I’ve put together this list of my top picks for mistakes homeowners make with their flooring. My purpose here is to help others avoid these same mistakes. Hardwood flooring is a large investment and when done right, it can add warmth, decor and value to your home. When it’s done wrong, it can be disappointing and frustrating…and occasionally needs to be redone completely.
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Mistake 1: Not planning ahead/not allowing enough time for hardwood refinishing
More often than not, most home owners do not realize the amount of time that is involved in installing and refinishing hardwood floors. Some realize that it make take 3-5 days (or longer) to get the work done, but then they don’t realize that they need to wait an additional 4 days before furniture can be moved in or drop cloths used (for painting). Some also don’t realize that they need to be off the floors the entire time…which often means they need to be away and out of the house, especially if the area to be done includes steps or the pathway to get to the bedrooms.
If you are buying a new house, it’s important to consider this, along with closing dates and how long you can stay in your current location (or whether there is a friend or family member you can stay with while the work is being done). Sometimes, this involves delaying when the movers deliver the furniture (or putting the furniture in the basement while until after the work is done. Those that plan ahead generally have better outcomes.
If you currently live in your house, it’s generally best to do the sanding and refinishing work while you are away on vacation (and generally a longer vacation).
If you are adding new hardwood flooring, this will add some extra time to the process. The wood needs to be ordered, dropped off for acclimation (so it can sit in your home for a few days) and installation. Generally, if you live in the home already, this work can be done before you go away. But, if you are moving into a new home, it can extend the timeline.
When I meet with customers and they understand the timeline, they are often surprised, but glad that they know this info ahead of time. From there, we go into problem solving mode and can generally find some good solutions. Other times, the work needs to be put on hold until the next time they are going on vacation.
Mistake 2: Hiring the cheapest (or wrong) flooring contractor
Many customers get multiple estimates. And, there is nothing wrong with this. But, generally, the easiest recipe for failure is to choose the cheapest contractor. It’s one thing if all the estimates are tight, but if you have a range of prices, generally the cheapest one will give you the poorest results.
Think about it. There are basically 2 elements that factor into the price – the labor and the material. There is a price for everything. Materials cost a certain amount. If the material cost is lower, chances are, it’s a lower quality product regardless of whether it’s a type of wood or polyurethane. If the labor cost is lower, chances are the work will be inferior. It may mean that the contractors will in and out of there fast and not pay attention to detail. It may mean that they are only sanding the floors with 2 grits rather than 3. It may mean that contractor needs to discount their price because it’s the only way they can secure work…in other words, they are desperate. Why else would they do things below market prices?
Arguably, there is a 3rd element that factors into the price and that is the scope of work. I have seen many estimates where customers think they are comparing apples to apples, but they aren’t as the scope of work is different. This can be due to number of coats (e.g. is it 2 coats of poly or 3?), type of poly (is it oil based or water borne and what grade of poly?), whether the same rooms or steps are included, is there rip up, whether base molding will be replaced, etc.
What’s especially interesting to me is when customers tell me they are comparing the same scope of work and when they forward me the other estimate, they clearly are not. Other times, the “estimate” or “proposal” is just handwritten and does not specify the scope of work. So make sure everything is specified and clearly written.
Unfortunately, I have seen too many customers unhappy with the contractors they hired and they feel they made a big mistake. I have seen many that need to completely redo their floors – sometimes resand and refinish (this can be inconvenient) and others that had such poor jobs that the hardwood was ruined and had to be completely replaced (talk about a costly mistake!).
The good news is that they’ve learned and won’t make the same mistake next time. They are then careful to interview more contractors and ask more questions. They check references. They ask friends for referrals. They search for online reviews. They generally avoid the cheapest contractors (they may go with the middle one). All of these are smart strategies.
Mistake 3: Doing things in the wrong order
It makes me sad to see how often homeowner do projects in the wrong order. As a result, they sometimes end of double paying (especially when it comes to painting) and sometimes, it locks in their choice and prevents them from from doing their preferred flooring choice.
The 2 most common sequencing mistakes I see are: 1) painting before refinishing the floors and 2) installing the cabinets before installing hardwood or tile.
There are pros and cons about doing painting before the flooring, but in general, some painting always needs to be done after the flooring and generally, your job will come out better if the painting is done after the flooring (assuming you are hiring professionals). You can read more about it here: Should you paint or refinish the floors first?
When it comes to kitchen floors, I see this scenario too often: The customer wants to remodel the kitchen, but they don’t have the budget to do it all at once. After all, kitchen remodels are expensive. So rather than doing it right, they do part of the kitchen. They may replace the cabinets and counter tops and decide to hold off the flooring until later when they can afford it. I completely understand this … at least the part on only having the budget for part of the work.
The problem with this approach is that the heights are set by the cabinets. And, once the cabinets are in, you don’t want to remove and replace them. So, you are limited on the type and height of flooring afterwards. Solid hardwood flooring is 3/4″ thick. Tile flooring (when done right) generally is the same height (when you factor in cement board and/or self leveling mix/mud job).
So, what this means is that a) several of your appliances won’t fit – most often the dishwasher gets locked in, so it can’t be repaired or replaced without damaging the floor, and sometimes the refrigerator won’t fit into it’s slot and may need to be replaced or the cabinets may need to be cut and b) the standard height difference between the floors and the cabinet counters may be off by 3/4″. This may be better for height challenged customers, but for the majority of customers, the height difference will just feel and potentially look weird).
In addition, sometimes the edges of the cabinets will now have “clunky” edges. With floors, there will always be some space between the floors and the walls. Some of this is due to the space needed for expansion and contraction; other times, it’s just physically impossible to cut the edges so fine. So generally, you use base molding or shoe molding to cover the gaps that allow the flooring to expand and contract.
Generally, cabinets are placed on top of the floors, so this is not an issue. But, when cabinets are installed first, you generally need to add shoe molding or quarter round around the edges. This is a good solution, but for some, this feels clunky as you’ve eliminated the cleans lines and edging of the cabinets. You can read more about the order of flooring and kitchen cabinets here.
Mistake 4: Hiring a general contractor or handyman rather than a flooring specialist.
Occasionally, we lose jobs to General Contractors and even sometimes to Handymen. The argument for the Handyman is that he is sometimes cheaper. That should be red flag right there! Generally, someone who is cheaper is cheaper because their skill level is lower. Flooring is a very specialized trade and I can’t even tell you how mistakes I see being made by non-specialists. And, these are often costly mistakes…i.e. the flooring needs to be completely ripped up and replaced.
The argument for using a General Contractor is that it is “easier.” (and sometimes it appears that they are less expensive…as they have hidden costs in other portions of the project so they can win the flooring job). The “easier” part generally comes into play when a customer is completely remodeling their kitchen,and they are already working with a GC. The GC tells them that they will help coordinate the order of everything and reduce gaps from “switching contractors.” But, remember, “easier doesn’t mean better.” I have seen many mistakes when General Contractors attempt to do a specialist’s work. Here are the most common issues:
1. Many mix and match red oak and white oak flooring. They don’t know how to identify the species on the floor already, and hence the new wood does not and never will match the flooring in the rest of the house (even with a stain color). Read this article on red oak vs white oak flooring for more info.
2. Many don’t realize that 5 inch and wider hardwood needs to be both nailed and glued. As a result, the floors can buckle or bulge in summer months and create gaps in winter months. I have seen this in many nice high end homes and unfortunately the only way to fix this blunder is to rip up and reinstall the floors.
3. They will sometimes take short cuts in the materials being used, especially when it comes to type of poly being used. They will often prefer to use water borne poly as it dries faster and makes their timeline easier (even though this may not be the better option for the homeowner…i.e. it won’t last as long. Read more here: Oil vs water borne poly.
4. They will often make other amateur mistakes. Often they will not allow enough time for wood (or laminate) to acclimate. They often do not allow enough spacing in the shoe molding to allow for the flooring to expand, or worse, they will nail the shoe molding into the floor (rather than wall), so that expansion can’t happen. Often they will not set the temperature correctly during the installation and sanding process (and may not realize they need to leave it that way for 30 days after sanding and refinishing.
So, yes, it may be “easier” to use a General Contractor, but often the results are inferior! And, you may not realize until 6 months or a year later.
Again, here are 2 handy places you can find local contractors:
- Check out our Local Flooring Pro Directory Here.
- If you can’t find someone in your local area (as we don’t know contractors in all parts of the country, then check out Home Advisor – Find the right pro for your project at Home Advisor.
Mistake 5: Waxing the floors or using the wrong cleaning products
In the “olden” days, we used to wax the floors. That was before polyurethane was invented and used to protect the floors. Polyurethane lasts much longer and eliminates the need to periodically wax the floors. And, the ironic thing is that waxing actually degrades the poly and causes you to refinish the floors sooner.
Likewise, there are many products in the marketplace that promise to make your floors shine. Most of these use oils and waxes to achieve these results. And, as mentioned above, these will degrade the poly. They will temporarily make your floors look nice, but cause you to refinish sooner. Further, if you use these waxes, it will prevent you from being able to buff or screen and recoat your floors.
So, what should you do if you want to protect your floors and/or add some more life to your floors? Check out these 2 articles:
- How to prevent scratches and maintain your hardwood floors
- Consider a screen and recoat – What is a screen and recoat?
Mistake 6: Putting a floating floor under cabinets
There are many types of floating floors now – laminate, luxury vinyl, cork and hardwood. You can read more about floating floors in this article – What is a floating floor?
Floating floors need to be installed AROUND the cabinets and NOT UNDER the cabinets. If they are under the cabinets, they can not expand and contract and they will buckle. It is one of those simple “no no’s”, but do-it-yourselfers and GC’s/Handymen (i.e. non flooring specialists) often don’t realize this.
Mistake 7: Buying Cheap materials
I hate to use the cliché “you get what you pay for,” but generally this is true. Don’t skimp on the materials. Generally, the labor will be the same regardless of whether you use standard, upgraded or low end products. But, there certainly will be a big difference in durability as well as how they look.
There usually is a reason that cheaper products are cheaper. They may be engineered and/or thinner than other options; they may have much more color variation and knots, they may have shorter lengths; they may have a lower grade finish that scratches more easily. They may have many more “shorts” as well as poor milling (which means that they are not straight and won’t line up. Many cheaper brands are also made in China and may have lower quality wood (e.g. not as hard), as well as filler and even harmful adhesives and VOC’s that can off gas. For a big wake up call, check out this 60 minute investigation on a large and cheap flooring store. And, it turns out that several of the big box manufacturers are now under investigation, too.
Warning: samples can often be misleading. Many manufacturers make the samples look great. But, they often don’t show the whole picture. They often don’t show how much color variation there is and they hide the fact that they have shorter lengths.
Note: In most homes in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, most houses are built on plywood and the standard is solid hardwood. There are some engineered hardwoods that are less expensive, but many of these can not be sanded and refinished. If you have plywood sub-floors (and hence the ability to nail in hardwood), then the installation cost for solid vs engineered in usually the same. But, their durability is quite different. Once the engineered floors are scratched, you need to rip them up and replace them (assuming they can’t be refinished). And, this will cost you more than it did the first time (since now you need to pay to redo them + pay to rip them up and haul away the waste). Saving money on buying cheaper wood will only save you money short term; in the long term, it will cost you more money.
If you are having trouble affording buying the right materials, it may be a signal that you should wait before doing the project.
So be logical about this…cheaper generally means lower quality.
Mistake 8: Doing it yourself
Yes, there are some talented people out there that may be capable of this, but for the most part, if you don’t install or refinish floors on a regular basis, this can be a big mistake. It will definitely cost you a LOT of time (yes, professionals will do a better job and much faster…this is what they do all week).
And, then of course there is the issue of quality. Generally, do-it-yourself work will be lower quality and often it will be obvious. First, check out mistakes 1-7 as many may apply. Second, consider the edges and transitions as that is often where it’s most noticeable. Third, consider how long your floors or refinishing will last and how even the stain and poly will come out.
The biggest issue in quality between the DIYer and the professional occurs when homeowners attempt to sanding and refinish themselves. Even putting skill levels aside, the quality of the machines you can rent at a big box store doesn’t compare to the higher quality machines that the professionals own. It is impossible to get the same type of finish with those machines. And, yes, of course, many do not know how to use the machines or can’t balance the heavy equipment easily. And, many don’t know the right grits to use or even that they need to sand the floors 3 times. Hence, the stain does not absorb properly and the poly does not adhere properly.
Consider how much you are really saving by doing it yourself. What is the cost for renting the machines (and/or tools?). How much do the nails or poly cost you? How long will you need them (remember it may take you twice to 5 times as long to do this work vs a professional). And, more importantly, what is your opportunity cost? (How much money would you make if you were generating more work for your job/business). In the end, the actual savings is often very low, and that’s before you even consider that may need to redo the floors again sooner.
Mistake 9: Going too trendy
Being current and up to date is good thing, but some trends change. Make sure you don’t look yourself into dating your floor (or kitchen). I see this most often with tile, more so than hardwood. Tile trends and materials come and go (glass is the perfect example of a material that is already on downward trajectory).
Make sure you plan for the future. How long will you be in the house? When will you sell? What happens when styles and your tastes change. Make sure you have a plan. This is not a big deal for carpet…carpet generally gets dirty by the time it’s ready to change and it’s not that expensive. Ripping up tile on the other hand can be very costly. If you have hardwood, it’s ideal to have solid hardwood, because it’s simple to change the color, even if you select what’s stylish now, you can easily change it the future.
Mistake 10: Falling for ad gimmicks that sound too good to be true
Every industry has them. Have you seen $39 installation? Or buy 1 room, get 2 free? Or free installation? We all know there is no such thing as a free lunch. Nothing is free. The costs are simply hidden somewhere else.
In the case of some of the Big Box Stores, where they may claim $99 for carpet installation (or whatever # they choose for the week), they just double the cost of the carpet pad to cover it. After all, what type of installer would do a whole day’s worth of work (w/ a partner) for $99? Or $39? Or $139? (And, if they really would, would you really want them working in your home?
This is why it’s important to look at the TOTAL cost of the project and not just the cost of certain line items. These places are set up to attract the price shoppers, and as I’ve mentioned before, you get what you pay for. Personally, I’d rather do business with someone who is upfront and honest, but I suppose not everyone agrees with this.
You may also find this article helpful: 10 Tips on buying hardwood floors – from an insider
Hardwood flooring is a big investment in your home. Be sure to do your research on the right type of flooring and best contractors to use, or it may cost you a lot. Ask questions. Check references. And, choose who you think will do the best job for you.
Other useful flooring articles:
- 2018 Hardwood flooring trends
- Water vs oil based polyurethane – which is better?
- Recommended cleaning products and accessories to maintain floors and reduce scratches.
- What are the best brands of polyurethane?
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. I’ve also started to offer phone consultations.
Complementary products that will prolong the life of your hardwood floors
For more info, check out my Ebook – Discover the 6 Secrets of Refinishing hardwood floors.