How to Install Wood Flooring for Cheap

You. You have a dream of turning a basement, garage, or some other unloved room into a decent place to hang out. That wasted space could be a study, or a spare bedroom or a sweet home theater! The first step is fixing up the floor—that raw concrete slab, those panels of bare plywood, or the ratty wood speckled with glue from old carpet.

You want it to look nicer. But you're also cheap. You have heard that installing a laminate wood floating floor can be an affordable, easy DIY project. This is true, but DIYers are prone to a few common errors with this job. Here's how to not screw it up.

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Laminate flooring is just about as cheap as flooring can get. Even Ikea sells a nail-free click-together version for just over a buck a square foot. Laminate flooring is basically a digital photo of wood grain printed on each board's face. The next step up is veneer, which has a slim layer of real wood on the top. Forget about that, and forget solid floors, and forget cork floors or resin/rubber or modular carpet tiles. Let's go cheeeeap.

Floating floor planks fit together like puzzle pieces. They are almost certainly the fastest, easiest flooring option there is. There are dozens of step-by-step how-to's out there on the internet (we really like this one from This Old House). But we've seen folks go astray even with good instructions, so let's take a few minutes to talk about avoiding some of the most common pitfalls.

Give It a Nice Bed

Problem: Laminate flooring may be cheap, and that may lead some people to think they can just throw it down all willy-nilly. But laminate flooring isn't all that forgiving. People have been known to throw it down on uneven surfaces, directly onto cement, or even on top of thick wall-to-wall carpeting. Oy.

Solution: We spoke to expert Bay Area contractor Max Livingstone, who has spent more than a little time with floating floors. He says getting the correct underlayment is probably the most important step. "You're going to want to put down a layer of 1/4-inch plywood. Not only will this give you a nice, smooth surface to work with, but it will help with insulation (heat, noise, and shock). You're also going to need a moisture barrier." Without a moisture barrier (sometimes called a vapor barrier), especially if you're on a cement slab, you're far more likely to get warping from water absorption.

Livingstone added, "Really check the grading of the surface. Any unevenness will cause weak spots. If you're working on concrete and there are dips, get some self-leveling cement." As far as putting this stuff on top of wall-to-wall carpeting, he said, "you should only attempt to do that if it's a hard, low-pile, industrial grade carpet. If it's even remotely comfortable to sit on, it's probably too soft. You're almost always better off tearing it out."

Mind The Gap

Problem: One of the most common mistakes that people make is measuring the planks correctly, but failing to to leave a gap between the flooring and the wall. People cut their wood exactly to the walls and pat themselves on the back for getting such a nice, tight fit. One of two tragedies then happens. A) They try to squeeze that final course in and it won't fit, or B) it fits but with time the wood expands, and because it's already tight at the walls the floor pops up at various places.

Solution: Measure your floor to the walls, then before you cut, factor in a 5/16-inch gap on each side. There's a reason it's called a floating floor—you're making a little island in the middle of the room. The gaps will allow for the flooring to expand and/or shift slightly, but still stay tightly locked together. The gap at the walls will be covered by shoe molding, and you'll never see it.

Nail It To The Wall

Problem: You've got your floor laid and your 5/16-inch gaps looks good. You get out the shoe molding, put it up flush with the walls, and then nail the molding to the flooring. That's a mistake. As the planks start to expand, they press outward, and that pressure will bend, warp, and probably pop the molding right out of the floor. Oops.

Solution: Nail your shoe molding to the walls, not the flooring. You want it touching the new floor, but not pressing down on it hard. This will allow the flooring to expand and move underneath it, while the shoe stays in place, tight on your wall, like it should be.

This Looks Stupid

Problem: You've got your underlayment down, all of your planks are cut to the exact same length, and they're laid out where you plan to put them down. So why does it look terrible and fake? All those straight lines. All that evenness. It's... it's awful.

Solution: To get things looking more natural, Livingstone says, "Randomize the length your first piece, within a range. They're usually in 3 or 4 foot strips. I wouldn't go below a quarter of a board length, because anything too short will look bad. Vary the length of your first piece, but before you cut make sure you won't be left with a little 5-inch piece at the end. That would look like crap."

Other Pro Tips

Livingstone had a handful of other tips for us:

  • He strongly recommends ripping out the existing shoe molding before doing the job.
  • Don't forget about the doorways or other features with trim that extends to the floor. Take these into account when buying the flooring. Most of the commercially available laminate flooring will have specially cut pieces for doors, and it'll match the rest of your floor. Definitely worth it.
  • Use a rubber mallet to adjust the boards' positions. It's the perfect tool for getting everything to lock together tightly, and its soft face is unlikely to damage your new floors.
  • Some laminate styles are made especially to lie directly on top of concrete. These are generally more expensive. They work, but a traditional plywood underlayment can do the trick as well.
  • Big thanks to Max Livingstone for all the advice on this one. If you're in the Bay Area and need a good contractor, look him up.

    Image credit: Shutterstock/Nagy-Bagoly Arpad