome to install, but are durable and long lasting, and ideally suited to wet environments – especially the bathroom – where you would never want to put actual hardwood planks. These are a fantastic luxury option, especially if you’re interested in the aesthetics of a weathered wood floor but don’t particularly want to wind up with splinters in your feet.
Where It Works: Wood print tile shines in luxury bathroom design, but works well in any high-traffic area where you’d rather not have to maintain the wood.
When To Skip It:If you really hate having cold feet.
So if you like the way a wood floor looks, but have been holding off because hardwood floors are a hassle, don’t despair – there are a lot of other options out there that offer the same style, but that are a better fit for different lifestyles.