You’re browsing the hardware store in search of the perfect hardwood floors when you see it: a sample that looks a lot like wood — for about half the cost. It’s so realistic that if it weren’t for the product label (or the price tag), you’d have mistaken it for the real thing.
You read the fine print and like what you see. Durable. Easy to install. Lifespan of around 10 to 20 years. Available in no shortage of colors and patterns. You might be shocked to discover that this eye-catching, affordable material is none other than laminate. But it’s not your grandmother’s laminate.
It makes you wonder: Does laminate flooring increase home value, or will it cheapen the look of your whole home with its imitation games? Before you head to the checkout line, you’ll need to be judicious in your choice.
The layers of laminate
You won’t find laminate out in nature. However, it’s not a pure plastic, either. According to FlooringAmerica, a cooperative of more than 500 independent flooring retailers in North America, laminate blends four distinct bonded layers into a single material. Let’s go behind the scenes of how the sausage (i.e., in this case, laminate) gets made:
- Base layer: The first layer of laminate flooring sets the stage by creating a smooth, level foundation. It also serves as the first line of defense against any moisture that could damage the flooring.
- Core layer: Typically made from high-density fiberboard (HDF) or medium-density fiberboard (MDF), this hardworking layer ramps up the protection and creates a firm, durable surface.
- Decorative layer: Would you believe that the top layer of laminate is a high-resolution photograph of whatever material it’s imitating? You’d be amazed how the printed paper overlay mimics stone, wood, or even marble.
- Wear layer: Topping off the multi-layer masterpiece is a protective layer of aluminum oxide. Not only does it seal in the decorative layer, the wear layer also helps to ward off stains, fading, scratches, and other damage that can detract from the beauty of the floor.
Once all the layers are ready to go, a manufacturer will fuse them together using direct-pressure laminate (DPL) construction, with heat reaching up to 300˚F degrees so that everything sticks.
History of laminate flooring
Laminate flooring first started to appear on the market in the 1970s. The earliest versions left a lot to be desired in terms of quality and appearance. These iterations didn’t imitate wood or other materials and by and large resembled plastic. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, laminate designs flooded the market in bright colors and far-out patterns (geometrics or florals, take your pick) that were a far cry from today’s more neutral, nature-inspired designs.
But in the decades since, flooring manufacturers have worked to improve the process to create a more desirable result.
The late 80s and early 90s gave rise to the Pergo company, which sold high-pressure laminate flooring options created by a Swedish chemical company called Perstorp. Pergo became available in the United States in 1994 and quickly grew in popularity, as homeowners clamored at the chance to install more sophisticated laminate flooring at a fraction of the cost of hardwood. Even so, the early Pergo options didn’t offer the look of wood or other more expensive materials, and they still had a plastic appearance.
With the technological advancements of today, top brands like Pergo, Mohawk, Armstrong, Shaw, AquaGuard and other flooring manufacturers produce authentic-looking laminate options that appear and feel like wood. Rather than a flat, solid surface, modern laminate floorboards now come with realistic textures and finishes.
Is laminate flooring still popular today?
Although demand for laminate has dipped in recent years, it still comprises nearly 5% of the flooring industry market, behind carpet and rugs, resilient flooring (which comprises several different types explained below), tile, and hardwood.
Carl Young, a top-selling real estate agent in Knoxville, Tennessee, tends to see laminate in secondary bathrooms, laundry rooms, basements, and other utilitarian spaces. He rarely finds it in living rooms or bedrooms.
The catch-all “resilient” flooring category above includes several different flooring types, the most popular of which is luxury vinyl plank (LVP) and luxury vinyl tile (LVT). Young sees the upscale vinyl options more often than laminate. You won’t find a huge cost difference between the two, and LVP has some distinct advantages: it’s higher-quality, more durable, and 100% moisture-proof, making it a practical choice for pet owners.
Benefits of laminate flooring
Laminate remains a popular flooring choice among a certain subset of homeowners for a few key reasons:
Budget is typically the biggest driver of the decision to install laminate flooring, which is one of the lowest-cost alternatives. According to HomeAdvisor, homeowners can expect to pay between $1-$5 per square foot for laminate floor materials and an additional $1.50-$3 per square foot for labor.
Wood, by comparison, runs at around $3-$7 per square foot for materials and another $3-$5 per square foot for labor. For a 175-square-foot kitchen, laminate flooring would cost between $437 and $1,400, while hardwood would cost between $1,050 and $2,100.
Ease of installation:
Laminate flooring comes as individual boards or planks that interlock together without any adhesives or nails, which allows the material to “float” above the subfloor. In some cases, you can install laminate on top of existing wood, concrete, or vinyl flooring, as long as the existing flooring is smooth and level and you use a laminate underlay. This makes laminate much easier and quicker to install than wood or tile. As a result, it has become a popular choice among DIY homeowners.
Earlier forms of laminate weren’t known for resisting moisture, but there are now waterproof options that come with a water-resistant core layer. This extra layer buys you some time if the floor is exposed to moisture. (That said, laminate is not completely waterproof like vinyl flooring.) Laminate also won’t scratch, stain, dent, or fade in sunlight like natural wood.
Thanks to the latest high-resolution imagery behind laminate’s decorative layer, the material offers a wood-like appearance and texture that is nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. And with so many different design and color options on the market, there’s a little something for everyone.
Shortcomings of laminate flooring
Despite the advantages laminate has to offer and the many efforts made to improve its appearance and performance, the material could disappoint some homeowners who assume that it’s hardwood in disguise. If any of these potential drawbacks spark concern, think twice about your decision to install it:
Although modern laminate has come a long way in terms of moisture resistance, it’s still not moisture-proof. The high-density fiberboard (HDF) that makes up the middle layers is more vulnerable to moisture than hardwood. In the event that the HDF is water-damaged, the flooring will have to be replaced.
You can’t refinish it:
One of the perks of natural hardwood is that it can be sanded and refinished again and again, creating a like-new floor without the need to replace it. But with laminate, refinishing isn’t an option if it becomes scratched, stained, or otherwise damaged. There could be the option to replace individual floorboards if the matching style is still available. Otherwise, you’d have to pony up for a full replacement.
Sizing up the value of laminate
For homeowners looking to add new flooring on a tight budget, laminate covers the most ground at an affordable price point. But will the upfront cost savings be eclipsed by a dip in home value?
How does laminate measure up against its higher-priced rivals?
According to Craig Miller, who has been appraising residential single-family and two-to four-family properties since 1983, there is no clear-cut method for assessing flooring value. However, in his experience, most buyers in high-end homes tend to prefer natural hardwood or ceramic. Laminate is more acceptable in low- to mid-range homes.
“In my opinion, the quality of the laminate impacts the home’s value more than the brand,” says Miller. “The laminates that look like hardwood or ceramic tend to be more preferred because of their appearance.”
Amanda Jones, a top-selling real estate agent in San Francisco, says that most homeowners in her high-priced market would opt for natural materials over laminate.
Location matters for laminate
As far as its placement in the home, Miller says laminate is most widely accepted in bathrooms and laundry rooms, followed by kitchens, as it is easier to clean in high-traffic areas. Bedrooms and living rooms are not desirable areas for laminate.
He also points out that buyers with dogs may prefer a high-grade laminate over wood or carpet, because laminate wears better, cleans easier, and doesn’t show scratches like wood.
Jones generally only sees laminate in basements, tenant-occupied units, and lower-income properties. “Laminate is sort of a go-to for property managers,” she says. “It’s rare to see it in primary homes these days.”
Is laminate an upgrade or a downgrade to the previous flooring?
Whether laminate will increase or decrease a home’s value will also depend on what flooring was there before. If the laminate replaces old, worn carpet or sheet vinyl, you could see a value boost. But if the home already has old hardwood, you should refinish the natural wood rather than replace it with lower-quality laminate.
Tips to maximize your laminate investment
If you’re ready to purchase laminate and want to get the most bang for your flooring buck, you’ll want to hear this. Dan DiClerico, an expert in real estate and remodeling who has served as HomeAdvisor’s smart home strategist since 2017, shares his tips on how to maximize your laminate investment:
Check the AC rating:
This is the flooring industry’s way of ranking laminate by durability. AC levels run one through six, with six being the most durable. For areas with lower foot traffic, like a guest bedroom, AC 1 provides sufficient durability, but areas with higher foot traffic, like the kitchen and entryway, usually need an AC 2 or AC 3 rating.
Mix up boards from different boxes:
When installing laminate flooring, the repeated pattern can sometimes start to become noticeable, especially across a large room. To prevent this repetition and achieve a more custom look, DiClerico recommends mixing from different boxes during the installation process.
Think about texture:
The texture of the laminate will determine how well it replicates the look and feel of real hardwood. Embossed laminate creates an authentic wood-like look and texture, but the level of embossing can vary.
“Most manufacturers offer a hand-scraped wood texture for a real-wood look,” DiClerico says. “A high-gloss texture is probably the best option for a finish that will be the most resistant to dents and damage. A clean, modern mirror finish is also desirable for many homeowners.”
Stick with trusted brands:
You’ll find different levels of quality within each brand, but DiClerico suggests Home Legend, Lumber Liquidators, and Pergo for their lines of high-performing laminate flooring in a wide array of stylish designs.
Take good care of your laminate:
Caring for your laminate will help to maximize its longevity. You’ll need to sweep, dust, and vacuum the laminate to remove particles like pebbles or sand that could scratch its surface. For periodic cleaning, DiClerico suggests using a damp mop and a gentle household cleaner, like a vinegar and water solution.
Stay away from steam mops, which can warp the boards, as well as detergent-based cleaners, which can damage the protective plastic layer. Place mats inside any exterior doorways to prevent guests from tracking in debris.
The value of laminate: Your price point and area matter
Many budget-conscious homeowners are finding that today’s more advanced laminate flooring options provide a practical and aesthetically pleasing alternative to more expensive hardwoods and tiles. But the material is not going to be the best fit for every homeowner or every home.
If you’re considering selling your house soon and need to determine which flooring will be best for resale, you won’t regret connecting with a local real estate agent to get their thoughts on what buyers are looking for in your area and how other homes in the area compare. Our ultimate advice? Think through your flooring options twice. Install once!
Header Image Source: (Krasula / Shutterstock)