The advantages of hiring a flooring professional for hardwood refinishing vs Doing-it-Yourself
I feel like I could write a book on this topic as I’ve heard so many stories about hardwood floor refinishing jobs that have gone amiss. And, I could probably write a 2nd book on General Contractors and Handymen (as well as Painters) who attempt to sand and refinish floors. They all have 2 things in common: 1) They aren’t done by experts who know how to sand and refinish floors (and all of the nuances that go along with this) and 2) They do NOT have the right equipment.
Over the years, I’ve heard of many people attempting to sand and refinish their own floors. It is rare that any of these people choose to do this a second time, since the result (not surprisingly) is not good, and it is one of the most time consuming and least pleasant DIY projects.
Now, one may argue that this article is biased, and I suppose they would be correct. But, I do speak from experience of seeing tons of inferior jobs. Regardless, I’m here to explain the pros and cons of attempting to refinish your own floors yourself.
I understand that many people may have a limited budget, especially first time home buyers. And, many are looking for ways to save money. This is perfectly logical, but out of all of the DIY jobs, this is one of the hardest to do (and even harder to do well) and the one that saves you the least amount of money.
When you’re considering whether to sand the floors yourself or hire a professional, you’ll want to consider your skill level vs the difficulty of the task, the time involved (and how much you value your time) as well as the cost.
If you’re looking to save money by doing things yourself, you will have better luck with painting, installing tile or even installing hardwood flooring. But sanding and refinishing hardwood floors…that’s a whole different ball game.
Please note that this article may contain affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page.
Disadvantages to refinishing your own hardwood floors
1. The job will not come out as well when it’s done by a DIYer
I think there’s no question about it, but if you hire a professional, your job will look (and feel) much better…and it will be visually noticeable. Sanding is very difficult skill to learn, especially if this is your first time…or your 10th time (and no, learning from a video does not suffice). It usually takes around 2 years for a professional to refine their skills.
And, very importantly, the professionals have MUCH BETTER equipment than what you can rent at Home Depot or other places. There’s no contest. The main machine costs around $20,000 and professionals care and invest in their equipment and maintain it well. This is their bread and butter.
The machines that you can rent at Home Depot are inferior…even if our experienced refinishers used that equipment, their job would not come out the same way as it does with the proper equipment. The machines you can rent are only 110v (vs the professional machines use 220v). And, further, most people don’t realize that there are 5 machines needed for sanding floors (more about that below).
When novices attempt to sand floors, they rarely sand the floors properly. As a result, the stain does not penetrate evenly (and often looks blotchy) nor does the polyurethane adhere properly (and over time, it will often peel). You will often see chatter marks as well as dips in the floor (and these dips are permanent).
Please note that novices would include not only most homeowners, but also GC’s and Handymen. If this isn’t someone’s specialty, don’t expect a professional or quality job. I see tons of poorly sanded floors and they are almost always done by Handymen or a homeowner, and it is OBVIOUS.
The sanding isn’t even, the stain is blotchy and the polyurethane is poorly applied. Usually these jobs need to be redone.
2. The finish will not last as long
If the sanding isn’t done properly, the stain will not penetrate properly AND the polyurethane will not adhere properly. As a result, the finish will not last very long, and will probably need to be redone within 2 to 4 years (vs the typical 7 to 10 years). So, not only does the job look inferior, but you will need to redo them sooner…so you really haven’t saved any money.
More about the actual cost savings for a DIY sanding job, as well as the most common mistakes made by do-it-yourselfers below.
3. It will take you longer vs hiring a professional
Professional sanders do this all the time, so they are more adept at this work and can do it faster. They also have more powerful machines. Generally, most crews can sand and refinish around 1,000 square feet per day. It will often take a homeowner 2 to 4 times as long to do the same area.
So, bear in mind that you attempt to do this yourself, allow extra time to get this done (it will often take twice as long as you think), and if you are renting equipment, remember that you are getting charged by the day. And, of course this extra time will delay when you can move into your new home.
Also, it may take longer for material to dry. Most DIYers don’t use the best materials (see Which is the better stain to use – Minwax or Duraseal) and this can lengthen the drying process. In addition, many novices apply coats that are too thick. Hence, it takes longer to dry…or, in many cases, novices don’t allow enough time for the stain or poly to dry…and then the result is coagulation…and the floors need to be completely sanded and refinished again.
4. It’s usually messier when you sand yourself
The professionals have better sanding machines and these collect more of the dust. They also tend to have better vacuums that suck up the sawdust particles.
On top of that, many of the better and more professional flooring companies will offer dustless sanding and refinishing. Note: this does cost extra as the machinery costs more and it slows the process down with the tubes and extra set up time for the dust containment center (which is kept outside). If you have allergies or asthma, or are just sensitive to dust, this is great option that is often well worth it.
5. The savings for DIY are minimal, especially when you factor in the cost of equipment and materials
I have read in several articles that if you sand and refinish yourself, it will only cost you 1/4 of the price vs hiring a professional. HOWEVER, when I’m calculating using real numbers that professionals actually charge, it’s generally only saving you half the cost! And, in some cases, it may look like you are only saving 40% of so.
And, of course we’ve had many customers who attempt this, and then realize in the middle (after renting the equipment) that it’s much more difficult and time consuming than they thought. And, of course, this ended up costing them more money and more time vs. calling the professionals in the first place.
See below for an explanation of costs.
Costs and Materials of refinishing your own wood floors:
First, you’ll need to rent the machines. 5 machines are actually needed (drum sander, orbital sander, radial sander, edger and buffer). In addition, you may need to rent or buy a shop vacuum. I would expect this to cost around $150-$200 per day. It’s hard to say how many days you’ll need these for.
Then, of course, you’ll need to buy the sanding disks, as well as the stain and polyurethane. (See my linked articles below on the best ones to buy, regardless of whether you to this yourself or hire a pro). Also, if you want to test different stains, you’ll need to pay for those as well (while a professional will have these on hand and won’t charge you for this).
In addition, you’ll need to get some extra materials, if you don’t already have these on hand:
- Safety goggles
- Masks or respirator
- Knee pads
- Work gloves
- Protective rubber shoes
- Rags and tools to apply the stain and poly (there are multiple ways to do this)
- Heavy duty trash bags
When you add all this up, you’ll see that there is not that much savings when you sand and refinish yourself. And, don’t forget to factor in the value of your own time.
How much does it cost to hire a professional to refinish hardwood floors?
In the whole gamut of home improvement projects, sanding and refinishing is not that expensive (and it often costs less than what most people think). Cost will vary based on the scope of type of work being done (see below) as well as area of the country, but generally for a standard job, it will usually cost around $2-$5 per square foot to sand and refinish your floors.
Of course, it will cost extra if you have steps, carpet or other flooring removal, furniture to move, or if you choose dustless sanding or other extras (see below).
Factors that impact the cost for refinishing wood floors
- Natural vs Stain (natural is less expensive)
- Type and grade of polyurethane (e.g. oil based vs waterborne and brand – see: What are the best brands of polyurethane)
- Number of coats of poly
- Species of wood (some require conditioner and additional buffing)
- Upgrades: Wire brushing, herringbone, chevron, parquet
- Area to be done (smaller areas will cost a bit more as you lose economies of scale)
- Extras: Steps, moving furniture, ripping up carpet (or laminate, vinyl, tile, etc.), use of dustless machine
Most common sanding mistakes made by do-it-yourselfers
- Not sanding properly – This is by far the most common issue and is seen in the majority of DIY jobs. Most do not apply the proper pressure, not even pressure (which can create permanent dips in the floor. Many also sand too deep (so they shorten the life of their floors). Please note that if you pause in 1 spot, you will have a permanent dip in the floor. Even when if you hire a professional after, those dips will be permanent as the weight of the machine will follow the floor.
- Not using proper grits – Yes, many don’t know the proper grits to use (and yes, they do vary by species as well as age of floors) and/or do not sand 3 times (w/ 3 grits). And, no, 2 grits will never suffice, even if you use a fine grit as the last grit. It’s physics and you can’t take short cuts here.
- Using inferior stains and polyurethanes – Many mistakenly use Minwax for the stains. See my article on Minwax vs Duraseal to see why this is a big mistake. And, check out this article on best brands of polyurethane.
- Not allowing proper drying times between coats. Professionals know the proper drying times and how to test the stain and poly before applying the next coat. If you make a mistake here, the stain will coagulate and wrinkle (it kind of looks like alligator skin), and then will need to go back to square 1.
- Not using an edger properly – Oh gosh, I see this all the time, too. Not only do many not know how to use the edger properly and miss the edges, but they also don’t know how to blend this in with the rest of floor. And, then you will see issues around the outer perimeter (around 1 foot in) as the stain will be blotchy here. Again, if you make this mistake, go back to square 1.
- Not vacuuming fully and leaving dust behind – This really should be a simple step, but inevitably when amateurs do this, they don’t seem to get all the dust particles and it gets embedded within the poly. This needs to be done before each coat. Usually, the issue happens while the coats of poly are added. Thankfully, if it’s done on the top coat, you can save the floors by doing a screen and recoat and applying additional coat of poly. This will cost you another day (+ more poly). If it’s below the top coat, you may not be able to remove it.
- Not stirring poly properly – This is a simple fix. Always thoroughly mix the poly. Be sure though that you don’t create air bubbles in the process.
Risks of refinishing your hardwood floors yourself:
While most people agree that professionals will sand the floors better than an DIY or amateur, please bear in mind that there are some real risks and downsides if you attempt to refinish your own floors.
1. You may permanently damage or even ruin your hardwood floors
If you sand unevenly, you can create divots and dips in the floor, and these can be permanent. Even if you hire a professional later, the weight from the machine will follow the profile of the floor. This is even more likely to happen if you have pine and/or older or softer wood floors. These floors are more susceptible to sloppy sandings, so be extra careful if you have these, or if your home is from the 1920s or earlier.
2. You may potentially start a fire
Yes, while this is rare, it has been known to happen, especially if you aren’t careful. And, of course you need to be sure to throw away all the materials safely. If they are sitting at your house, be sure the bags of saw dust are at least 12 ft away from the house. The sawdust can spontaneously combust, especially in hot weather.
3. You will likely shorten the lifespan of your hardwood floors
Most novices sand the floors too deep and therefore shorten the life of their hardwood floors. Skilled professionals know how to avoid this.
Conclusion on DIY vs hiring a professional:
If this is your first time refinishing floors, you are probably better off hiring a professional to sand and refinish your floors. Not only will your floors look better and last longer, but they will be finished much faster if you hire a professional (so you can move in sooner). If you’re moving into a new house, there is a lot to do, including painting, cleaning and packing/moving. You’ll also want to consider the value of your time vs the small amount of savings you’ll gain by doing this yourself.
As a side note, your back and feet will thank you for letting the professionals handle this. And, you’ll be more rested to do the other tasks that lie ahead (e.g. moving and unpacking).
Now, if you’re looking to save money on your flooring, my advice to you is NOT to sand and refinish the floors yourself. Instead, you may be able to save some money by 1) ripping up the carpet/staples yourself, 2) moving the furniture and 3) buying the polyurethane and stain yourself (as you can buy these items on Amazon). See the first 2 articles on best brands of polyurethane and best stain brand to use. And, you may find this article comes in handy: 7 ways to save money on your flooring.
Other than that, I’d recommend saving money on other projects you may be able to do yourself (e.g. painting) with a better outcome and a much more significant savings. Or, consider doing a smaller area (I’m a firm believer of doing a quality job vs doing a larger but inferior job).
Related articles for refinishing hardwood floors:
- Best brands of polyurethane for hardwood floors
- Minwax vs Duraseal stains – which one do the pros use?
- 2018 Hardwood flooring trends
- Dark vs Light hardwood flooring
- How long does it take to refinish hardwood floors?
- Tips for preventing scratches in your new hardwood floors
- 7 ways to save money on your flooring
If 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.