Hardwood floors are (practically) forever, and you want to be into a long-term relationship with floors you’re absolutely in love with. This guide demystifies each step of the hardwood floor installation process, from choosing your perfect flooring to finding a high quality installer. You’ll walk away with the confidence to navigate each step of the process like a pro.

Plan your hardwood floor installation

Start with style and budget. What’s the look you’re going for? How much can you spend, especially if this is part of a larger remodel?

(If you just need floors installed to match your home’s existing flooring, or you already know what flooring you want, go ahead and skip to the Getting an Estimate section).

Style

Figuring out your style is the fun part. Comb through catalogs, pin inspirational pictures, and dive into home design blogs (looking at you, Gainses).

There are many looks to choose from. Do you prefer a modern design? Something more traditional? Here in New England, we love our oak floors and crown moulding. Are there existing design elements you should take into account, like kitchen cabinets or countertops? Golden oak floors and cherry cabinets – maybe not so much.

hardwood floor traditional new england design
An oak hardwood floor in a traditional new england home

Are you installing the floors in a single room, or the entire home? Living areas, bedrooms, foyers, staircases and home offices are all great places to install wood floors. They hold up under traffic, provide natural insulation, and add character to your home.

A great place to start is Pinterest, since you can create boards and start pinning inspiration to them. After a week (or three), check your board(s) for commonalities. This will give you an idea of what you really like. Using pinterest boards also gives you something to show your hardwood floor installation contractor.

Budget

You’ll also need a budget (arguably the not-as-fun-part, but some of us DO love our spreadsheets). Are you looking to spend a total amount on a remodel with flooring as a percentage of the budget, or are you only redoing the existing floors? It can also be helpful to understand the impact that hardwood floor installation has on the value of your home, especially if you think you’ll sell it in the next 3-5 years. Just make sure your budget is realistic – you don’t want to compromise on flooring or installation quality and end up with squeaky floors or tiny boards. No ragrets.

Choose the perfect flooring

Once you have an idea of the style you’re going for, it’s time to think about the type of wood flooring you’ll need. This is going to depend on the look you want, your lifestyle (got kids, pets, or high traffic areas?), and environment (humidity definitely affects wood floors).

During this process, your main objective is to check out samples. Visit flooring stores or have a hardwood floor installation service bring them to your home. Ask for advice from these pros too – every climate has flooring types that work well and flooring types that don’t.

Unfinished Wood Flooring

This is the most traditional hardwood flooring choice. The planks are installed, then stained and finished afterwards. This is a great option because the finish goes down in one layer, which means you don’t get any cracks and you get that coveted gleam that’s associated with new wood floors.

Prefinished Wood Flooring

Prefinished floors are finished before installation. This opens the door for “artistic” looks, like distressed for example. They’re faster to install, which means a lower installation cost. While they’re really durable, you’re more likely to see the gaps between planks and they aren’t as easily refinished.

hardwood floor installation reclaimed wood
Prefinished wood gives you custom finish options, like the reclaimed wood look.

Engineered Wood Flooring

Engineered hardwood is made of multiple layers of plywood, fiberboard, and/or hardwood. Like prefinished wood, it’s finished offsite so installation is quicker. Engineered wood is designed to withstand humidity and is typically installed over a concrete subfloor. This makes it great for basements, bathrooms, or homes in hot climates. They don’t quite have the beauty of true hardwood though, and you may not be able to refinish them later.

Laminate

Laminate wood flooring is tough stuff, and it’s a very economical option. It’s a synthetic flooring product designed to look like wood. Laminate combines a wood floor look with super strength – these floors are pretty hard to ding. That makes them a great choice for an area with a lot of foot traffic, rooms where pets play, or a rental property. If your main priorities are durability and value, this is the flooring for you.

Luxury Vinyl Plank

Luxury vinyl plank is vinyl flooring designed to look like wood planks. This is actually our #1 recommendation for basements because it’s quite hardy and mildew resistant. If your basement floods, it likely wouldn’t need replacing because it’s waterproof. It’s quick and easy to replace individual planks so if there is damage, you won’t need to replace the entire floor.

Climate considerations

Climate is a big consideration when determining what flooring will work best in your home. Engineered wood flooring is commonly used in the South, where concrete subfloors are the norm. In New England, prefinished and unfinished hardwood flooring is most common because our homes are built with plywood subfloors.

There are also subclimates to think about. For example, we have a lot of homes near the ocean in Rhode Island (hi Newport!), where wood floors expand and contract at a higher level.

The punchline: you’ll definitely want to listen to the professional recommendations of a local hardwood floor installation contractor.

A word on cheap flooring

There’s a difference between cheap and economical. While it might be tempting to go buy your own flooring at a big box store, be cautious. The cheapest off-the-shelf flooring often has two major issues.

First, the planks are typically short. That means it takes longer to install, so your installation costs are higher, wiping out those savings.

There’s also usually a lot of waste product. Some even say right on the box “this product has up to 25% waste”, and you can’t return it. The result is that you have to buy up to 25% more flooring – again, wiping out those savings you thought you were getting.

Talk to hardwood floor installers BEFORE purchasing your flooring. They’ll know what quality wood is, and more than likely will be able to provide it for a fair price, because they buy in bulk from suppliers.

wood floor samples
There are tons of samples you can check out to see what fits your home best.

Getting a hardwood floor installation estimate

A professional installer will need to look at your floor to be able to give you a price. Prices will vary based on a number of factors, including region, so while we can’t give you a flat $X per square foot here we can share what elements go into creating an estimate. This is where hiring a solid (see what I did there?) company comes in. An inexperienced estimator is more likely to miss some of these pieces which results in unpleasant surprises, inferior work, or both.

  • Cost of material
  • Labor cost for installation
  • Prep work (removal of existing flooring, removal and replacement of baseboards, and cutting under door casings)
  • Repairs to existing flooring or subflooring, if needed
  • Any special installation needs per National Wood Flooring Association guidelines, usually for specialty flooring like very wide planks
  • Application of finish, if using unfinished wood

Preparing for the hardwood floor installation

You’re in the home stretch! It’s time to prepare the room(s) by removing the furniture and and making sure the floor area is clear. The installers will be able to come in and get right to work.

Homeowners doing a larger remodel often ask us which contractors should go first. Most of the time it’s actually the hardwood floor installation service. Flooring is the least likely to be damaged and it’s relatively easy to protect with padding and dropcloths. For example, painters should generally go last, because paint can be easily dinged with the heavier equipment other contractors use.

If you have pets or children, be sure to gate off the room during the installation and finish process.

During the hardwood floor installation

Installers will work through these steps:

  • Repair and/or leveling of the subfloor, if needed
  • Installing the underlayment (a layer of padding between the subfloor and wood floor)
  • Installing the wood flooring
  • Apply finish when unfinished wood is used

In general, you should expect 1-2 days for the floors to be installed. Allow another 48-36 hours for the application and drying time of finish (and don’t allow pets in for up to 5 days).

A final note on professional vs. DIY installation. Hiring a professional will most likely save you money in the long run. A professional installer has the experience to prevent squeaks, allow for wood acclimation to prevent gaping, and manage high or low points in the floor. There are dozens of little things that when overlooked cause major issues later on.

Caring for your floors

And now, it’s finally time to enjoy your beautiful new wood floors! We want them to stay beautiful, and damage prevention is the name of the game. Protect your floors against gouges from heels or pet nails, water damage from plants or pets, and put felt pads under furniture. Area rugs don’t just tie areas of the room together, they also protect the wood flooring.

You’ll want to refinish your floors every 10 years or so to keep them looking brand new.

Clean your wood floors with a dry mop or cleaning pad. When a bit of scrubbing is needed, use a simple water and vinegar solution, and dry them immediately. Moisture and wood floors don’t get along well, so never mop or steam them.

let floors dry before letting pets in after installing hardwood floors
Can’t I go in to check out the new hardwood floors yet?

Manage the hardwood floor installation process like a pro

That’s everything! You’re ready to choose the perfect floors for your home, hire a professional installer, and enjoy and care for your floors. This process can be quite enjoyable when you work with the right hardwood flooring installation service. Go forth and have fun!