6 Signs Your Hardwood Floors Need to Be Refinished

Big scratches and dents, gray floorboards and splinters are all signs that your hardwood floors need refinishing.
Roberta Pescow
By Roberta Pescow 
Edited by Claire Tsosie

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Refinishing hardwood floors can make old, worn surfaces look new again. In some cases, it's the only way to restore damaged flooring to its original glory. But sanding and refinishing floors is costly, messy and time-consuming, and you want to be sure it's the right solution before you commit.

For hardwood floors that are in fairly decent shape, you might be able to get away with a faster, less expensive option instead: screening and recoating. With this method, you buff the floors and apply a fresh coat of polyurethane, a glossy finish that protects the wood.

Frequently asked questions

Refinishing involves sanding floors to reveal fresh bare wood, staining (if desired), and finally sealing with polyurethane.

Hiring a professional to refinish hardwood floors runs anywhere from $3 to $8 per square foot, which typically translates to a final price tag of just under $1,100 to about $2,500, according to the home services website HomeAdvisor. But costs can sometimes run upward of $4,000, the site notes. This huge price range is due in part to the differences in individual home sizes and layouts: Small features such as closet interiors, alcoves or stairs increase costs, and larger open areas usually translate to lower costs per square foot.

Doing the job yourself may reduce expense to somewhere between $500 and $1,000 in tools and materials, according to HomeAdvisor. Just renting a sander costs about $50 to $80 daily, the company notes, and you may need more than a single day to finish the work.

Yes. You’ll have to remove all furniture, pry off molding and mop floors before even getting started. Then you’ll sand the room’s perimeter and inner area. To avoid seriously damaging floors, it’s important to keep the sanding machine moving at all times. The whole process creates a good deal of dust, so you’ll need a respirator mask and shop vacuum — that is, a high-powered machine designed to pick up heavy debris. Once sanding is done and dust is removed, you’ll be ready to apply stain (if desired) and then apply multiple coats of a poly sealer. Plan to wait 72 hours to a week before putting furniture back on your floors, and be aware that the fumes from the poly sealer may be overpowering enough to warrant a night or two spent elsewhere.

For screening and recoating, you use a buffing machine to abrade wood floors (to improve sealant adherence), then apply a single fresh coat of polyurethane. If your floors aren't heavily worn, this solution is a good alternative to a full refinishing. The whole process often takes less than a full day, although you’ll still have to wait at least a few days before putting furniture back.

Hiring a licensed contractor to do this job should run between $1.50 to $2.25 per square foot, according to the flooring guide website Home Flooring Pros. If you prefer to do the job yourself, your total cost per square foot should be about $0.75 to $1.50, the site notes.

So how do you know if your hardwood really needs a total refinishing or just a quick screen and recoat? Examine your floors carefully, and if you notice any of these six signs, only a complete refinishing will properly restore your floors.

1. Major scratches and dents

It’s nearly impossible to avoid getting some minor dings and scratches in hardwood floors, especially with kids or pets. But when the damage becomes widespread and penetrates the poly coating into the wood itself, only a powerful sanding goes deep enough to reveal an undamaged surface. This isn’t just a cosmetic issue; once scratches enter the wood, your floors become vulnerable to water damage.

2. Cupping

When floorboards bend downward from their edges in a concave shape, it’s called cupping. Not only does cupping look unattractive, it’s evidence of water damage. This type of damage doesn’t only come from spills and drips; humidity can also be a culprit. Sanding will successfully resolve mild cupping, but if any floorboards are sticking up or separating, you’ll need to replace those individual boards.

3. Splinters

If walking on your hardwood floors without shoes means risking painful splinters, this indicates that your sealant has worn away and the wood underneath is damaged. Sanding is the only way to get under that damage to restore smoothness and safety — and a fresh layer of sealant should protect this new surface for many years.

4. Gray floorboards

Often mistaken for a charming patina that adds character to older homes, floorboards that have turned gray indicate water damage. After refinishing, those once-gray floorboards should look brand new, but be aware that any boards that have turned black are beyond help and must be replaced.

5. Water stains

Stained floorboards are a sure sign of water damage. While most water stains can be prevented by simply wiping up spills quickly, unaddressed plumbing leaks, air conditioner drips and pet accidents inevitably stain hardwood over time. Once these telltale stains appear, refinishing is required to reveal and protect the clean wood beneath them.

6. Fading and discoloration

A sunny room feels amazing, but over time too much sun can fade and discolor hardwood floors. If you’ve noticed fading or color changes on the floor near glass doors and windows, refinishing will restore a uniform hue.

What's next?

If your hardwood floors need refinishing, there are two basic ways you can get the job done: Hire professionals or do it yourself.

A DIY approach could be a good solution if you are physically up to the task, have enough time to learn about refinishing techniques — for example, by watching video tutorials — and feel confident that you have the right skills, tools and materials to do a decent job. If you're short on time, aren't physically able to do the job or want to avoid newbie mistakes that could leave the floor looking less than perfect, finding a skilled handyman or licensed contractor to do the work is well worth the added cost.

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