Unbiased Laminate Buyer’s Guide
Are you consider laminate for your floor remodel?
Anytime you’re dropping hundreds to thousands on a home improvement project, it’s stressful. There are so many decisions:
Do I even want laminate? How much will it cost? Where should I buy it? What features do I need to find the best laminate for my home? How do I get a good deal? Should I do it myself? If not, how do I know the installer does it right? Will it work in my kitchen? Living room? Basement? (takes a deep breath)
(takes a deep breath)
So many questions is intimidating at first glance, but this guide has you covered. It’s everything important I can think of about laminate flooring. It’ll take you from deciding if you should even go with laminate to making sure your installer does a perfect job.
Laminate quality varies from ruined-with-the-first-drop-of-water to outlives-you. And the price varies from the cheapest flooring you can find to more expensive than hardwood.
In the 10 minutes it takes to go through this guide, you’ll confidently choose the laminate you need (may be different for each room). You’ll know how to get the best deal on it. Won’t blow money on buying more than you need. And you’ll have it successfully installed.
How to buy the best laminate floor [table of contents]
There are 6 phases to buying laminate. I’ll walk you through each in detail, but here’s a preview:
0. Pre-planning: making sure laminate is the floor for this room
- What is the “environment” of the rooms I’m flooring? (and why does it matter?)
- Is laminate even the right choice of flooring?
- Are you financially prepared? Costs, measurements, and budgeting.
1. Durability specifications: the durability sweet spot (no more, no less)
- Laminate thickness: important in laminate performance but overrated for durability
- AC ratings: the #1 durability factor
- Warranties: the fine print
- Functional design: the part of design that affects performance
2. Underlayment: the unsung hero
- Attached underlayment: it’s easier. are there any negatives?
- Types of underlayment: learning your options from economical to luxury
- Moisture barriers: do you need it?
3. Aesthetic design: bringing out your inner interior designer
- Where should I buy laminate?
- When should I buy it?
4. How to buy laminate and get the best deal
- Where should I buy laminate?
- When should I buy it?
- Negotiating and other ways to get the best deal
5. Hiring installers, DIY, and preparing for installation day
- Should I hire an installer or DIY?
- How to hire a competent installer
- Installation day checklist
Phase 0. Pre-planning
This is phase 0 because you’re not yet 100% sure laminate is the floor best for you. You need to ask yourself a few questions to make an informed decision.
(note: if you’re certain you’re buying laminate, you can skip this section to Phase 1.)
First, know which rooms you are flooring. Anything unique about them?
Laminate works in about any room, but it’s important to blueprint what rooms you are flooring.
If you plan on using laminate in a basement or bathroom, you need to be cautious. Laminates Kryptonite is moisture. Water can make an “invincible” laminate deconstruct in no time.
Technology has improved to give laminate more versatility, but if it’s going to be in a high humidity room or basement, you need to take extra precautions and consider if there’s a different floor to choose.
What’s the current room’s condition?
I already talked about the main caution for laminate: moisture.
But another important consideration is the subfloor.
One awesome feature of laminate is it can be installed over any smooth hard surface flooring. This saves you money or your own backache from uninstalling the old flooring if you wish.
It also brings up something you have to be careful with when installing:
Make sure the subfloor is smooth. I’m not talking glass-smooth. But any major divots or imperfects need to be fixed. Minor imperfections may be okay, especially if you install an underlay.
Second, learn about all of your flooring options
I’m not going to spend too much time here, but this is the point:
If you chose laminate just because you’ve heard its good flooring, it’s worth checking out the pros and cons of other types of flooring. With current technology, most types of flooring have busted through their old stereotypes.
Meaning what you thought about a floor, may no longer be true.
With that said, laminate is a great floor choice for many people. If you buy it right, you can get an amazing look floor without doing as much financial damage as some of the other flooring options.
So in what cases is laminate not a good option?
Third, are you financially prepared?
This is another question you have to ask yourself, but it probably won’t eliminate laminate. Laminate can be one of the less expensive flooring options. With that said, flooring can be a shocking big investment. It’s worth budgeting to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
What does laminate cost?
Laminate is one of the more affordable types of flooring. But have you checked out the cost of flooring? Unless you’re flooring a small room, you’re likely investing in the thousands. Big flooring projects can be upward of 10k.
You can save big on laminate vs hardwood, but this is what you can expect to pay:
Average laminate cost per square foot (materials only): $3
Average laminate cost per square foot (installed): $5
Multiple the $3 times the number of square feet you need if you’re installing yourself, or multiply $5 times the square feet if you will be hiring someone to install the laminate.
This brings us to our next question.
How much laminate flooring do I need?
Your installer will figure this out for you, but since laminate is often a DIY floor, it helps to know how to figure it out yourself.
It’s simple to do. Just take out a tape measure and measure the length and width of your room. Multiply the two together. That gives you the square footage.
Two more things to take into account: laminate comes in boxes (usually 20 sqft per box), and you need to have extra for waste.
To calculate the square footage needed with waste, just multiply the square footage by:
1.05 for 5% waste
1.10 for 10% waste
1.15 for 15% waste
1.20 for 20% waste
This is your required square footage. Then, take that number and divided it by 20 (or however many square feet of laminate come in each box). This is the number of boxes you need.
Captain cut some corners! This is the simplest and way most people use to estimate the amount of laminate needed. You might have realized that often this will come with a fraction of a box, eg. Need 7.3 boxes. The easy way to fix this is to round up (rounding down can leave you short), but this can also waste money. For more detail that can help you save money and more accurately measure laminate (including things like stairs), check our costs and measuring laminate page.
Making a budget.
For an estimate, I can make this simple for you: Total cost of project = Number of boxes needed * 100.
Where did 100 come from? The standard is 20 sqft. per box, and the average cost of laminate installed is $5 sqft: 20 * 5 = 100.
Of course, this calculation gives you a ballpark. If you want to come up with a more accurate measurement, check out our laminate costs page. Why would you want a more accurate measurement? A couple of reasons:
The first is so you can have an accurate idea of what you’ll pay. Ballpark estimates can leave you surprised at the cash register.
More importantly, so you can “audit” the store and installer. One of the easiest ways to get ripped off by a couple hundred dollars is by over-inflated measurements. 99% of shoppers won’t notice the difference on their invoice. If you budget accurately, you’ll be the 1%.
Phase 1. Durability specifications
One decision you’ll always run into when buying laminate is:
What thickness do you want?
Laminate comes in thicknesses of 6mm to 12mm. The thicker the laminate the easier it is to install, the less sound echoing there will be, and the more quality the laminate will look and feel.
So what is thick enough?
I recommend most people go with 10mm or 12mm. This will give you laminate a quality feel and give some insurance against a not perfectly level subfloor.
This is an important enough category that I recommend checking out our page dedicated to laminate thickness.
AC rating is one of my favorite durability ratings for any floor. It doesn’t mislead you as often as some other flooring durability indicators.
It’s a simple 1-6 scale. The higher the number, the more durable the floor.
Laminates rated AC4-6 are considered commercial floors.
Laminates rated 1-3 are for homeowners. Most rooms that get daily traffic, you’ll want to go with an AC3 rating. This may be the most important decision you make with laminate, so check out our page on laminate AC ratings for more detail.
Many shoppers default to warranties to choose how durable their floor is. It’s simple, and it seems to make sense. Why would a manufacturer put a long warranty on a crappy product?
Warranties tend to be longer for higher-quality floors, but I still don’t like using it to make your flooring purchase decisions for a few reasons:
- the fine print in some warranties makes them useless
- there’s no standard: a better laminate from a different manufacturer may have a shorter warranty
- your specific situation may ruin the laminate but not be covered by a warranty
If you insist on going by warranty, just know that a “15-year warranty” doesn’t mean that it will be replaced any time its damaged in 15 years. It means it will be replaced if the damage fits the exact type of damage that is in the legal document you probably didn’t read.
A great thing about laminate being popular is you have endless design choices. You can pick laminate that looks like any shade of wood, or go with a completely different stone tile appearance. And laminate looks surprisingly realistic when you find a good one.
So what are your design choices?
There are the obvious: color, type of floor it’s imitating, embossed lines. This is the fun stuff. The stuff where you get to play interior designer.
There’s also the boring but equally important “functional” design choices. What do I mean? I’ll cover the three functional design choices here:
Laminate planks lock together in different ways depending on what you buy. Here are a few options:
Tongue and groove. Also known as “click lock,” tongue and grooves is the easiest and most common laminate locking system. You just snap the tiles together. If you want to DIY, this is the way to go, but even if you’re hiring an installer, this type will save on cost.
Glued laminate. Exactly how it sounds, glued laminate uses glue to stick the plans together. Glued laminate can come in pre-glued plans where you just add moisture to the edge to activate the glue. This takes more time and effort with the trade-off being a tight seal once its installed.
Mechanical system. There is also a “mechanical” locking system that uses an aluminum guide beneath the laminate. You’re less likely to run into this type of floor.
Phase 2. Underlayment
So you didn’t get underlayment attached, but is it required? If you don’t, you’re asking for headaches down the road. But, there are cases where you may be able to pull of direct-to-floor laminate. There are two keys: the subfloor has zero moisture problems and is perfectly level. This is a rare combination, but you might find it when installing on top of vinyl tile or on a brand new subfloor.
Underlayment attached or separate
Some laminate floors come with the underlayment attached. They may advertise that it makes the laminate more comfortable, a better sound barrier, and make installation easier. All are true, but you can easily buy underlayment separate.
Buying it separate allows you to choose your underlayment. You’ll likely get an equivalent for better underlayment for less cost buying it separately.
Captain’s warning! If you buy laminate with underlayment attached, you may be tempted to add your own to make sure you get all the benefits: improving installation, sound-barrier, and soft underfoot. This will backfire. Never double up the underlayment. It will reduce the support under the laminate and cause the installation to tear apart.
Now let’s talk about the 99% of cases where you need underlayment. What are your options?
Most likely you’ll want to go with a standard foam underlayment. Foam comes in different quality levels. The more economical foam underlayment will do a good job in most cases, but you can upgrade to get better sound dampening and also moisture resistance. Remember, a moisture barrier is required if you have any moisture issues (not sure? you can buy kits to test it).
What will underlayment cost? Expect to pay $0.25 sq/ft. for stand underlayment. Buying premium? The price for premium underlayment can go up to $1.50 sq/ft.
You can see that going with cheaper laminate saves you hundreds of dollars even on small jobs. If you’re considering upgrading, check out our complete guide on underlayment for laminate.
Phase 3. Aesthetic design
I just covered the boring aspect design, but the aesthetic design is the fun part–at least for some. Me personally, I don’t take too much pride in my interior design choices, but I do know some of the design options you’ll have:
- color tones: wide range even within specific colors (ie about 100 different grays)
- texture and finish: the surface can range from glossy to a swirled rustic wood appearance
- other design details: plank width, edge style, and layout direction can all make more of a difference than you think
Captain’s warning! Don’t be disappointed in your color choice after its already installed. A common mistake is to select a color in-store. Laminate changes color in your home because the lighting is different–it can be a dramatic difference! Make sure to take a sample home, or at least lay out the new laminate, before going to the trouble of installing it.
Check out Carpet Captain on Pinterest for design ideas from straightforward to wild. You will be surprised at the designs people come up with (one mixed carpet tiles and laminate to make a heart design).
Phase 4. How to buy laminate and get the best deal
We’re halfway there. You’ve decided laminate is for you, budgeted for it, picked the durability you’ll need without paying for the extra you don’t need, and decided the perfect look for your home. Now let’s cover actually going to the store and buying the laminate.
Where should I buy laminate?
You’ll buy your laminate at a local or regional store, big-box store, laminate-to-your-home seller, or online.
When should I buy it?
Basic economics of supply and demand applies to flooring. The fewer people in the store looking for flooring, the more likely the store is to cut you a deal. So when is demand low?
The best time is during the holidays: mid-December to early January. Most people are too busy to even think about flooring. Don’t want to wait until the winter? You might also find a discount in late May. School is wrapping up, and it’s a couple of months before the major remodeling season.
But there are other things to consider. The first being personal reasons—when do you need your floor? Also, flooring installation can emit fumes. Laminate isn’t as bad as some floors, but still, I’d consider installing during a time when you can get some ventilation in your home.
Negotiating and other ways to get the best deal
Most stores have some room for negotiation. Even big-box stores sometimes have wiggle room.
It helps to read up on negotiation.
The biggest part of getting a fair deal is recognizing good flooring. Many people go to the store and base off of price alone. This often causes one of two opposite problems: they overpay for higher-quality floor than they need, or they buy poor-quality flooring that happened to be overpriced.
You don’t have to worry about those problems because you’re here researching laminate. Just remember: judge the laminate by what you’ve learned, not the price. This simple advice will avoid headaches of buying over-price poor-quality laminate and make sure you get a fair deal on “just the right amount” of laminate you need–this leads to more saved money than you can imagine.
Phase 5. Hiring installers, DIY, and preparing for installation day
Now we’re on the final stretch. Time for laminate installation.
Your first decisions is…
Should I hire an installer or DIY?
Laminate is one of the easiest DIY floors. But that doesn’t mean you should. Here are reasons you might want to hire an installer:
- Health issues keeping you from moderate physical activity and being on your hands and knees
- Installers will guarantee good work. You have to be willing to make mistakes
- Do you enjoy home improvement projects? If not, your time is probably worth what you’ll pay an installer.
On the other hand, these are reasons you might want to DIY:
- You’re frugal. Time is not an issue you just want to save some money.
- You enjoy home improvement projects
- You’re willing to make some mistakes. Some money you save on installation may be lost due to installation errors (needing more flooring, materials etc).
Decide to DIY? Here’s a thorough and easy to follow article on how to install laminate flooring.
How to hire a competent installer
If you hire an installer, you hire him to get the job done right and avoid headaches. The bad news is you can just hire any installer. Unfortunately, there are some installers who are either incompetent (don’t know what they’re doing) or shady (intentionally rip you off). The good news is there are many great installers and laminate isn’t particularly difficult. Here are some steps you can take to boost your odds of a good installer:
- Ask friends for recommendations
- Check 3rd party ratings: Angie’s List, Better Business Bureau, Google, and other reputable online sites
- Quiz the installer with conversational questions
What questions can you ask?
- Are you bonded and insured? In other words, do you have financial backup if the installer messes up something big or the installation leads to injury? Not a must have, but it definitely makes me more comfortable–especially if you’re not 100% sure about the installer.
- What happens if the installation goes poorly? Many times this can be manufacturer related, but what if the manufacturer says it’s the installer? What will the installer do? Get this in writing.
- You can also bring anything up you’ve learned here as a question. E.g. What is important when installing laminate? Answers can vary, but you’d expect a response including level flooring, moisture, and underlayment.
Installation day checklist
The installer is on the calendar. What do you need to do to prepare?Your laminate should sit out 48 hours before being installed to acclimate to your environment. This will prevent a change in the laminate structure after its installed.
First, make sure the laminate arrives at least 48 hours prior. You want to sit it out in your home, so it acclimates to the environment. This ensures it’s stable before its installed, improving installation success.
Make sure the laminate is what you expected. Go over your exact receipt to ensure it matches. How does the color look in your home? It may be different than it looked in the store. You can still take the laminate back at this point.
Open windows if possible. Laminate isn’t the biggest criminal when it comes to releasing indoor air pollution, but anytime I bring new construction material into the home, I like to get fresh air moving through. And ideally, I leave the house. This goes for pets, too.
Hired an installer? Give him room to work, but also don’t be over-trusting. Clean up the area, so there are no “temptations” for theft. And more importantly, so you don’t blame him for the watch he stole (that you later find in your jewelry box). Speak of jewelry, lock up or remove anything that is highly valuable and easy to steal.
Captain’s parting words!
Hope you took some notes. Laminate isn’t difficult, but the details are important. And since you’ll invest a chunk of money on any flooring, it’s worth getting the details right the first time.
The 10 minutes you spent reading this guide won’t make you an expert. It will make you a competent shopper. So much so, you’ll like catch salesman off-guard. And that equals better deals.
Now it’s time to enjoy your floor. One other cool thing about laminate: it’s low maintenance. Outside of occasional vacuuming/sweeping and mopping, it’s hands-off. No yearly refinishing or deep cleaning that hardwood and carpet require.
Anything that I didn’t cover? You’re always welcome to contact the Carpet Captain. My purpose is to help you buy your flooring. Your questions help guide what I write about on the site, so don’t be afraid to reach out.