There seems to be a lot of confusion between laminate flooring and vinyl flooring.
Here in Westchester NY, many customers get these terms mixed up…they say vinyl when they mean laminate or laminate when they mean vinyl. So, part of my job is to help clarify which type of flooring they mean as well as which type of flooring makes the most sense for them.
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What is laminate flooring?
Laminate flooring is a hard surface that usually looks like hardwood (occasionally looks like tile) and is made with recycled hardwood. It has a picture of hardwood floors (it isn’t real), but some of the more upscale versions do look very real. On top, it has a melamine wear layer which give it strong scratch protection, and underneath, there is a high density core board. Laminate flooring is usually around 3/8 of an inch and can often be placed on top of existing flooring – whether it’s concrete, tile or even hardwood (assuming the floor underneath is stable and even).
Laminate flooring is a floating floor (read more about What is a floating floor?) that clicks together into place. Because it is made of recycled hardwood, it is NOT waterproof (read more about Is laminate flooring waterproof). It is generally not a good idea to install laminate flooring in any place where you tend to get a lot of water or that is humid (or that has high fluctuations in humidity level throughout the seasons) – this would mean that it is generally not good for most basements or bathrooms.
Because laminate is a hard (and inflexible) surface, it is important that the floor or subfloor underneath is level and relatively smooth. If it isn’t, the laminate flooring will move a lot when you walk on it and if it is too bumpy or too sloped underneath, it can even crack and break.
Like hardwood flooring, laminate floors should acclimate in the home before it’s installed. It should be in there for at least 24 hrs, but ideally 48 or more hours. This allows it to properly expand/contract for the conditions in that room. During this time, the room should be set to normal temperature/humidity conditions for that time of year (so if you are moving into a new home and don’t live there yet, it’s important to put the heat or AC on (pending time of year) during the acclimation and installation process.
What is vinyl flooring?
Vinyl flooring is synthetic material that looks like tile or hardwood. Most vinyls are glued down directly to the floor underneath. Vinyl comes in many forms – there is sheet vinyl (usually 12 feet in width), luxury vinyl tile and plank (which is upscale and looks very real), there is vinyl composite tile (VCT – usually for commercial applications – these are 12 x 12 tiles that you often see in schools and take out restaurants) and there is cheap peel & stick tile that you can often find in Home Depot.
Unlike laminate flooring, most vinyl is waterproof or water resistant (this depends on the exact type of vinyl). While the cheaper types of vinyl can easily withstand spills and strong cleaning, they will usually not survive major floods – most of these use cheap adhesives that will not hold up to standing water and some are applied directly onto plywood and if the water has soaked through, the subfloor may warp. Cheaper types of vinyl have a tendency to fade if exposed to sunlight for extended periods of time.
Whereas laminates are hard and inflexible, most vinyls are soft and flexible. So, vinyl flooring can tolerate floors that are sloped or have humps in it. The vinyl will just go right on top of it. Because vinyl is flexible, it is critical that the floor underneath is smooth (not level, but smooth), so you often need to do a couple of layers of skim coats to smooth out the floor underneath. (Otherwise, the imperfections of the floor below (or vinyl) will telegraph through and that would not look good.
UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, there is a new and very popular vinyl in the marketplace, and it’s been rapidly growing over the last 3-4 years. It’s call Coretec Plus. This product looks like hardwood. In fact, you won’t believe how real it looks and feels. It’s a clickable floating floor and it’s waterproof. It also has an attached cork underlayment for a bit of cushioning, sound absorbption and insulation. You can check out my review here: Coretec Plus Review.
And, for those of you who are handy do-it-yourselfers, this is a great option. If you read the above article, you’ll find a video on how you install this product.
Which is less expensive – laminate flooring or vinyl?
Well often this depends most on the condition of the sub-floor. More often than not, the floor is relatively level, when I compare laminate to a nice looking vinyl, the laminate will be USUALLY be less expensive BECAUSE USUALLY the floor prep needed for the vinyl significantly increases the cost. But, this is not always the case. And, in come cases, if the floor is very uneven, laminate flooring is either not practical, or if we need to level it out with self leveling mix, then the laminate flooring can become more expensive. And, as I mentioned above, if there is a concern about water or humidity, laminate flooring is not a good option at all. It is best to involve a flooring professional to help give you an expert opinion on which option is best for your needs and your floor. They should be able to price out both options for you so that you can easily compare.
I originally wrote this article years ago (in 2012) and since then there has been a major new innovation, and that is Coretec Plus Luxury Vinyl. This product breaks the mold as it looks like hardwood, is installed as a floating floor (like laminate) and it’s waterproof. It also has a cork underlayment for some added cushioning, warmth and sound absorption.
This product can be installed on top of concrete, tile, vinyl or other hard surfaces and does not require the same floor prep (i.e. smoothing) that a glue down vinyl does. This product costs more than laminate because it’s a much better product (it looks and feels more real, and it’s waterproof). Because it’s clickable, it’s a good do-it-yourself job if you’re handy. You can read more about it here: Coretec Plus Luxury Vinyl
- What is luxury vinyl plank (LVP)?
- Flooring brands I recommend
- Review: Coretec Plus – Waterproof plank flooring