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You've got the walls painted the perfect shade and the lighting is to your liking. Now you need the right floor to tie the room together. If you want a new hardwood floor, tread prudently: You have a forest of options at a wide range of prices.
It costs an average of $2,400 to $4,000 to buy and install 200 square feet of hardwood floor, according to a Fixr.com national survey. That's a wide range of $12 to $20 a square foot. How much you spend depends on:
The species of wood.
The grade and cut, which describe qualities such as color variation, whether knots are visible and the direction of the grain.
Whether the wood is solid or engineered (multiple layers of wood veneers).
The amount of preparation and cleanup work the contractor must do.
Here are tips for shopping for hardwood floors, comparing offers from contractors and controlling the costs of materials and labor.
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How much does it cost to install hardwood floors?
When a hardwood floor contractor prepares an estimate, the costs are usually divided between materials and labor. There might be another section of the estimate that itemizes other costs.
Material costs: This is where you find the most variation. "That's the one place where the customer can add or subtract from the bottom line," says Brett Miller, vice president of education and certification for the National Wood Flooring Association.
“Materials are where the customer can add to or subtract from the bottom line.”
The cost of flooring is calculated by the square foot. The contractor usually adds between 5% and 12% to the square footage as a "cut allowance" or "waste factor" to account for scraps that will be left over. For example, a 100-square-foot room might require the purchase of 105 to 112 square feet of flooring because the planks will have to be cut to size. The leftover material is the cut allowance.
Less-expensive species of solid hardwood, such as oak and American cherry, cost $5 to $10 a square foot, according to HomeAdvisor, a referral service for home improvement professionals. Pricier species, such as Brazilian walnut and mahogany, cost $8 to $14 a square foot.
Engineered wood varies widely in price, depending on the thickness of the top veneer and how many layers of plywood are under it. Low-end engineered hardwood runs $3 to $5 a square foot, midrange costs $5 to $10 a square foot, and high-end costs $8 to $13 a square foot, according to HomeAdvisor.
Baseboards are charged by the foot, and the contractor will charge for vapor barriers and fasteners such as nails, staples or glue.
Labor costs: Contractors customarily charge labor by the square foot, just as they charge for the flooring. Expect to pay $4 to $8 a square foot for labor to install a solid hardwood floor and $3 to $10 a square foot to install engineered wood, according to HomeAdvisor. Labor costs are higher for floors with vents and irregular shapes.
Other costs: Some costs might be unknown until the contractor starts the work. "There's a lot of things, sight unseen, that they're giving an estimate for," Miller says. So an estimate typically includes a disclaimer saying there could be additional costs "once we tear out your carpet or remove the baseboards or do a little bit more investigation."
“Labor costs are higher for floors with vents and irregular shapes.”
This is particularly the case with the subfloor — the surface under the flooring — which might not be flat enough or might be hiding moisture, the source of which has to be dealt with.
Miscellaneous costs also include fees for removing and disposing of the old flooring, if that needs to be done.
Hardwood floors' return on investment: Homeowners who install hardwood floors get most of their money back if they sell the home within a year. Sellers recover 91% of the project’s cost, according to the 2017 Remodeling Impact Report jointly issued by the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.
According to the report, the main reason for installing hardwood was to upgrade a worn-out floor. The next most popular reason was to modernize the home.
How do you compare estimates?
You don't compare the prices of apples to tomatoes at the supermarket. Similarly, you don't want to compare maple with hickory when getting estimates for hardwood flooring.
Because wood floors come in so many species, grades and widths, along with solid and engineered variations, it's important to make sure that you get competing estimates for similar materials. That way you're comparing the prices of apples to apples (or maple to maple).
On the labor side of the estimate, Miller suggests paying attention to the level of specificity described in the preparation and cleaning. He cites a hypothetical example of two contractors: one who "goes into a little bit more detail about the job site preparation and the environmental conditions surrounding that floor and the moisture tests that are required," and one who doesn't. Miller might favor the contractor who shares details; you might ask the less-specific contractor for more information.
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How to hold down hardwood flooring costs
There are many choices available for the types of wood flooring you buy and the labor involved. Being aware of the differences within each category allows you to select less-expensive options that work for you.
1. Refinish instead of replace
You may be able to refinish a worn-looking hardwood floor. This least-expensive option works best if you know you'll like the look of your current floor after it has been sanded and a fresh coat or two of finish has been applied. Solid hardwood can be refinished multiple times; engineered wood can be refinished fewer times.
2. Shop species
Most homeowners start shopping with appearance in mind: What color and shade would look best? Lovers of light-colored floors (think of most basketball courts) might prefer woods such as ash or maple. Fans of medium-shade floors might favor hickory or oak. Aficionados of dark-colored floors (think of the paneling in men's clubs in old movies) might choose mahogany or walnut. Each species will have its own price range, with oak and hickory often at the lower end and mahogany at the higher end.
3. Consider grain
The appearance of the wood's grain, which comes from the way the wood is cut at the sawmill, affects price. Do you want the grain to run across the board, in wavelike patterns? That is a "plain-sawn" cut and is the least expensive.
Do you want the grain to run in lines down the length of the boards? Then you want a "quarter-sawn" or "rift-sawn" cut, which are more expensive than plain-sawn.
4. Choose the grade
Wood floors are graded by their physical characteristics. Planks are graded "clear" if they have uniform color and lack knots and wormholes. A "select" grade goes to the natural look: wood with color variations, knots and mineral streaks. A "No. 1 common" grade has even more color variations and knots, and may even have wormholes. "No. 2 common" is a more rustic version of No. 1 common.
“Wood floors are graded by their physical characteristics.”
Generally speaking, wood graded clear is more expensive per square foot than select, and select is more expensive than common grades. You may find exceptions, especially during sales.
5. Choose solid or engineered
Once you've chosen the look you want, it's time to decide between solid wood and engineered hardwood. Solid wood is what it sounds like — the board or plank is cut straight from the tree. Engineered wood consists of a veneer of hardwood atop several layers of plywood, and is resistant to moisture damage. If you insist on a hardwood floor below ground, such as in a basement, it will have to be engineered.
There are varying qualities of solid wood and engineered wood, and it's impossible to make a blanket statement that one type costs more than the other.
6. Remove and dispose of the old flooring
The contractor will charge you to rip out the old flooring and dispose of it properly. So if you can do this part of the project yourself, you can save money.
7. Install the floor yourself
For most homeowners, installing hardwood floors is not a do-it-yourself project. Laying a wood floor requires expertise beyond just nailing or gluing boards onto a subfloor.
For one thing, an installer has to know whether nailing or gluing (or floating) is the proper method for that particular floor. In addition, an installer has to understand how to make allowances for variations in temperature and humidity, know whether to use a vapor barrier and which type, figure out how to accommodate features such as fireplaces and closets, and be willing to tackle other issues.
However, YouTube is filled with tutorials for installing hardwood floors, and home improvement stores sometimes offer lessons. If you have strong do-it-yourself skills, lots of patience, ample tools and the humility to smile through mistakes, you can try installing the floor yourself.