What are the best types of flooring for basements and damp spaces?
Choosing flooring for basements is always tricky because there are a lot of trade-offs. Basements are notoriously dark, damp, cold and sometimes they get wet…or worse, they can flood.
Most basements are below grade (meaning that that they are below or partially below the ground level) and most on built on a concrete slab, and to top it all off, the majority are uneven. For all of those reasons, it limits the choices of floors that will work.
Furthermore, most people want to spend less money basement, and they ironically find that most flooring choices in the basement cost more money (due to limited options on a concrete floor and floor prep). So many are unpleasantly surprised with costs that are more expensive than they were planning to spend.
So you need to realize ahead of time that you will need to make some trade-offs. That may involve making tough budget choices, or how making a call on how durable the flooring, or how waterproof/water resilient it is, how warm or soft it is, etc.
Also, remember that there are other changes that you can make in the basement more comfortable. These may include getting better lighting, adding radiant heat floors or other means of heating, adding insulation to floors and/or walls, adding area rugs, adding sheet rock to the walls and painting them, etc.
Please note that this article contains affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page.
How will you use your basement space?
Before you start choosing best basement flooring for your home, think about how you intend to use the basement. Will this be a playroom for young kids? Will they be sitting on the floor or running around? Will it be a family room? Do you plan to convert it to home gym? Will this be used as an office? Are you creating a guest bedroom or an extra room for a family member? Are you just using it for storage or laundry?
Who will be using the area? You preferences may be different if you have toddlers or teenagers, or if it will be used as a man cave or an office…or if you are having an elderly parent or relative coming to live there.
Ask yourself the following questions before narrowing your basement flooring options:
- How important is softness on your feet?
- How warm is your basement and does that impact your flooring choice? Or are there other ways to solve this challenge?
- Do you get moisture in the basement? Is it damp?
- Are you prone to flooding or water intrusion?
- What is your budget?
- What type of sub-floor do you have (e.g concrete or plywood)
- How level is your sub-floor?
- How even or smooth is your sub-floor?
These sorts of questions and answers will help you select what works and what doesn’t work for your basement. There is no one-size-fits all for basements. What’s right for one family and one basement may not be right for another. It depends on preferences and priorities.
Will you have different sections in the basement? Have you considered using different flooring for different sections? (e.g is part for the laundry, part for a bedroom, part for a gym, part for a family room, etc. Don’t be limited to choose 1 type of flooring for entire area. Sometimes choosing two (or more) types will better meet the needs for each area.
According to the National Flood Insurance Program, floods are the No. 1 disaster in America, averaging over $3 billion in claims each year. If you’ve ever had a basement flood, you know it’s the opposite of fun. This may play a big role in your decision.
Flooring Choices for basements:
1. Engineered Vinyl Planks or Tiles
So first, let me say that engineered vinyl planks are usually my first choice flooring for basements because it looks like hardwood flooring and it’s WATERPROOF. Yes, waterproof! It also has a cork underlayment for a bit of cushioning and insulation (and sound absorption).
Engineered vinyl planks (sometimes called luxury vinyl plank, or LVP or EVP) are a relatively new type of flooring. You can read all the details in this article (What is luxury vinyl plank flooring?). Coretec (made by US Floors) is the inventor of the category.
It’s a great option if you want something that will hold up to water or moisture…and look nice at the same time. It looks and sounds way more real than laminate floors (and laminate floors are not waterproof – see below).
The other great thing about engineered vinyl plank flooring is that if your handy, you can actually install them yourself (check out how to do this in this article).
These floors are available in wood look planks as well as tile looks.
This product works great for basements and other places that may get wet or have moisture, such as kitchens, entryways, powder rooms. It does not work so well if your sub-floor is bumpy and uneven as this is a floating floor, so it may wobble or bounce a little.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are installing these on a concrete slab, you should install a vapor barrier between the foundation and the engineered vinyl plank. While the engineered vinyl plank is waterproof, there is sometimes hydrostatic pressure from the ground that can push water up from the foundation… and then that water can get trapped between the foundation and the vinyl.
This may only happen at certain times of the year (e.g. in early spring when snow melts, after excessive rainstorms, consistent rain or hurricanes. But when it happens, the trapped water could cause mold as it may eat on the cork underlayment. The super simple solution is to just add a thin vapor barrier. It’s worth it!
By the way, you can order some samples for Coretec Plus flooring here on Amazon.
- Looks and feels real (and sounds real)
- Very affordable, especially for DIYers
- Thick wear layer so it’s long lasting
- Thicker and warmer (so it feels like real flooring and creates a bit of insulation)
- If your sub-floor is bumpy or uneven, the floor can bounce (unless you level it out before)
- High material cost compared to other vinyls (but often labor costs are slightly cheaper and no adhesive needs to be purchased
2. Tile plank floors, ceramic or porcelain tiles
Tiles are of course waterproof, so they are great if this is your #1 priority. However, if you live in a cooler climate (which is where most basements are located), they are rather cold on your feet. And, of course they are also hard on your feet (or your butt if you have little ones playing down there).
Tiles are relatively easy to clean and highly durable so they last a long time. And, they come in a variety of styles.
The most popular style right now is tile plank flooring. Here are some of my favorites wood look tiles.
Tile flooring is often more expensive (due the labor and prep involved), but it is pretty permanent. You’ll want to make sure that you are installing directly on top of concrete (or cement board). If you install on top of plywood (or any wood for that matter), you tile will crack (as soon as the plywood expands/contracts due to changes in temperature/humidity.
You’ll also want to make sure that your sub-floor is level/even. If it isn’t, your tile may crack. And, it will come out uneven, especially if you have wood look planks or larger tiles. The tiles just won’t like up and you can stub your toes. Not fun.
- Improves your home’s value (and counts as a capital home improvement)
- More expensive and may require extensive floor prep
- Cold on your feet (you may want to add radiant heat floors and that can ad to your cost)
- Hard on your feet/tires them out, not comfortable to sit on (if you have young kids ad intend to use for play area)
- Loud/reflects sound, so not good for a home theater option
3. Rubber flooring/rubber interlocking gym tiles
Exercise flooring for basements has become more and more popular. These tiles are a super option, especially if you want to create a gym in your basement (or a section for a gym). They are obviously great for shock absorption.
These are also waterproof. And, they come in interlocking pieces. So, if you wanted to, you could install them yourself. Or, if you basement floors, you can pick them up, let them dry and then put them back together.
Also, the rubber floor tiles are fairly thick (the standard size is 3/8″ or 8mm), but you can get thicker ones, too. Because they are thicker, they help camouflage the imperfections you may have in your sub-floor.
You can choose one color, or 2 or more and create a pattern. Note: Most are black…or black with flecks so they are a bit dark.
Another option (and it’s a bit less expensive) is to use the soft rubber foam tiles (EVA foam). These tiles are typically used for little kids and babies. They aren’t as durable as regular rubber tiles, but they do serve a purpose. They can also be used and place on top of tile floors to make the area softer and warmer.
- Easy to install (and dry out if you do have a flood)
- They are softer/easier on your feet
- Great for gyms
- The traditional rubber tiles are dark, so they can make your basement look darker
- They are heavy, so be careful to check out the shipping costs before you order
Carpet is generally the least expensive option, so if budget is your #1 priority, this may be a good option for you. Carpets are flexible, so they can work over all types of sub-floor surface and can work over areas that aren’t level or smooth (and of course, it helps camouflage the imperfections of the sub-floor.
Carpets are also softer and warmer than hard surfaces (obviously), and they work well on the steps (in fact, they are your safest option on the steps
But, of course carpets get dirty (and are harder to clean), and they wear down faster and need to be replaced.
And, obviously, carpeting isn’t waterproof, so if your basement is prone to flooding, it’s not a great choice. If you get a lot of moisture, it’s also not a wonderful choice as it is possible for mold, mildew or dust mites to develop.
Note: If you only have minor moisture issues, you do have the option to upgrade to your carpet cushioning to one that has a moisture barrier, such as Shaw’s Triple Touch.
And, never ever use the regular rebond carpet cushion over concrete. This is a breeding haven for bacteria and it doesn’t wear properly over concrete. So either use a felt bad or a moisture barrier carpet cushion (much better).
- Cheapest option (usually)
- Softer and warmer
- Camouflages uneven sub-floors
- Not waterproof and doesn’t do well with high moisture (mildew, mold or dust mites may breed there…and it can be smelly…not odor are a bad sign)
- Gets dirty easily and harder to clean
- Needs to be replaced more often (and this can be a pain and cost more money in the long run
5. Carpet tiles
I decided to break carpet tiles out vs. regular wall to wall carpet as there are several differences.
Some of the advantages of carpet tiles are that they tend to absorb less moisture both due to their backing and their composition. Also carpet tiles are easy to replace, so if you get a couple that get dirty, it’s easy to replace them without needing to replace the full area.
Also many people like carpet tile as they are a bit more stylish and act a bit more like a hard surface. There is a wide range of styles. There are some that have lots of patterns that help camouflage dirt. There are other options that are rather colorful, so if you want to create a more playful and creative environment, this is a nice option. You can find a wide variety of carpet tiles here.
The downsides are that they are usually more expensive than regular wall to wall carpet (but still less expensive than more hard surfaces) and that you can’t use them on steps. (You would need matching or similar wall to wall carpet for stairs). Wall to wall carpet is sometimes called broadloom.
And, carpet tiles do not last that long if you have a moist environment as the pressure sensitive adhesive tends to wear down.
- Stylish and can be colorful
- Easy to replace sections if they get dirty
- Absorb less moisture, so usually more resilient to mildew, mold and dust mites
- More expensive than wall to wall carpet (but less than hard surfaces)
- Can’t be used on steps
- Pressure sensitive adhesive will wear down if the area gets damp
6. Stained concrete or acid etched floors
Stained concrete floors have become stylish as they are showcased in many commercial settings. The acid etched floors imparts a luxurious radiance that can’t be replicated by any other method.
Unlike paint which creates an opaque look, the stain permeates the concrete to create translucent tones that vary across the entire expanse.
You can create a neutral colored floor or a fun colorful one, or use different colors in different sections. You can even create designs. The world is your oyster and no two floors look alike.
Check out this video to see how to DIY an acid etched concrete floor.
- Most moisture resilient flooring
- Doesn’t require a sub-floor
- Can create fun and unexpected colors and patterns
- Coldest option (and no option to add radiant heat flooring underneath)
- Hard on feet
- Poor sound insulation/loud (not a good option for home theaters as the sound will echo)
- Requires more floor prep and labor as the floor must be scoured so the price comes out more expensive than most expect.
7. Sheet vinyl
This is one of the less expensive choices. It’s more expensive than carpeting, but less expensive than most other hard surface options.
Sheet vinyl is sometimes called resilient flooring. And, it’s different than linoleum, which is an eco-friendly product and is thicker and more expensive.
Sheet vinyl is waterproof and its a nearly seamless impervious surface is helpful for areas that get damp.
Sheet Vinyl is a bit dated and looks cheaper, so it’s not the most people’s first choice. It does require floor prep (to smooth the floor), otherwise the surface of the sub-floor will telegraph through (within 6 months).
Also, usually sheet vinyl comes in 12 foot rolls, and if your basement is wider than 12 ft, you’ll need to have a seam, and buy extra vinyl to cover the area (and make sure you order enough extra so that the can match the pattern repeat).
Most do-it-yourselfers (or handymen) do not have the tools to install this properly (nor access to the proper adhesive). It’s harder then it looks.
- Keeps water at bay
- Warmer than tile or concrete floors
- Looks cheap and dated
- Requires floor prep
- Not a DIY job
8. Glue down vinyl planks or tiles
When it comes to vinyl, my preference (as I mentioned above) is engineered vinyl plank. However, sometimes, EVP is not practical for some areas, especially if the sub-floor isn’t even. Engineered vinyl planks are floating, so if the floor underneath is uneven, it can bounce. And, if that annoys you, here are some solutions.
An alternative vinyl option is use a vinyl that you can glue down. These can work over surfaces that are wavy or uneven.
But remember, if your sub-floor is uneven, the glue down vinyl will also be uneven..unless you level the floor (with self leveling cement). Leveling the floor is often expensive, and usually when it comes to basements, people prefer to save money here.
There are different options for glue down vinyls. The best types are the luxury glue down vinyls. They tend to be waterproof and durable. There are cheaper glue down vinyl planks and tiles and they tend to be thinner and don’t hold up as well.
And, there is a less expensive option called Vinyl Composite Tile (VCT). These are usually 12 x 12 rigid tiles (that are a bit thicker) and you often find these types of tiles in Chinese Restaurants, older schools and laundromats.
Now, bear in mind that these items do still need some floor prep. While you may not go to the extent of leveling the floor, you will want to do a couple of skim coats to smooth out the area a bit (otherwise these imperfections will show through the vinyl.
Oh, and if you want to be a bit more adventurous, you may be happy to know that these come in lots of colors and you can buy multiple colors and make patterns. I’ve done that a few times for playrooms.
- Work on slightly wavy and uneven floors
- Higher grade ones are waterproof (or water resilient)
- Warmer than tile or concrete floors
- Cheaper ones are not waterproof (and cheaper adhesives can wear down especially in damp areas).
- Not usually a do-it-yourself project
- Some options look cheaper
- Colder on feet vs engineered vinyl plank (but warmer than tile)
9. Engineered hardwood floors
While you can’t install solid hardwood floors in the basement (or below grade), you can install engineered hardwood floors. Engineered hardwood flooring is design in perpendicular layers, so that there is less expansion and contraction.
Engineered hardwoods can be glue or floated on concrete sub-floors. But, again, it’s important for the sub-floor to be even and level. If you are gluing the floor and it’s not smooth, the planks will pop up as the adhesive wears down or as humidity levels fluctuate. If you are floating the floors and they’re not level, they can bounce.
Note: While engineered flooring is better than laminate floors and they expand /contract less, if you get moisture in the basement, this is not a good option. It’s just a matter of time before you have a problem. So be sure to use a moisture meter to test, and know whether or not you tend to have moisture issues there. (And, I would definitely buy a dehumidifier to help regulate the humidity in the area).
Now that engineered vinyl plank flooring is around, we’ve opted for this over engineered wood in the basement at least 90% of the time. It’s just safer and more practical for the homeowner.
- Looks high end
- Improves the value of your home
- Warmer on your feet vs tile
- More expensive
- May require extra floor prep
- Not waterproof; can only tolerate very minor moisture
- Usually can not be sanded and refinished
10. Interlocking raised modular vinyl or carpet tiles
The finished surface is raised from the slab by pegs that allow the air to circulate underneath, thus allowing the ground moisture that seeps through the slab to dry.
They are also waterproof and mold resistant, able to withstand a typical basement flood.
These pieces snap into place and can be removed if needed. Because they are raised, they also create an air pocket that acts as insulation to make the area warmer (vs. stepping directly on the concrete floor).
Please note that the raised tiles will help camouflage minor imperfections and unevenness on the sub-floor. But if you have more than 1/4″ difference you will need to some some floor prep or the tiles won’t line up properly (and you could trip).
Note: most of these modular raised tile have proprietary patents and you may not be able to buy them in stores (but only use in conjunction with certified contractors).
There may be some look-alikes in stores, but as we have never installed them, I can’t testify to how well they work.
- Generally less expensive
- Works directly on top of concrete and easy to install
- Difficult to find
- Look cheap
Flooring types you need to avoid in basements:
I need to warn you about some flooring types you would want to avoid in the basement. And, I will warn you that some sites actually recommend these floors….clearly, they are written by freelance writers and not flooring experts.
1. Solid hardwood flooring
Solid hardwood flooring is a super poor choice for basements. Most people realize that you need a 3/4″ plywood sub-floor floor to nail solid hardwood into. While it is possible to nail this into concrete (using hilties) or sleepers, solid hardwood still isn’t approved below grade.
Why? Because there is too wide a range of temperature and humidity fluctuations throughout the year, so the floors can easily buckle. And, of course basements are prone to moisture (even when they’re sealed), so just don’t risk.
Also, you will notice that all manufacturer’s warranties are voided for solid hardwood if it’s below grade…even if part of the floor is on ground level. This is not worth the risk and expensive in my opinion.
2. Laminate floors
Laminate floors are made with recycled hardwood and they typically have either an MDF or HDF coreboard (that stands for medium density fiberboard or high density fiberboard). Either way, they absorb moisture like a sponge…and even more than hardwood floors do.
So, laminate floors are very likely to expand and contract in the basement. And, usually once they expand and buckle or just absorb moisture, they are permanently damaged as the locking mechanism breaks and the boards don’t line up
Also, it is very difficult to repair laminate floors as you need to work from the side wall all the way to the damaged pieces. And, as you dislodge them, you usually break more pieces along the way.
Laminate floors are cheaper and they tend to delaminate when there is more moisture. If you’re choosing laminate because it’s cheaper that’s fine, but don’t expect it to last in a basement.
3. Bamboo flooring
This is probably one of the worst choices you can make for flooring…for anywhere in the house. The big appeal on bamboo flooring and the reason it’s still around is that it’s cheap. Oh, and some creative marketers have created an eco-friendly story about this.
But, let me set the record straight (and I need to find some time to write a dedicated article on this sometime). BAMBOO DOES NOT HOLD UP WELL…AT ALL…NO MATTER WHAT YOU READ! It scratches easily! It dents easily! And it does NOT hold up to moisture or water at all.
I can’t even tell you how many people have called with damaged bamboo problems. And, it is very hard to find customers that are happy with their bamboo floors 1 to 2 years later. It is not hardwood. Let me repeat that. Bamboo is not hardwood. It does not last long. And, as you may have guessed, it’s a bigger disaster in basements that tend to have more moisture.
We had to stop installing bamboo years ago as customers were so unhappy with it, and I just can’t do that in good conscience.
Oh, and it’s not the most eco-friendly product either as there’s tons of adhesives in it and often emits VOCs. I could go on and on about bamboo, but just take my advice and avoid there. There are much better options out there.
4. Cork flooring
The problem with cork in a basement is that it’s iffy. It’s generally water/moisture resilient (not waterproof), but the problems is often on the edges (as they are not always fully sealed. And, with the extra moisture in the basement and more extreme conditions, it’s a bit risky, in my opinion.
Final thoughts on basement flooring:
Choose the option that is best for YOUR needs and your budget. There are often trade-offs, and you need to decide which factors are important to you. Also, when you weigh your budget options, remember to consider both short-term and long-term costs.
While carpet will generally be less expensive compared to a hard surface, bear in mind that as soon as you need to replacement (e.g. after a floor or when it gets worn down and dirty), you’ll have to replace it and at that point, you may have spent the same amount or more vs if you had just selected a more resilient flooring surface.
And, if your basement is prone to flooding, don’t forget the the headaches and costs (including deductibles with the insurance company).
Related basement and flooring articles:
- What is luxury vinyl plank flooring?
- Review of Coretec Plus vinyl flooring
- Best air purifiers
- Best types of floors if you allergies or asthma
- What if you’ve had a flood in your basement? What will the insurance companies cover?