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Laminate flooring buying guide

When buying a new home or looking to renovate yours, flooring is commonly one of the first and easiest things to change to give your home a fresh new look and feel.

Whether you are trading in stinky old carpet or you’re looking to update your grandparents’ linoleum, laminate may be the best flooring option for your home or commercial space. Especially if you like saving time and money. 

Laminate flooring buying guide

In this extensive laminate flooring buying guide, you will learn everything you need to know and more.

What is Laminate Flooring?

Beautiful hardwood flooring is classic, unique, and desirable, but also expensive and high maintenance.

Laminate flooring gives you the look and feels of hardwood, or even tile, without the cost, maintenance requirements, or damage risks. Laminate flooring installation is straightforward and you can do it yourself (it is fairly easy for the average handy-person)

We know two types of laminate flooring, Direct Pressure Laminate (DPL) and High-Pressure Laminate (HPL). 

Direct Pressure Laminate

Four distinct layers are sealed together with high heat in the lamination process that creates the laminate flooring product. 

The backer layer is the base. It is made to stabilize the board and help protect your flooring from moisture underneath. You will find some laminate products with underlayment pre-attached to the backer layer. 

The core layer is made of MDF (medium-density fiberboard) or HDF (high-density fiberboard). Fiberboard is softwood fibers blended with wax and resin and pressed into shape using high heat.

NOTE: The higher the density, the stronger this product is. Often, you will pay more for higher quality in this category.

The decorative layer is the look; usually, a printed paper layer that can be made in almost any style of simulated hardwood and its wood grain, tile, or stone. 

The wear layer, or overlay layer, is a protective clear coat. This gives the flooring shine, but also protects from everyday scratches and dents, and helps guard the layers against liquid spills. 

High-Pressure Laminate 

Similar to direct pressure laminate, there are still four layers pressed together in a lamination process.

The main difference compared to direct pressure laminate is in treatment. Backing and wear layers are treated separately before they are fused to the core, which creates a stronger, more wear-resistant flooring.

This type of laminate is most commonly used in commercial applications and high traffic areas.   

Benefits of Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring was first introduced to the home improvement market in the 1970s. Since then, the quality of this product class has improved significantly. Back then, laminate flooring was comparable to nothing more than layered paper, and the designs were generic and limited.

Some key benefits of laminate flooring are:

Durability

Thanks to that protective wear layer of plastic or resin, your laminate flooring will be more scratch, dent, and impact resistant than most hardwoods.

NOTE: Higher AC rating – defined below – will describe how durable the flooring is. You can get it for low-traffic spaces such as closets, or high-traffic spaces such as commercial or hallways. 

Water-Resistance

This is not to say that laminate is waterproof – see my article on Is Laminate Flooring Waterproof? Laminate is water-resistant, which means you can have spills and mop your floors, if they are properly installed, without worrying too much about the damage moisture may have caused older versions of laminate.

NOTE: You do need to be careful to dry up any moisture within 30 minutes, though, to keep liquids from penetrating past the wear layer. 

There are also laminate products that claim “waterproof” if you are looking to replace the floor in your kitchen, bathroom, or laundry area. To achieve water-resistant laminate flooring, you need a vapor barrier underneath them.

Aesthetic Realism

You can find a laminate version of just about any style of flooring you desire. There are hundreds of styles of wood, tile, and stone in almost any color you can think of.

The graphic design technology that has gone into laminate flooring makes these manufactured planks look so realistic, some people can’t even tell the difference from real hardwood flooring!

Laminate flooring Installation

An intermediate DIYer can install these floors with no previous flooring experience. They are designed with a simple click-lock groove system and it is not necessary to use any kind of adhesive glue.

NOTE: Nailing laminate floor will compromise the wear layer’s protective qualities. Laminate is designed to float. 

Affordability

Even if you hire a professional to install your laminate flooring, you will find the overall cost to be much more affordable than hardwood flooring, tile, stone, or even linoleum in some cases.

Considering how long you can make laminate last if you care for it properly, laminate can be the most economical choice. 

Allergies

Laminate is made of materials that are not inherently absorbent, so pet and garden allergens that typically get trapped in carpet can be cleaned easily from the wear layer of laminate flooring when you sweep and mop. 

Choosing The Right Laminate Flooring

Choosing The Right Laminate Flooring

So how do you choose which laminate flooring will be the best fit for you? The style and color is the fun part, and not necessarily easy, but the qualities go much deeper than the décor layer.

There are many key factors to consider when choosing the right laminate flooring for our home. Let’s dive in:

The AC Rating

An impartial third party decides each laminate product’s AC rating, which means Abrasion Class. This scale describes how durable you can expect the product to be.

Also the price of laminate flooring can be affected by its AC rating, getting more expensive with the higher rating.

NOTE: So, to save yourself money, in one way or another, it would be wise to know these ratings and choose a flooring that fits your specific needs.

We know 5 main AC rating classes:

AC1 Moderate Residential

Usually, the least expensive, this type of flooring is suitable for places in your home that are not in much danger of wear and tear. This might be all you need for your bedrooms or closets. 

AC2 General Residential

This type of flooring can withstand a little more wear, as in low-traffic spaces like dining rooms and formal living rooms. 

AC3 Heavy Residential/Moderate Commercial

Fairly balanced in durability and cost, laminate with this rating will be enough for most residential use, and even some low-traffic commercial space. 

AC4 General Commercial

This type of flooring is perhaps the most universal in application. It is enough for all the spaces in your home and moderate businesses, like coffee shops and boutique stores. 

AC5 Heavy Commercial

This heavy-duty type of laminate can withstand the traffic of every space from department stores to government buildings. There is virtually no reason you should need this kind of durability for your home. 

Thickness

Laminate planks are sold in millimeter thicknesses ranging from 7mm to 12mm or more. This measurement does not typically include attached underlayment.

The thickness of your laminate can be important if you want to create a more hardwood-like feeling. When the laminate is thicker, the design can be more detailed. Thickness can also help reduce the noise of footsteps and makes the floor more impact resistant. 

Thicker laminate is also likely to help reduce the appearance of subfloor imperfections, however; an uneven subfloor can cause laminate flooring planks to separate over time, no matter how thick the laminate boards are. 

If cost is the highest part of your priority list, you can certainly “get away” with using thinner laminate boards, but in this aspect, it is believed you get what you pay for. 

TIP: If you are looking at the flooring with underlayment attached, make sure to ask and clarify the thickness with and without that layer included, so you know exactly what you are getting. 

Style

You can find laminate flooring in wood, stone, and tile designs. 

Laminate wood flooring can be found in almost all the same varieties as hardwood floors, without the cost. Different textures can enhance the look and feel. Choose from smooth, embossed, handscraped, or specific gloss finishes.

In addition, if you decide to change the look of your floors, read my article on painting and staining laminate floors.

Laminate floor planks and tiles are designed to mimic stone or ceramic tile. Not only is the laminate option less expensive per square foot, but when it comes to installation and removal, laminate will be easier on your back and your budget. 

Room

You will want to choose the right laminate flooring for the right room. There is no need to buy a specifically water-resistant laminate for your bedroom (probably), but you will want that type if you are laying it in the bathroom or kitchen.

In the basement, you will want to look specifically for water-resistant laminate and underlayment with a vapor barrier.

Cost

Home renovation is expensive, there is no getting around that. But you can make smart choices to reduce costs where possible, and choosing laminate over hardwood flooring can be an easy one.

In this category, it is important to understand that you will likely “get what you pay for”. Factor in the cost of the product by the square foot, accessories such as baseboards, and lifetime repairs, and you can calculate hundreds if not thousands of dollars saved by choosing laminate. 

Hiring someone to install your floors is another expense to be mindful of, however, installing them yourself is possible with laminate. Hardwood floors require a little more expertise, and you may not be so eager to jump into that project on your own. 

How to prepare before installing Laminate Floor?

Of course, you can hire an installer to take care of your floors for you. But if you are a DIYer, remotely handy, and a quick learner, you can lay laminate flooring yourself and save a few hundred dollars, at least. 

Unlike ceramic tile, there is no grout, mortar, or heavy adhesives to mix or spread. Unlike hardwood floors, laminate does not need to be nailed to the subfloor. Laminate flooring works with a click-lock system that makes installation reminiscent of putting together a puzzle. You can have almost any room done in a single day.

What you will need: 

Tools: The tools you will need can be found at any hardware store, but if you have a toolbox, you might already own most of them. 

choosing right underlayment for laminate flooring

Underlayment can be important

Choosing the right underlayment will depend on the room you are installing laminate flooring in, and the amount of moisture you expect to get there. As with the basement, kitchen, or bathrooms, where humidity levels are high, you will want to install underlayment to protect your subfloor from moisture damage. In bedrooms, living rooms, or hallways, you may want to focus on the qualities of noise reduction and underfoot softness. 

NOTE: In the case that you are replacing carpet with laminate, you should note you are not able to use carpet padding as an underlayment. Attempting this will probably void the laminate manufacturer’s warranty, as well as cause your laminate floor to separate when you walk on it. 

Read my article on the 10 best underlayment for laminate floors for more details and help you decide which underlayment is best for you.

Molding, Transition pieces, and Trim

To really polish off the look of your new floors, you are almost certainly going to want to look into new baseboards, trim, and transition pieces that match. Many laminate flooring products already have these options available, making the choice pretty easy. 

Adhesives

While this is not typically necessary, you may consider using some type of glue to secure your floors to the subfloor. Any laminate flooring type that requires an adhesive will likely recommend a specific product, so be sure to read any instructions for this information. 

Can you Instal Laminate Flooring over Radiant Heat?

It is safe to install laminate flooring over a radiant heating system, but there are some things you should know, and some precautions to take. 

Before you start, make sure you have chosen a safe underlayment for this purpose, and acclimate the laminate product to the room in which you are installing it.

  • You can do this by running the heating system for at least 4 days between 64-72 degrees.
  • Let the laminate acclimate for about 48 hours, and once installed, keep the radiant heat at the same temperature for another 48 hours.
  • Never raise the temperature above 82 degrees!

NOTE: It is common that laminate planks will present minor gaping during the heating season. You can minimize this with proper humidity control.

Preparing space for installation

The first thing you will want to do is clear the floor. Remove everything you possibly can from the room, including the trim around the perimeter of the room and any air duct covers you may have in the floor.

Strip it down to bare subfloor, and then sweep and vacuum all the dust and dirt until your subfloor is completely clean. 

Inspect your subfloor for imperfections and correct anything that cannot be covered by underlayment. You may need to sand bumps down or fill in any small cracks. 

How to install laminate floors?

Lay the Underlayment

This step is straightforward. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, making sure that the floor is flat and smooth before you start with the laminate.  Some types of underlayment require adhesive or sealing, and others can just be rolled out.

Laminate flooring installation

Installation process

Once you have decided which way to lay your floor, trim off the tongues (not the grooves) of the laminate planks you will use to lay the first row. The utility knife may be enough to do this, or you can use a saw. 

  • Keep it spaced about ¼ to 3/8 inch away from the wall; some manufacturers will have a specific recommendation in their instructions. Spacers or scrap wood can help you maintain the necessary gap as you connect more planks and subsequent rows.
  • Be aware that walls are not always straight, and watch for any disparities to correct before moving on to the next row. 
  • Carefully tap together the grooves and tongues of each plank. Leave no gaps. If you see bubbling or peeling at the seams, you have pushed them together too hard, and your laminate floors will be exposed to damage quickly. 
  • At the end of the row, when tapping isn’t possible, use the pry bar to gently and securely push the planks together. You will also find you have to cut this last plank.
  • The end you do not need here, can be used to begin the next row. 

How to Finishing the Room properly?

At the and we all want our room to look perfect. Here are some useful tips which will help you to achieve just that:

  • Stagger your planks so that the seams never line up with adjacent rows. This will not only make your laminate planks appear more realistic to hardwood floors, but will also keep the structure of your floors strong. 
  • To connect each subsequent row to the first, you will hold each piece at an angle and insert the tongue into the groove of the previous row. Lower it to lock them together. They should somewhat “click” into place. You can test the security of each plank by tugging or wiggling it just a little, and if it comes apart easily, try again. 
  • At the last row, you will likely have to rip – cut in half long-ways – each piece to measure, including the uniform gap you have around the perimeter of your floor. At this point, your prybar will be more useful than your tapping tools, as you will be working tightly against the wall. 

If every piece is laid down and locked in, and you are proud of yourself for doing all that work, read my article on how to seal laminate floors to further protect them from moisture and wear. 

Fixing Mistakes

The tongue and groove system of laminate flooring can be somewhat delicate. Once two pieces are locked together, pulling them apart must be done carefully to avoid damaging any edges. 

If, some time down the road, you find that your regional humidity and temperatures, or the installation of your flooring causes buckling, you should read my article on how to fix buckling

Final step of installation

With the laminate floor covering your room from wall to wall, if everything is looking and feeling smooth and clean, you are ready to put in your baseboards and transition pieces. Then you can put all your furniture back and enjoy your sweet new room. 

Taking Care Of Laminate Flooring

While laminate flooring touts the durability to withstand kids, pets, and anything your everyday life can throw on it, most laminate products come with a warranty of only ten years – if they come with one at all. That may seem like a long time, until the wear and tear begins to peel at the seams of your laminate, and you get to thinking, “Has it already been that long?”

There are a few things you can do to prolong the life of your laminate floors and get the most out of them.

  • Buying a rug, for example, can help protect your laminate from everyday traffic.
  • Furniture pads on the feet of your couch, tables, and beds can also help prevent scratches and dents. 
  • Of course, how you keep your laminate floors clean is a major part of taking good care of them. Be extra cautious of spills and water exposure, drying up any liquid messes within 30 minutes, or before it seeps past the protective wear layer. Using the right mop is especially important. Never use a steam mop on laminate floors.
  • As always, prevention is key. Consider doormat or removing your shoes at the door, to keep from tracking dirt and debris as well. 

Can I install laminate under my appliances?

Yes, you can. Laminate is durable and strong enough to withstand your range, washer/dryer, and refrigerator. 

Can I install laminate over existing floors?

That depends on the type of flooring you are trying to cover. Carpet is too plush for laminate to maintain its structure, and installing laminate over anything that soft will likely void the manufacturer’s warranty. Ceramic tile is likely not as level as it may look and feel, but if you were to try and install laminate over the top of a floor of ceramic tile, you will probably find the dips and grooves to be too much. Laminate flooring will separate when you walk on it. Linoleum, vinyl, and hardwood floors are all potentially coverable, if they are flat and smooth. 

Can laminate flooring be installed on walls?

Yes, it can be installed on vertical walls for a shiplap or horizontal look. Choose a wall that is indoors, not sloping, and safe from any humidity or moisture – so probably not in your bathroom, but your bedroom would be good. The walls should be primed or painted drywall only; remove any wallpaper or paneling prior to installing a laminate accent wall. You will want to plan on adhering the laminate to the wall, probably with silicon caulk. 
It is also worth nothing that laminate is not suitable for ceilings or soffits.