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10 tips on buying hardwood floors – from an insider

Hardwood flooring buying tips

10 tips for choosing hardwood floors

Hardwood flooring can add beauty and warmth to your Westchester home.  It can also be a large and a long term investment.  This choice can impact the style (as well as value) of your home, and you’ll be living with it for years to come.  It’s ideal to thoroughly research the type of wood and the hardwood flooring contractor you’ll use.  Sometimes, making the choice can feel overwhelming, especially when one ventures into a hardwood flooring store.  This hardwood flooring guide can help you think through the choices.

Please note that this article may contain affiliate links.  You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page.

1.  Understand your sub-floor BEFORE you start

  • tips for selecting hardwood solid vs engineered hardwood flooringDo you have a plywood sub-floor or concrete?  You should know your options and limitations before you start as this can have a big impact on the form of wood you choose/type of construction (e.g. solid hardwood flooring vs engineered) and your budget.


  • This can help determine the installation method – nail, glue, float


  • Generally, if you have a plywood sub-floor, solid hardwood flooring will be a better option for you, especially longer-term.


  • If you have a concrete sub-floor, your options are a bit more limited and/or expensive.  First, if you want to do solid hardwood, you would need to first add a plywood sub-floor. This can add to your cost, as well as your height.  If you have engineered flooring, that can go directly on top of the concrete, but if your sub-floor is uneven and/or unsmooth, you may need to spend some additional money on floor prep.


  • should you install cabinets for floors firstHeight constraints – You should investigate if you will have any height restrictions.  Solid hardwood is generally thicker than engineered wood.  Solid is 3/4″ thick and engineered generally ranges from 3/8″ to 1/2″ thick (and if you are adding plywood, that adds an additional 3/4″ on top of that.  Check out your door heights (especially if they are exterior doors which a much more challenging to cut, especially if they are metal; interior wood doors can generally be cut, but they will add to your cost).  Will you have any tripping hazards by adding the wood?  This could happen if you are adding it some areas and not others, but the more commonly the issue comes up if you add height near steps so that it may change the height of 1st or last step.  Also, if the hardwood is going in the kitchen (and you are not remodeling the whole kitchen), check to see how the height will be next to the cabinets and even more importantly next to the appliances.  Is there enough clearance height?  Will any of the appliances get locked in (check the dishwasher…it might be fine now, but what if it needs to be repaired or replaced 5 years down the line?)



2.  Determine general scope and objectives before you start

  • tips for choosing hardwood flooringWhat area(s) do you want to add hardwood flooring to?   Is it the whole house?  1st floor?  2nd floor?  Living room/dining room?  Bedrooms?  Will the kitchen be part of this work?  What about the steps?  If your current budget won’t allow you to do your dream list, what are your priorities?  (Remember, you can do some now and more later).


  • If you have hardwood in other places, it’s generally better to match, especially on species and color.  If you have solid hardwood, recognize that you generally can sand and refinish the wood to be a different stain color, if that’s what you would prefer.  You don’t have to be locked in to the current color.  (And recognize that it is much less expensive to refinish existing hardwood than to replace it).


  • ebony hardwood floors darkWhat colors do you generally like? Do you prefer dark hardwoods, light, mid tones, red tones?  Now, this can also be impacted by rooms/rooms of the house you are doing. If it’s a kitchen, consider the color of your cabinets (or what color  they be if you are replacing them) so that you consider the color of the hardwood vs the cabinets (hint: contrasting is better…and white cabinet go with virtually any color hardwood).  How much light do you get in the area?  How large (or small is the space)?


3.  Determine your general budget

  • tips on buying hardwood floorsAs a first stab, determine how much you can or are willing to spend.  What is your upper limit?  Be realistic with what you can afford.  How much do you have saved and/or allocated for work in your house?  Are you expecting a bonus (or a refund check for your taxes?  Do you know how much it will be (or have a range).  What portion of that will be dedicated for this project?


  • Remember that you don’t need to spend your full budget.  But, also bear in mind that the cost of the project may exceed what you have budgeted, and you may need to make choices.  This may entail only doing some portions now and others later.  Or, it may mean making sacrifices and choices on type of wood you do.  (Personally, I’d prefer to have my customers “do it” right and either wait or do in phases rather than feel they are making sacrifices.).  If hardwood is too expensive, you may consider doing laminate or carpet…or doing hardwood in some areas and carpet in others (e.g. bedrooms).


  • cost of refinishing hardwood in westchesterBear in mind that many underestimate the cost of hardwood.   Sometimes, this is because they see a cheap or sale price item in Home Depot (or another lower end store).  Often, it’s because they see in a store (or online) the cost of the hardwood, but they don’t factor in all of the costs such as installation/labor, rip up/haul away of existing flooring, delivery, transition pieces, base molding/shoe molding.  refinishing steps, moving furniture.   In addition, customers will often take a per square foot price, and then measure their room for square feet and do the math. But, they often forget about the closets and/or hallways, as well as the fact that you need to add in an extra 10% for waste.  Sometimes, there is a lot of floor prep needed.  So, many underestimate the costs of installing hardwood until they get an actual full estimate.  And, sometimes, at this point, they need to rethink the scope of their project and/or wait until they have more savings.


  • Determine what you would like the professionals do vs. what areas you plan to do.  In general, it’s best to leverage the expertise of the professional contractors, but there are some areas that can be done by homeowners if they want to save money.  For example, who would you like to move the furniture?  Who will rip up the carpet?  Determine whether it’s more important to save money or time.  Know what you’re capable of…some things end up taking a lot longer than what homeowners expect.  Other times, budget is the constraining factor, and doing some of these tasks yourself may enable you to get the floor that you prefer (or do the full area).



4.  Do some research on local flooring stores/contractors – involve them early in the process

  • design consultation for hardwood flooringAsk your friends, realtor, other contractors who they would recommend.  Some people just call and ask their friends and trusted advisors; others ask questions on their facebook page or better yet in their local facebook groups.  Some of our local moms groups are pretty active on facebook and they will recommend great contractors (as well as ones to stay away from).


  • Check out Angie’s list.  You do need to pay a small fee to read the reviews on Angie’s List, but if you are doing a big project, it is generally worth it to spend a little of bit of money (e.g. $15-$40) to make sure you get the best contractors.  This will ultimately save you money.  Bear in mind, that you can buy just a 1 month subscription and sometimes, they run special promotions.  Generally, you will find the better contractors on Angie’s List.  You can read the reviews and many of them are fairly in depth.


  • Google local flooring stores, especially reviews.  So you could type in “Town XYZ hardwood flooring stores” or “Reviews for town XYZ flooring stores.” (Or after you find some flooring stores, google “XYZ store reviews.”


  • hardwood flooring selection tipsGenerally, you’ll get a higher quality product, better value, better workmanship and stronger communication when working with one place, rather than dividing the job up between materials vs labor.  You will also have someone who can give you more holistic advice on the combination of costs, so that you can choose wisely.  There are plenty of instances where customers may think they are saving money by going to a cheaper material, and then they learn later that this choice costs them more in labor.  So, they really haven’t saved anything and in the process received lower quality materials.  Be sure to look at the WHOLE PROJECT price.  Don’t focus on line items, as some stores charge more some items and less on others.  Focus on the whole price and make sure you are comparing apples to apples. 
    • I will give this example about Home Depot’s carpet pricing structure to illustrate a point.  Home Depot typically advertises a small charge for carpet installation (sometimes $39 or $99 or something like that).  Do you really think a good carpet installer will install carpet for low prices like that?  (Not even a desperate carpet installer would work for that price?)  So, they stuff the costs somewhere else.  Instead, they charge the customer about double for the carpet padding…and that’s how they pay for the installation.  So, asking how much someone charges for installation and then comparing it to Home Depot’s is the wrong approach.  Asking how much someone charges for the combo of carpet/padding/installation is a better approach.  But, even here, there can be differences as some carpets are 12 ft in width and some are 15 ft in width, and so you need different amounts.  Some places may charge more for steps, but less for rip up…or vice versa.  So, it’s best to look at the full prices…because in the end, that is what you will pay, even if their “apparent” labor rate is lower, their full price may be higher.


5.  Beware that cheaper is not better…in fact, it’s often worse.

  • Yes, generally, you do get what you pay for.  Cheaper woods are generally cheaper for a reason.  Many are cheaper forms of wood (e.g. engineered vs. solid), have lower grades of wood (e.g. more knots, color variation, more shorts, lower grade species), have inferior milling (i.e. the edges are not straight and hence you will have more gaps which you’ll see during the installation process), and/or inferior finishes (i.e. they will scratch more easily).


  • westchester bamboo flooring species westchesterBe very careful with Bamboo.  As a general rule, bamboo does not hold up well to foot traffic nor water.  And, many bamboos, especially those carried by the Big Box stores, are made in China. (Translation: this usually means they have formaldehyde in them.)  They are cheaper than standard woods, and there is a reason for that…they generally don’t last and they can not be refinished.  So, when the bamboo dents and scratches, you will either need to live with it or replace it (and replacing it costs more than initial installation as you will now need to rip it up, and if it’s glues, you will need to smooth out and prep the floor.  Note: strand woven bamboo holds up better, but some of these have issues as well…and these will often cost as much, if not more than oak.  I will reiterate, “you get what you pay for.”  If it’s much cheaper, it is probably inferior.


  • Lumber Liquidators…need I say more?  Well, I will just say a bit more, besides the obvious of “you get what you pay for.”  First, in case you missed the 60 minutes episode on Lumber Liquidators, here’s a link.  This is not the first time that there have been allegations against them for dangerous levels of formaldehyde.  Since 2013, there is another ongoing investigation on their engineered hardwood floors.  After the brouhaha from the March 1st, 2015 60 Minutes episode, there is now a federal investigation underway.  But, what about their solid hardwood?  In our experience, I will say that the samples in the store look amazing.  But, the milling has been very poor making installation very challenging and the final work product is not good as the wood is uneven.  (We no longer install their products and haven’t for years).  You can see more in this video put together by some hardwood flooring installation experts on their “top of the line wood.”  I will also say that I participate in some of the online flooring forums, and every week, I see multiple complaints about Lumber Liquidators wood as well as customer service and non-responsiveness to complaints.


  • hickory hardwood country naturalBe careful when buying on-line.  Often, you can not see the product in person.  So, the color/tone/graining may look different in person. There may be many more shorts as well as knots.  Often, most of these bargain products are seconds or thirds (meaning they are leftovers that were returned and/or shipped multiple times.  As a result, you will often need to order and extra 10-20% to account for more waste. 
    • Delivery and shipping is often more expensive and inconvenient.  Be careful to view the shipping costs before you decide.   Usually, they will not deliver to your door.  There may be extra charges for a lift gate, and you will need to meet them at the truck and carry this to your house (or apartment).  You may need to stay home from work for the day to do this (as you may get a large delivery window).  You often have little or no recourse if there are issues with the wood, even if that was caused by delivery issues.  Caveat emptor applies here as well.


6.  Style considerations – what are your preferences?

advice on picking hardwood flooringThere is no one size fits all.  This really depends on your style and tastes, as well as the style and decor of your home.  You can read more about the 2015 Hardwood flooring trends here, but I would encourage you to choose what you like best, even if it’s not one of the top trends.  It’s your home, and you need to love it.  Here are some things to consider.

  • Color – do you prefer light, dark, or mid tones.  Do you prefer brown tones or red tones (or a mix).  Do you prefer gray or whitish tones?  See above hardwood flooring trends for examples of the hot dark, gray and whitish tones.  See this article for the full breath of stain colors.



  • picking hardwood floors - tips and advicePlank width – That standard you see in many homes in Westchester is 2 1/4″ (for houses that already have hardwood).  Are you looking to match this or go for a contrast?  Often when installing new hardwood, most customers would prefer to go wider. 3 1/4 inch, 4 inch and 5 inch are very popular.  In general, wider makes your space look larger…unless it is “too wide” for your space.  So look at your floor plans and room dimensions.  If you are installing on a new floor (e.g.  if you already have hardwood on 1st floor and you are now adding it to the 2nd floor), it’s visually simple to change the plank size and go wider. But, if your flooring is going next to existing flooring, you need to consider how a change in width will look.  In some spaces, making a change works great, and sometimes, by altering the direction (e.g. going diagonal or just laying it at a right angle) will work very well.  This is a judgment call.


  • Pre-finished vs site-finished woods – see more below.


  • Texture – Do you prefer a smooth look?  Or do you like a distressed or handscraped look.  This is a matter of preference and style.  Here in the Westchester area, most customers prefer smooth (and finished on site).  Some like an old world oiled floor look.  In other parts of the country, handscraped (and distressed) is popular.  Some of this will also depend if you buying new hardwood vs refinishing existing hardwood.


7.  Family usage and Pets

tips for selecting hardwood - what is best type of hardwood for dogsIf you have a busy household (e.g. pets, kids, lots of foot traffic), you may want to consider the following.


8.  Prefinished vs. site finished

Hardwood flooring can either be pre-finished (i.e. finished in the factory) or site finished after it’s installed (sometimes referred to as unfinished). 


tips for getting best hardwood floorsThe advantages of pre-finished wood are:

  • Faster installation (as you avoid the sanding and refinishing process).
  • Harder finish as it has aluminum oxide applied at the factory.
  • Less messy/smelly as you avoid the dust and odor created during the sanding  & refinishing process.




The advantages of site finished are:

  • tips for choosing your hardwood floorsSmoother edges/no beveled edges – many prefer this look and feel it looks more real.  Color is more consistent (vs. with prefinished wood, you often see lines between the boards, and this is more noticeable in darker colors.)
  • Can make flooring more consistent with hardwood in other areas of the home
  • More impervious to moisture, and this is especially important in kitchens and entryways
  • Can test and customize the color – either to match to existing hardwood or to match to taste

You can read more about pre-finished vs site-finished hardwood flooring here.


9.  Special considerations

  • Radiant heat – If you’re installing radiant heat, there are extra considerations as many woods will not work over radiant heat.  In addition, you should not be using adhesive over radiant heat.  For solid oak, you will need to use rifted and quarter-sawn oak over radiant heat.  Some engineered hardwood floors are also approved for radiant heat.  But, be careful and do your research before making a mistake that may cause you to replace your floors.


  • VAT (vinyl asbestos tile), terrazo, terra cotta – If you currently have any of these on your floor, please recognize that removal of these materials may be very costly, may require special licenses to remove (and air quality testing).  They may also entail extra prep work as the floors may not be smooth was these materials are removed.  These can cost a lot extra to remove.


  • Sound transmission – If you live in Co-op or condo, and if you have restrictions on hardwood and sound transmission, you may want to consider a sound barrier such as a cork underlayment.  Please note that sound barriers generally require a floating floor.  (If you nail through the cork or other sound barrier, the nails puncture it allowing more sound to travel through, especially over time as the wood expands and contracts).


10.  Plan ahead on your timing – many underestimate the time frame

  • Westchester hardwood floors - oak flooringUnderstand how long things will take.  How long will it take to deliver the hardwood?  Allow time for this (it might take 1-2 weeks, but it can vary).  Allow time for acclimation (generally 2-7 days, pending on the species and width of hardwood).  How long will demo and install take?  This can vary based on scope of work.  If you are refinishing hardwood floors, how long will that take – learn more here.  Bear in mind that if you are refinishing the hardwood floors, most likely, you will need to be away during this process.  Many customers don’t realize this until they meet with me, and this may cause them to delay 2-6 months as they need to plan the work around a vacation.  So, plan ahead.  Get input and then figure out when is best for you and your family.


You may also find this article helpful:  The Top 10 Flooring mistakes Home Owners Make


Picking hardwood can be tricky, especially if you try to do it on your own.  It’s best to consult with the experts.

color consultation for paint and stain colorsIf you live in Westchester County NY, I offer color consultations to advise customers on paint colors and stain choices. My designer discount at the paint stores usually more than offsets the cost for the hour consultation. Read more here.  Due to many requests, I’m now offering phone consultations as well.


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10 tips on buying hardwood floors – from an insider

40 thoughts on “10 tips on buying hardwood floors – from an insider”

  1. I like your suggestions for putting hardwood floors in a home with pets. I think that using a lighter color to show fewer scratches would be a great idea for us. We have three puppies who love to play and wrestle. I think that their paws could definitely scratch a nice hardwood floor. I will have to look into which types of woods will be best for our situation.

  2. Thanks for the information. Like you said, when dealing with hardwood flooring, it’s important to look at all of your options. I’m going to especially look into a lighter color of hardwood, just like you suggested. Do you have any other tips?

  3. I like what you say about not being too cheap with hardwood floors. I think that if you don’t have enough money to get something that will look good and last then you need to save up more money instead of getting something cheaper. I do love your tips on planning too. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Fred – Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, I’d rather people wait and do it right, or do a smaller scope now and then do more later. It’s much better than sacrificing the quality of the wood.

  4. That makes sense that the type of sub-floor you have would change how you install your flooring. I think we have concrete sub-flooring, but I’m not an expert on these things. How do you find out what kind you have?

    1. Generally, you try to pull back the flooring (if it’s carpet) or peak under the floor register (if there is one). Or, you can try to tap or bounce on the floor. Or, you can look at the blue prints or plans.

  5. I didn’t know that to get a hardwood floor on concrete that I would need a plywood sub-floor. I love hardwood floors and it is a bummer that I can’t just lay it on concrete. It makes me wonder though, is a hardwood floor better/more durable than an engineered hardwood floor? Is it just a preference issue?

  6. I’ve been wanting to get some new hardwood installed, but I’m not sure what kind to get. That being said, I really appreciate you sharing with me some awesome insight on things I can look for when choosing hardwood. I’ll make sure I follow your tips and see how much they help out. Thanks a ton for the help.

  7. Indeed, especially with dogs you want to go for a lighter colored hardwood floor if you wanted a wooden one at all. Canines claws can’t retract so those are always going to be scraping the ground as they walk and run around. You also probably don’t want any pets on a wooden floor within a week of installation as well.

  8. It’s really good to know when it comes to wood flooring, “…you do get what you pay for.” My wife and I really love hardwood flooring and eventually would like to have it in our home. Since you get what you pay for, we were thinking we should probably save up for a few years and then be able to get really good quality lumber. We want it to last forever, so might as well make a smart decision. Thanks for the info!

  9. My fiancé and I are trying to determine if price increase is worth nail down. We both like look better of nail down. We can cover some of upstairs for a cheaper price with engineered than just doing downstairs with nail down. Should we be concerned with buckling of hardwood? Any help would be appreciated. Thank you.

    1. Kevin – Personally, I would always opt for solid hardwood over engineered, when it’s possible. First solid is generally better looking. Second, nail down is a much better and secure installation (floating floors can move/bounce and feel fake). Third, you can sand and refinish solid hardwood many times, so it will last much longer (and help when you are selling your home). When your floor get scratched (and they will at some point), you can refinish them. Also, solid is much easier to repair (e.g if you have water damage (could be from overflowing toilet, water getting through windows, pets, plants, etc), it’s much easier and less expensive to fix with solid hardwood.

  10. Thank you for the help. My wife and I are trying to decide on hardwood floors to install in our house. I had not thought at all about the width of the planks, as you discussed. Are wider planks any more durable?

    1. Hi Justin. Glad I could help.

      I don’t think that larger or smaller planks are more or less durable. It’s the species of wood and finish that makes a difference. I suppose wider planks have fewer seams and may be a bit easier to clean/less dirt gets caught.

  11. Doing research for local contractors is a great idea. I want to make sure I get the best possible work on my hardwood floor. Checking reviews to make sure you get the best possible company is something I think everyone would want. Thanks for the awesome info!

  12. My wife and I are planning a kitchen remodel right now. This post was very helpful, especially since we’re trying to plan the flooring right now. All of these tips were very helpful, especially your tip to find a contractor and involve them in the process early on. Thanks for posting!

  13. We had installed oak floorboards 21 years ago. Now after such a long time my parents thinks that the old wood should be reclaimed by new floorboards. They were confused & were not knowing what should be done to buy new wood. So, one of my friends suggested us your this article. All of these tips are very helpful to us. thank You for guiding us.

  14. I’ve been begging my husband to let us install hardwood floors in our home because I love the look. I like how you mention that you should investigate if you have any height restrictions before you start the process. I would imagine if we called a contractor or a professional, they’d be able to do the math to see if we have enough room to install hardwood floors.

  15. Great article! I like the tip about not ordering online. Many times if you order directly from the store or if you special order it with a store, they will deliver it for a small fee. Or if you’re going with a flooring installation company, they may do it for free if you’re going to have them install the floor.

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