Captain’s Laminate Highlights
- Newer laminate technology can make it look surprisingly like hardwood
- AC rating is the most important indicator of laminate durability: 3 is perfect for many homes that need durability
- An underlayment is worth the investment in 95% of laminate projects
- It’s one of the easier DIY jobs, but if you go with an installer, who you choose is still important
Chapter 1. Laminate pros and cons vs other floor options
Are you already 100% sure you’re going with laminate for your flooring project?
Then, you can skip this and move on to chapter 2. But flooring is a huge investment, so I recommend most people at least skim these pros and cos.
Pros of laminate flooring:
- new laminates can look surprisingly similar to hardwood
- low maintenance: the hard smooth surface is easy to clean and no need for refinishing
- value flooring: it’s about as cheap as you’ll find any flooring project
- easy DIY with snap together laminate planks
- resistant to stains
- no messy and indoor-air-polluting glues needed
- floating laminate can be installed over old flooring
Cons of laminate flooring:
- looks similar to hardwood, but the feeling underfoot isn’t the same. doesn’t have the luxury “vibe”
- cannot be refinished: this means when it’s scuffed up it’s likely time to replace
- sitting moisture causes it to bubble and destruct: newer engineering is improving this but I’d still avoid it bathrooms and basements
- doesn’t improve home values like hardwood
- needs a smooth floor underneath and likely needs underlayment (slight added cost/work)
So, what is laminate flooring’s competition?
So after reviewing the pros and cons, is there another flooring should you consider?
I have guides on the 7 most popular types of flooring (and have articles on more), and each type of floor is perfect for a certain situation. You can read about all my favorite flooring options.
But I find there are two major competitors to laminate:
The first is hardwood. It’s what laminate is trying to be. If you have extra money to spend, hardwood is more durable, looks and feels better, and has a better resale value. I almost always think it’s worth it. You can read about laminate vs hardwood.
Most people looking at laminate don’t want to throw down the money for hardwood. But there’s another flooring that is even a closer cousin to laminate. That floor is luxury vinyl planks (LVP). It looks similar to laminate, costs similar, but it’s more water-resistant. Read about LVP vs laminate.
Chapter 2: Are you financially prepared? Cost, budgeting, and paying
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%.
Chapter 3. Durability factors. What matters, and what doesn’t
You’ll see all kinds of specs listed with each laminate.
In the sea of information, what matters?
Let’s go over common information you’ll find, and whether it is important or not to how long your laminate will last.
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.
Laminate will be installed in different ways depending on what you buy. This won’t have a huge impact on durability, but it will impact how easy it is to DIY.
And in some ways, that does affect the durability because, if you want to replace a damaged laminate piece, it’ll be easier or more difficult depending on the type.
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 it’s 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.
So which of these should you choose?
Most homeowners will like tongue and groove, especially if you want to DIY. But there are a couple of things to consider:
- Glued laminate is like to have buckling or other issues post-installation
- Glued laminate is easier to replace one tile. This may seem the opposite of what you’d think, but it’s a lot easier to rip up one glued tile than it is to unsnap a “tongue and groove” laminate piece that is in the middle of the floor (you’d have to take up an entire section)
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).
Chapter 4: 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 separately.
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.
Chapter 5: How to buy laminate and get the best deal
We’re in the final stretch. You know what type of laminate you want, the specs, and about how much it will cost.
Now let’s good a good deal on it. There are a 3 things to consider when looking for a deal: where you buy, when you buy, and if you can talk them don’t on cost (without it being awkward).
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. There’s no right or wrong answer for everyone on where you should buy, but there is a right or wrong place for you.
Check out my article on where should you buy your flooring. It’ll give you a breakdown of the pros and cons of each type of floor.
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 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.
For more details, check on what time of year should I buy flooring?
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.
A little win on a flooring project is a big win for you because it’s such a big investment. I cover how to negotiate flooring without an awkward stand-off in detail. Most flooring stores are happy to give you a good deal–it means a happy customer and a sale for them.
Chapter 6: Hiring installers, DIY, and preparing for installation day
Now we’re on the final stretch. Time for laminate installation.
Your first decision 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 the 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 (see below)
- My favorite: Use a service like HomeAdvisor that does the homework for you. How does it work? You just enter your zip code and a little information on your project, and you’ll get bids from 3 pre-qualified installers in your area. Click here to try it out.
What questions can you ask?
- Are you bonded and insured? In other words, do you have a 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!
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 smart 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 on how to buy laminate flooring? Let me know in the comments below.