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Buying a house with hardwood floors. What should you look for?

When you’re buying a new home and want hardwood, what are the watch-outs and what should you look for?

Buing a new home with hardwood floors - The ultimate guide


I get all sorts of calls from new home buyers (and realtors advising their clients) about their hardwood floors.  More often than not, the questions are around refinishing existing hardwood floors, adding or replacing wood, how to remove pet stains in the wood, how much it costs, etc, but sometimes I find that customers haven’t asked the right questions soon enough…and sometimes I hear, “if they had only known…”, they may not have purchased the house, or may have chosen another one instead or offered a lower amount.


advantages of hardwood floor vs carpetRarely is the hardwood flooring (or lack thereof) the main/only deciding factor in whether or not to buy, but it is often very important for customers to have (or it’s important to be able to add hardwood). And, occasionally I have seen new home buyers, especially first time home buyers, deeply regret their decisions.  Other times, I have simply seen a gross under estimation of the costs involved vs. the budget they have, which often leads to a 2 to 3 year delay before these buyers can get the floors they want.


So, I put together a list of items to look out for when buying a house with hardwood flooring (or for when you’re planning to add hardwood flooring).

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

I divided this guide into 4 sections:

  1.  Overview of solid vs engineered flooring
  2.  What to look for if you the home doesn’t have hardwood flooring yet
  3.  What to look out for if there is already hardwood installed
  4.  What not to worry about with the hardwood floors


I do want to caveat that there are many generalities here, and I’m covering the most common items that come up.  It’s always best to have a local professional look at the floors to give you more definitive answers.


1. Background – Solid vs Engineered hardwood flooring

First, here is some background on solid vs engineered flooring.


Solid Hardwood Flooring.

things to watch out for when buying a home with hardwoodAs the name implies, it’s solid wood through and through.  It’s generally 3/4″ thick and can be sanded and refinished multiple times.  Solid hardwood will generally last long – often over a century.  It gives you flexibility to change the color over time or easily repair it if you have scratches or water damage. 


Here in Westchester County/NYC metro area, as well as majority of Northeast, Mid Atlantic and Mid West climates, most customers strongly prefer solid hardwood and it’s the standard.  My general advice is that when you can, use solid hardwood (or buy a house that already has solid hardwood.)


Engineered Hardwood Flooring.

tips for selecting hardwood solid vs engineered hardwood flooringEngineered hardwood is still real hardwood flooring (not to be confused with laminate flooring).  But, the top layer is just a veneer; the rest of the wood is done in layers, often similar to plywood.


Some big advantages of engineered wood includes that it can be installed directly on top of concrete and it can be installed in below grade situations (e.g. basements or dens that are below ground or partially below the ground.  You can also install many engineered woods on top of radiant heat.


engineered hardwood for basements in WestchesterA big disadvantage is that most engineered woods can’t be sanded and refinished.  Most engineered woods that I see installed have a thin wear layer and many are floating, and both of these aspects prevent refinishing.  So, once the wood is worn down, you need to rip up and replacement. 


You can read more about engineered vs solid hardwood here – advantages and disadvantages of engineered wood.


Watch-outs to look out for (as it relates to hardwood flooring) when buying a new home:

2.  If you don’t have hardwood flooring yet…things you should be aware of

Note: this also applies to areas that may not have hardwood yet (e.g. basement, dens, sun rooms).


A.  Type of sub-floor – is it concrete?  This is usually the most important question.

This is the first question I always ask (or look for when I’m on site).  It will help define what you can/can’t install, and then all the following questions that need to be asked.  It’s best to try to peak under the carpet (or whatever surface you have there).


Buying a house with hardwood floors - decorative floor ventThe easiest way to do this is to look for a floor vent or register.  If you are lucky enough to have some on the main floor, just pull one up and peak below.  If not, try to pull back a corner of carpet (hint: it’s easier if you have [easyazon_link identifier=”B0001IW518″ locale=”US” tag=”hwlook4newhomes-20″]pliers[/easyazon_link][easyazon_image align=”none” height=”120″ identifier=”B0001IW518″ locale=”US” src=”” tag=”hwlook4newhomes-20″ width=”160″].  Note: it’s usually easier to do this in the main area rather than a closet (usually closets do not have carpet cushion and the edges are often glued.


If you have plywood, you are in luck – the world is your oyster and you have virtually all options available.  Generally, with plywood floors, your costs will be lower.  (But, do check to make sure it’s actually plywood and it’s 3/4″ thick – more on that later.


With plywood, you can easily do either solid and engineered wood – whichever you prefer (and your budget allows).


If you have concrete sub-floors, your options are more limited and chances are, your costs will be higher.


guide to hardwood floors when buying a new homeYou can’t nail solid hardwood flooring into concrete.  So, if you are hoping to do solid hardwood, you would first need to install a plywood sub-floor.  This adds extra costs (especially since nailing plywood into concrete is challenging and requires hilties) and it adds height (an extra 3/4″ for the plywood + 3/4″ for the solid hardwood), so you will need to make sure you have clearance for that.


It’s especially important to see if you have enough room by the doors, especially front/back doors and doors to garage which may be metal…and are very costly to cut and/or replace.  If you have to cut interior doors, that is usually less of an issue (but it does add additional costs.  It’s also important to check the height of cabinets and all appliances if the wood will go in the kitchen.  Is there room for refrigerator?  Will the height of the stove be out of alignment with the counter tops?  Is there clearance for the dishwasher if it needs to be repaired or replaced?


what to look out for when you want hardwood in your new homeMost houses in the Northeast and Mid Atlantic already have plywood sub-floors on the 1st and 2nd levels.  But, many basements and lower levels of raised ranches have concrete sub-floors.


Most condos and apartments in our area have concrete sub-floors.  Most co-ops in our area already have hardwood floors (on top of plywood) as most were built pre-war.  Townhouses in our area seem to be mixed – some have concrete on main level, some have plywood, and many lower grade woods – e.g. Oriented strand board or 1/2″ plywood and these sub-floors need to be re-enforced with additional plywood for strength and stability.


Checking out and knowing about the sub-floor is the single most important item you should check for as it may define what type of wood you and can’t install, and it can have big budget implications.


B.  Type of subfloor – is it real 3/4″ plywood or is it an inferior wood product such as OSB (oriented strand board), particle board or 1/2″ plywood

To properly install hardwood flooring, you need to have 3/4″ plywood.  You need this for proper grip for the nails.  If you don’t have a full 3/4″ (or if it’s not plywood), then your wood will expand and contract and creak more.


Buying a house with hardwood floors - solid oak floors with borderI have seen many homes with only 1/2″ plywood.  This often happens when the builder is trying to skimp.  While I tend to see this more often in town houses, condos and less expensive homes, I have also seen this issue in $1 million plus homes.  And, often, when there are whole developments that were done at the same time, you are likely to find 1/2″ plywood.


If you only have 1/2″ plywood, it’s not the end of the world.  You simply need to add an extra 1/4.”  Yes, it will cost more (and raise the floors a bit more – so make sure you have clearance.  But, this issue can be solved.


If you have particle board or oriented strand board (this looks like chunks of wood scraps glued together, you should consider replacing this up with 3/4″ plywood.  Yes, rip up and replace.  These “wood” products have no structures and you wood will have a lot of movement and look very sloppy.


C.  Do you have parquet flooring that you want to replace?

parquet flooring - Buying a house with hardwood floorsYes, parquet is very dated, and most people don’t like it and they want to replace it.  Parquet makes the room look smaller and it’s a busier floor.  Also older parquet tends to have a lot of separated boards (as the glue sometimes wears down and get dried out.  It creates gaps, collects dirt and looks sloppy.


There’s a big watch-out with parquet.  Why is there parquet?  Often it’s installed on top of concrete floors (and that’s why it’s there…it was a cheaper alternative to regular wood.  (See above about concrete sub-floors).  Warning: if you do have parquet on top of concrete, note that this is often installed with thick black tar which is very difficult to remove.  As a result, you often need to use self leveling mix (which can be expensive) to smooth out the floor before you add new hardwood.  This costs extra money and also raises your height (and of course adds to your timeline as it may take a week to cure).


Most people are shocked at the cost and complications (esp timeline) of removing parquet.   Sometimes, a less expensive solution for apartments with parquet is to put a floating floor on top of the parquet.  But, this relies on the floor being level and also there may be issues with door heights (especially the front door), so check this out.


D.  Is your floor sloped or uneven?

This is a much bigger issue if you have a concrete floor and are installing engineered hardwood.  If this is your case, you will usually want to level the floors before proceeding.  If you don’t, the flooring may bounce and/or pop off if you are gluing it.  Self leveling mix can be rather costly.


E.  Do you have (or want) radiant heat?

White Oak Chevron rifted and quarter sawn light hardwoodRadiant heat can be amazing, but it definitely limits your choices for hardwood.  Regular solid hardwood just won’t work.  If you want to do solid hardwood, you need to order rifted and quarter-sawn wood as this expands and contracts up and down, rather than right to left (as most hardwood does).  If not, expect to have many problems with your floors buckling due to the heat.


Some engineered hardwoods will work over radiant heat, but check the manufacturer guidelines.  Also, if you do engineered wood, you want a floating floor.  You need to avoid adhesives as those will often loosen as well as dry out from radiant heat.


F.  Is there clearance room for hardwood? Look at height of doors and height of kitchen

look out for height clearance in kitchenThis is something most buyers don’t think about until after a professional flooring contractor mentions it.  Make sure there is enough clearance for the wood.  Solid hardwood is 3/4″ while engineered wood is usually 3/8″ – 5/8″.  And, if you are adding in plywood, that is an additional 3/4″.  So, you could be adding up to 1 1/2″.  Now, bear in mind that you may be removing an existing floor, too, so this may give you some extra room.


The most important thing is to check the clearance with front, back and garage doors, as these are often either metal and/or expensive (or impossible) to cut or replace.  (BTW, this issue comes up often in apartments, regardless of whether they condos, co-ops or condos), so check this out before it’s too late.  Also, note that if you do have this issue, another option may be to do a different (and thinner) surface by the doorways.


The next issue is to check the kitchen areas.  If you are replacing the cabinets, this is generally not an issue.  But, if you are leaving the cabinets in place, and working around them, you may have several issues, especially with the appliances.


So first, think about the height of the new wood vs. the cabinets.  If you are adding a lot of height (e.g. 3/4″ to 1 1/2″), the cabinets will look and feel out of proportion.  Sometimes, this can be solved by removing existing flooring (as the previous homeowner may have piled layers on top of layers. This will add to the cost, but it’s usually better to rip up the existing flooring.  If you are adding in a thin engineered floor (e.g 3/8″), this is generally not an issue.


hardwood floors in kitchens - what to look out forSecond, look at the height of all of the appliances.  The flooring goes underneath the refrigerator and stove.  Is there enough clearance between the refrigerator and the cabinets above?  (Note: sometimes the upper cabinets can be cut, but sometimes they can’t).  Is there clearance above the stove?  Will it bother you if the stove is higher than the counter top?  (Obviously, this is not an issue if the stove is a cook top/part of the counter-top).  And, often many overlook the dishwasher.  Is there clearance for the dishwasher if it needs to be serviced or replaced?


buying a house with hardwoodThe third key area to check is the stairway.  Unfortunately, this issue comes up often in townhouses which were often not constructed to accommodate hardwood flooring.  If you are adding solid hardwood (3/4″) what will be the impact on to the bottom step, top step and landing (s)?  You want to have a consistent rise and run on the steps, or else, you will create a tripping hazard.  Codes allow for 3/8″ tolerance for the difference between steps.  Of course, no difference is ideal.  Also note that when you are above that difference, you are out of code, and this can become an issue later when you try to sell your house (and yes, an inspector will notice this…without needing a tape measure).


If you have height issues with the staircase, it can be dangerous…or else you will pay a lot to fix it.  You could replace the staircase (which is expensive) or you can add stair caps to adjust the heights (also expensive).



G.  Do you have asbestos tile on the floor?

This happens more often in homes that were built in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but it can also happen in homes that are older as well as those built in the 1970’s and even up to mid 80’s – before most realized the danger of vinyl asbestos tile (VAT).  I believe production of the VAT ended around 1980 or 1981, but manufacturers and stores were still able to sell their remaining inventory, and that went on until around 1986.


VAT was most often put in dens and basements that are on top of concrete.  But, I have also seen them installed on top of plywood as well as hardwood (can you believe that?).  I have seen it in low end homes and high end homes.  It’s less about the community and value of home, but most often about the year the home was built and structure of home.


So check underneath the carpet.  (Use [easyazon_link identifier=”B0001IW518″ locale=”US” tag=”hwlook4newhomes-20″]pliers[/easyazon_link] to see what’s there.  If you discover 9″ x 9″ vinyl tile, there is an excellent chance that you have asbestos.  (Note: The only way to know for sure whether it’s asbestos is to have it tested).   If you have, or suspect you have VAT, it is generally not something to worry about IF it is intact and isn’t cracking).  Questions about VAT is best handled by asbestos companies and you can search for that info online.


Now how does this relate to hardwood flooring?  If you have (or suspect you have) Vinyl Asbestos Tile, it may limit your options for hardwood and may cost you some extra money.


One option is to have a professional abatement company remove the VAT.  This can be costly.  Note:  Do NOT attempt to do this yourself or use a non-licensed contractor or handyman.  This is NOT an area to skimp on as it can have a MAJOR impact on your and your family’s health.  If you attempt to remove it yourself, it will become air borne, and that’s when it’s dangerous.  You are much safer leaving it vs. trying to remove it yourself.  So either do it right or don’t do it.


Option 2 is simply encapsulate the asbestos. This can be done by pouring concrete on top of it or using a flooring surface that is just put on top of it.  This could be carpet or a floating floor (one that is clicked or floated on top), not one that is nailed or glued into the floor (the nailing can disturb the asbestos, the gluing will cause an issue later when the surface gets worn down and needs to be removed).


3.  What to look out for if there is already hardwood flooring installed

A.  Does the home have solid or engineered hardwood?

What to watch out for when buying a home with hardwood floorsIf you have solid hardwood, you are in luck.  You can sand and refinish this so it’s restored and looks good as new (or very close) and you have the option to change the color.  If you have engineered wood, chances are you can not refinish it (see above).


As mentioned above, look for flooring vents to see if you can lift one and see the profile of the floors from the side or pull back a corner to see what’s underneath.  If the wood is solid and around 3/4″ thick it’s solid; if it has plies, it’s engineered.  If you see wood under the carpet, most likely it’s solid hardwood and even more likely if the width of the planks are 2 1/4″ which is the standard for most homes in our area.  Engineered wood is newer and it would be rare for people to add carpet on top of that.


Also, look at the sub-floor and where the wood is installed.  If the wood is on top of plywood and on 1st or 2nd floors, chances are that it’s solid wood.  If it’s installed on top of concrete or below grade (e.g. basements, dens), chances are it’s engineered wood (as solid wood can not be installed directly on top of concrete and should not be installed below grade.


B.  Is there major separation of the flooring boards?

what to look out for with hardwood floorsIt is common and normal to see hardwood floors with minor gaps.  Wood is a natural product and it expands and contracts throughout the seasons, driven by different humidity levels.  Also, over time, wood dries out a bit, so if you are looking at wood that is 80-100+ years old, you should expect there to be wider gaps.  That is normal (and there is little that can be done with that unless you want to replace the floors).  If you add filler, chances are it will pop out (usually within 6 months) and it will look worse vs. not filling in the planks.


Do not be over alarmed if you have gaps in the wood.  It is normal.  BUT, if this will forever annoy you (and it seems that maybe 5% of the people may feel this way), and if it’s a show stopper, you may want to either consider a new home or build in for replacing the hardwood floors.  (Note: replacing floors costs more than installing them as you need to also pay for rip up and often the house may have some issues in the sub-floor that need to be addressed.


Every once in a while (maybe 2% of the time or less), I see floors that are very poorly installed.  They have many and wide gaps in the wood – sometimes between planks and sometimes at the butt joints (the shorter ends).  You tend to see this more often in lower priced neighborhoods, as the builder (or contractor) cut corners.


Sometimes it’s because there is only 1/2″ plywood installed, sometimes it’s partially due to lower grade woods with more knots and shorts, sometimes, it’s just poor installation.  I saw one a few weeks ago that had wide gaps and movement and as it turned out, whomever installed it (many years ago), didn’t use enough nails.  Often a darker stain (e.g. dark walnut or jacobean) will help camouflage the gaps a bit.  (But going super dark e.g. ebony or true black) can highlight the gaps more as the sanding machines sand the tops (not the sides), so as the wood separates in the future, the sides may not have stain on them).


5 inch hardwood planks - look out for separationBe very wary if you have 5″ or wider boards that are separating.  This is usually because a general contractor (not a professional flooring specialist) installed the floors and as it is not their area of expertise, they often don’t realize that you need to both nail and glue planks that are 5 inches or wider.  Once this has been done, there is NO real solve for this outside of removing and replacing the wood.  You can try a dehumidifier to help reduce the gaps, and you can refinish natural so it shows less.  But once floors are installed poorly, there if virtually nothing that can be done.


C.  Is the floor extremely bouncy or splintering a lot?

floating hardwood floorThis is one of those gray areas that is challenging for amateurs to identify the cause of.  This first depends if you have solid wood or a floating floor.


If you have a floating floor, this is very common and it’s because the floors underneath are uneven.  Because the flooring is floated, it depresses (and bounces) as you depress your foot on the lower portions.  If you plan on leaving the flooring, there is nothing you can do except put furniture and area rugs on top to minimize the bouncing and partially camouflaging it.


If you want to replace the floors, your sub-floor will still be uneven.  I’d recommend that if you can install solid hardwood floors (which will be nailed in), your floor will no longer bounce.  (It will still be uneven, but the flooring will be secure).


You also have the option to even out the floors, once you remove the current flooring.  This can be a bit costly, but it is doable.  If you have a concrete floor and are planning to do a floating floor, you can pour self leveling mix to make the floors even (or more even, pending on how much you want to spend).  Self leveling mix is expensive, so if your floors are very uneven, you may not like the price tag on this.  Also note that if you do self leveling mix, you can either float or glue the floors, whichever you before.  But, you can not nail solid hardwood through self leveling mix since it’s a form of concrete.


Sometimes, there are options to shim the floors with wood, but this can also be costly.  Just be aware of the options as this may help drive you to one form of wood vs another, or you may feel that it’s just more practical (at least for the short term) to leave the floors as they are and deal with these later, after you move in and can save more money (as most new home buyers have paid a lot for closing and moving costs).


D.  Species of wood vs desired color – Note: Some species lend themselves better to certain colors; some don’t work with grays and white washes.

westchester NY hardwood best of 2012There are many species of wood and in my area in Westchester County NY, we have a wide range of woods used, as we have a diversity of ages of homes, ranging from the 1700’s to the present.  Before the 1920’s and 1930’s, many softer woods such as pine and Douglas Fir were used.  That’s because the tools that the artisans used to install and equipment in the manufacturing facilities were able to cut softer woods.  Nowadays, we have hardwood such as oak, maple, brazilian cherry, hickory, etc.


Bear in mind that if you are refinishing the wood, you can only change the COLOR.  You can not change the species nor the graining (unless you want to replace it).  The majority of homes have oak – more often red oak followed by white oak.  This is due to their abundance here in the US and their practicality – they hold up well, they sand well/it’s easy to change the color and they are reasonably priced.


Keep in mind the following, if you have any of these species in your new home (and not that some homes, especially older homes have multiple species).


red oak - what to look for when buying a new home with hardwoodRed Oak – more traditional looking with strong graining.  If you are going for a modern look and want to minimize the graining, choose a dark stain (e.g. dark walnut, jacobean, ebony, true black).  The darker you go, the less you’ll see the graining.


White oak – holds up to water a bit better.  For a more modern look, consider darker stains or even gray.


Douglas Fir wood - things to look out for when buying a new home with hardwoodDouglas Fir or pines – These are softer woods and they are naturally more gold and more red.  Some people love this, but now cool colors are more in style, and most customers prefer the darks and grays are on the rise.  Bear in mind that pines are more challenging and expensive to refinish. 


This is not a show stopper, but make sure you hire a professional who has experience in these woods and that they use a conditioner (to open up the pores) if you are doing a stain. Do not attempt to refinish these yourself as there is an excellent chance that you will ruin portions from the weight of the sanding machine (not to mention that the job probably won’t turn out as well nor last as long).


If you are looking to drown out the reds and golds, go darker on these woods and choose a very brown stain.  In my experience, dark walnut seems to work best, and ironically usually comes out darker on pines than ebony and jacobean (which look darker on oak).  But, by all means test it.


Bad news if you are attempting to do gray or white was on the Douglas Fir or pines.  Don’t!!  It will look terrible.  Because the floors are naturally gold and reddish (and they get redder and more gold over time from light), they do not look good with grays or white washes. Further, the resins in the pine floors often react with the stain and it looks very blotchy.  Do yourself a favor and don’t even try this.  If you do, you will probably hate the result, even if you like the area you tested, and you will end up refinishing again which will cost you extra money and time…AND, you’ll be wearing down your floors which are probably older and may not have many sandings left.  You are better off going dark if you want a more modern look.


Brazilian cherry hardwood - buying a new homeBrazilian Cherry, Santos Mahogany and other red exotic woods – These woods are very pretty and have smooth graining. But, lately, I’ve been having more and more requests to drown out the red.  These woods are naturally red, and they become more red over time, so it’s impossible to fully get rid of the red.


But, with a dark stain such as dark walnut, it will drown out most of the red (as you can see in this picture.  It looks similar to the stain color “royal mahogany.” (And, in my experience, dark walnut usually looks darker on brazilian cherry and mahogany then jacobean and ebony (which look darker on Oak).  It’s just how the wood absorbs the stain. But definitely test it.


Here is a before and after of Santos Mahogany. The first picture is natural; the second one has a dark walnut stain.

Santos Mahogany before Slide10









If you have Brazilian cherry in part of the house (e.g. kitchen) but oak (or another species) in the rest of the house, they will never match.  The colors and graining will be different.  It’s worth it to test different stains in the two areas for a closer match.  But, it will never be perfect.


maple hardwood flooring - light wood from USMaple – Maple is a lighter colored wood and is generally the lightest wood you see in homes.  It’s a closed pore wood so it’s more challenging to sand and refinish (again, hire an expert here). 





somerset grey mapleIf you are doing a stain, you will need to add a conditioner.  Bear in mind, due the nature of maple, stains turn out blotchy on these floors (regardless if it is site or factor finished.


The good news is that if you want to do a gray stain, this is the perfect wood for this.  Gray looks amazing on maple floors.


[easyazon_image align=”right” height=”320″ identifier=”B00B3A87WO” locale=”US” src=”” tag=”hwlook4newhomes-20″ width=”320″]If you are going natural, you will want to use a water borne poly (oil based poly will turn the floors yellow and they will get more yellow over time (and yellow is not a good look on maple).  I’d strongly recommend using [easyazon_link identifier=”B00B3A87WO” locale=”US” tag=”hwlook4newhomes-20″]Bona Traffic HD[/easyazon_link] for the best look and longevity.  It looks great and amberizes less over time, and it will last much longer than other water based polyurethanes.  It also smells less (and dries faster than oil based poly).[easyazon_cta align=”none” identifier=”B00B3A87WO” key=”small-light” locale=”US” tag=”hwlook4newhomes-20″]



hickory hardwoodHickory – Hickory is a much harder wood (1800 on the Janka scale vs red oak is 1290).  Hickory holds up well and is great if you have pets or a busy household.  (See more here for hardwood floors for pets).  Hickory tends to have a LOT of color variation both across and within the same boards.  It can give the house  more rustic feel.  If you do a dark stain, it will help cover some of the variation so it looks less busy.


E.  Check to make sure there is no asbestos tile underneath the carpet

Check out the section I have above on “>Vinyl Asbestos Tile (VAT).  This is more prevalent in homes that were built in the 1950s and 1960s.  More often than not, you find VAT in basements or dens that are over concrete.  But, occasionally, I find it under the carpet ON TOP of hardwood.  Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it happens.  So, check underneath the carpets.  If you have it, you can’t refinish the floors as the asbestos would become airborne and dangerous.  Read above section on asbestos.  Your key take away should be to check under the carpet…and you may want to look at it in multiple areas.  (I’ve seen some houses that have it everywhere and others just in 1-2 rooms.)


4.  Items to not be too concerned about when it comes to hardwood flooring

Hickory with dark stainI caveat this by saying that these are generalities, and in some instances, these could be red flags, but for the most part, these are usually common and/or solvable via Sanding and Refinish and repair.


I will also note that some of these issues are aesthetics and may bother some people more than others.


I will also provide context of where I live – just outside NYC.  Our area of the country is older, so we have a wide span of when homes are built.  There are many from first part of 1900s, many from 1800s and several from the 1700s.  Older homes have more flaws and character, and you can not expect floors (or other items in the home) to be perfect.  Homes settle, wood wears down, building codes were different, wood dries out of 100+ years (it’s a natural product) and in the “olden days,” softer woods were used.  This is part of the charm of these homes and these homes have seen a lot of history.


A.  Are there pet or water stains?

pet resistant carpetThis is very common – you’ll see these areas of wood as dark.  The best way to fix this weave in new hardwood and then sand and refinish.  Alternatively, if the wood is not separated (from the water damage), you can choose a dark color to camouflage it.  You can read more about this here.


B.  Are the floors worn down, showing lots of gray?

This happens all the time when floors have been worn down.  Once the poly wears down, when the floors get wet (e.g. from rain, snow, cleaning), the wood absorbs the water, oxidizes and turns gray.  When you sand and refinish the floors, this will generally come out.  If it’s very dark gray or black, then you may need to replace those boards.


C.  Is there creaking in the wood?

best time to refinish hardwood flooringI get so many questions about this – probably about once per week.  In our area, I would say that more wood floors creak than don’t.  There can be many causes of this (as I’ll explain), but this is not something to worry about.  (Yes, it may be annoying, but it’s not like your floors are going to cave in).


First, let me point out that most creaking is UNDERNEATH the hardwood floors.  There is very little that can be done about this outside of ripping up the hardwood and plywood and replacing both.  Most often, the creaking is due to sub-floor, usually by low quality materials (e.g. 1/2″ plywood rather than 3/4″ plywood) or poor workmanship (e..g they didn’t glue and screw the sub-floor, they didn’t add enough screws), or maybe there is no sub-floor (this happens in older homes, often 1930’s and earlier, before the building standards and codes changed.  Sometimes, this is also due to larger space between the joists (which are below the plywood), again as codes have changed.  Sometimes it’s due to settling or just old age of the home.


7 design tips for hardwood flooringThere is no easy way to solve floor creaking (aside from replacement).  The best way to reduce it has a downside.  You can add more screws from the wood above to tighten the floors for less movement.  But, when you do this, you will see the screws (and yes, I see this in plenty of houses).  This could work if you are putting carpet on top (whether it’s wall to wall carpet, area rug or carpet runner).  The other thing you can try is put area rugs (or runners) on top to muffle the noise.  Please note that screws are not a permanent solution, and over time, the creaking can return (as the wood expands and contracts.


I’ve also seen a few contractors add screws beneath the floors (so they don’t show), but in order to do this, you need to be able to access the area, and that may entail removing the ceiling from the floor below.


As I said before, creaking is normal, especially for older homes.  Most people live with this, but if the creaking is really going to annoy you, you may want to consider taking a pass on that home and buying new construction (i.e. build in the last 10-12 years) and checking out the floors before making an offer.


D.  Is there minor separation in the boards?

This is also very common and NORMAL.  Wood expands and contracts and you usually have minor gaps throughout the seasons pending on the humidity levels.  Remember, wood is a natural product.  It’s best to leave nature alone.  If you want to add filler, chances are, it will pop out within 6 months and look worse than it does now.  Generally, if you go with a darker stain, it will help camouflage these gaps as the shadows will be more consistent with the stain color.


E.  Uneven or sloping floors.

when to refinish wood floorsAgain, this is very common, especially in my area where there are many older homes – some from 50s/60’s, many from early 1900s, some from 1700 and 1800s.  Houses settle.  Construction practices are different.  I’d say it’s more common to find floors that are uneven vs even.  Not to worry if you already have hardwood installed.  Hardwood can tolerate most sloping and evenness.  Don’t expect sanding to fix the unevenness; sanding is topical and will make the floors look beautiful, but it doesn’t change the structure of your house.


F.  Sloppy sanding jobs

Yes, some people have tried to save money by sanding their own floors (or by hiring a handyman or cheap laborer to them.  It’s usually pretty obvious as the floors look blotchy or may have bubbles.  Not to worry, because if you have a professional to refinish, your floors should look good as new.



Dark hardwood flooring - watchoutss when buying a new home with hardwoodI hope this comprehensive guide is helpful.  As you can see, there are many things to consider when you are choosing a new home and would like hardwood floors.  The considerations and potential issues are different in different homes.  Here are the most important considerations and watch-outs.


If you plan to add new hardwood in your new home (or parts of the home) – most important things to look for

  • Understand your sub-floor – i.e. is it concrete or plywood?).  It will have the biggest impact on what you can/can’t do (i.e. solid vs engineered wood)
  • Is there enough clearance for new hardwood flooring?


If you buying a house with existing hardwood – most important things to look for

  • Buying a new home with hardwood floors - the ultimate guideDetermine if the home has solid or engineered flooring
  • If the house is from the 1950s or 1960’s, peak under the carpet to make sure there is no asbestos tile under the carpet but on top of the hardwood.

Other useful resources:




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Complementary products that will prolong the life of your hardwood floors


6 thoughts on “Buying a house with hardwood floors. What should you look for?”

  1. Comprehensive article and helpful! I wanted to add a few points to the discussion. I’m sure I don’t see as many hardwood floors as you, but as a practice of my business I always have to weigh the value of the flooring and consider how it will hold that value into the future.

    In our area, we frequently see homes where the homeowner did not install window treatments and therefore the flooring has excessive fading near the windows that is/was preventable. It gets exaggerated when an area rug or furniture is moved. This can cause an unnecessary early refinish of the flooring that someone has to pay for. Typically the seller gets dinged for this…

    I have found that people think that hardwood flooring is essentially bulletproof and they do not perform the necessary routine maintenance or take proactive action to protect high-traffic areas, areas where water may be present (near doors, kitchens and baths), or, to reiterate, keep direct sunlight to a minimum. If the flooring deteriorates during the time you own the home, you will likely be the person who pays a big price for that when you go to sell. On the flip side, buyers need to be extra cautious and seek professional guidance when considering a home with hardwood flooring because the costs to repair/replace damaged or poorly maintained flooring can wipe out any equity or appreciation gain in a home. Get the advice of a flooring professional before making a decision to prevent an expensive mistake!!

    1. Joe – Excellent points. Yes, sometimes it’s the lack of window treatments, but sometimes it’s also the type of windows installed. Your point about the area rugs is also a good one, and it’s even more dramatic if you have an exotic wood where you see a much bigger difference. Those with exotic woods (e.g. brazilian cherry, brazilian walnut) as well as some other domestic species (e.g. American Cherry, American Walnut) should wait 6 months before adding area rugs. as most of the light changes take place over that time period. Those that have severe fading or darkening around area rugs should consider removing the rugs 6 months to a year before selling. Yes, I know sellers hate to hear this. (Or they can refinish before they sell). It’s all in the prevention.

      1. See? You learn something new every day. I have definitely noticed on cherry flooring the excessive fading that occurs compared to stained oak, especially when area rugs are removed. I would not have known, though, to advise clients to go ahead and let the natural fading happen over an extended period to reduce how dramatic it becomes, or to remove the rug as you mention to allow the flooring to naturally balance itself. I completely understand that this many not be a solution if the flooring is excessively faded, but I can see where it can help. Thanks!

        1. Joe – So glad to hear that this tip is helpful. The key to making this work is time. And, if customers wait 6 months before adding rugs to exotic hardwood, it will minimize the impact.

  2. Joe,
    Thanks for the information. i got educated on this topic. i feel i have only option left.that is carpeting. this is high Ranch and creaking sound from solid wood floors. can polishing help?

    1. Sanding and refinishing will not solve creaking. Creaking is from underneath. Obviously wall to wall carpet can help muffle the sound. But, often area rugs and runners can also do the trick. Also, and while this doesn’t solve the issue, you could put some screws in the floor in a few areas. Note: the screws will show (and creaking may come back over time), so you may want to cover screws with a runner or area rug.

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