How much does hardwood flooring really cost?

The cost of installing hardwood flooring in your home or workspace can vary widely depending on a host of factors that range from the type of wood you choose to the kind of floor you already have.  Hardwood flooring is most often less expensive, all told, than tile or stone but will generally be more expensive than laminate or carpet.  In our 2015 survey of designers from across the U.S., 64% indicated that, when a remodel calls for a flooring change, about 30% of the budget is allotted for that purpose.  Below, we explain some of the factors that you can play with to find a hardwood that fits your home and your budget.

Species

One of the biggest factors affecting the cost of your flooring will be the species of wood you choose.  In general, domestic woods are less expensive than exotics, mostly because they do not need to be transported overseas, but also because they are often harvested more sustainably and are therefore more abundant.  Hickory, Birch, and Red Oak, for example, can start as low as $2-3 per square foot, while exotics like Zebrawood and Wenge can run closer to $14 per square foot and up.  Of course, it is sometimes possible to find a favored species at a discount, and many distributors, including MacDonald Hardwoods, will often have a few styles on sale.  It’s always good to shop around once you find the species you want, but make sure when you’re comparing prices that all other things, including warranties, installation costs, etc. are equal.

 

Cut

  • Board width

Hardwood flooring comes in strips, usually around 2-3 inches wide, or planks, anywhere from 3 inches to a full foot wide.  Partly because they are more common, but especially because there is less waste in the manufacturing process, the narrower strip boards will almost always be less expensive.   The widest planks, which often have to be custom cut, will be the most expensive choice.  The difference can be anywhere from $1 to $4 or $5 and more per square foot, depending on the kind of wood you are looking for and how easy it is to find it in the wider cuts.

  • Length

Hardwood strips and planks also come in a variety of lengths.  Most often, solid flooring comes in boxes of random-length planks ranging from 1 to 7 feet long.  If you want planks that are all the same length, it will generally cost more, and longer boards (8-12 feet) tend to be especially pricey.  Engineered hardwood, on the other hand, is routinely sold in uniform lengths.  However, it can be very difficult (and therefore expensive) to get custom boards longer than 6 feet.

  • Plain, Rift, or Quarter sawn

As explained in our post about how a log becomes a floor, logs for lumber, including that floors, are generally cut in one of three ways: Plain, Rift, or Quarter.  Of these, plain sawn is the easiest to produce and results in the least waste, so it is significantly less expensive.  A mix of rift and quarter sawn wood will usually add at least $3-5 per square foot to the cost of your wood, depending, again, on availability.  The clean look and added stability of the straight grain yielded by the more expensive cuts, nevertheless, frequently prompt hardwood floor purchases to choose this option.

Solid vs.  Engineered

The decision whether to lay solid or engineered hardwood most often depends on factors like what kind of subfloor you are working with, the climate you live in, how often you expect to refinish, etc.  However, if your circumstances do not clearly dictate one choice over the other, you may consider cost as a factor in choosing.  In general, all other things being equal, engineered hardwood will be a little more expensive at initial purchase than solid wood.  The exception you may find will be in the rarer species of wood like Tigerwood and other less abundant exotics.  Because engineered flooring requires so much less of the premier wood, it tends to be notably less costly than solid boards when it comes to pricier species.

Installation

In considering the cost of solid vs. engineered hardwood especially, it is also important to consider the cost of installation. Generally speaking, engineered hardwood is generally less difficult to install than solid wood because it can be glued down rather than having to be painstakingly nailed.  This makes self-installation much more practical for engineered wood, which can save as little as $2 and as much as $12 per square foot, depending on the deal you get.  For the same reason, engineered wood is often somewhat less expensive to have installed professionally.  Depending on the condition of your subfloors, your schedule, and your body, DIY installation of solid or engineered hardwood is certainly a reasonable possibility and is one way to save a bundle on the cost of your flooring.

  • Note: If your subfloor is not in good condition or is not suitable for hardwood, you will need to consider the cost of repairing or replacing it when determining your flooring budget.  Remember, laying your floors on a less-than-suitable subfloor will be much more costly in the end.  Here in Colorado, most folks have wood subfloors, either planks, plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), laid over wooden floor joists.  Before installing a new floor of any kind, you will want to check to make sure that your subfloor is nailed in securely, is free of mold or insect damage, and is thick enough to support your new flooring.  Certain subfloors will require you to lay solid and engineered hardwood differently and may affect the type of flooring you can use.  Hardwood Floors magazine offers some great in-depth advice on laying hardwood over all types of subfloors.

Grade

Every type of lumber comes in different grades that indicate certain qualities of the floor.  For hardwood flooring, you will need to choose between Clear, Select, #1 Common, and #2 Common.  In general, Clear grade, which comes mostly from the heartwood, will be the most expensive primarily because there is simply less of it in each tree.  Select will be a slightly less expensive choice, with 1 and2 Common coming out at the bottom of the cost scale.  However, do not assume that the higher cost of certain grades necessarily makes them more desirable.  The main difference between grades is the amount of color variation and the number of character traits like knots, open checks, and worm holes, you will see.  Many people prefer these traits, especially for floors that will need to hid dents and scratches.  You can take a look at samples of different grades of Oak at the National Wood Flooring Association website.

Prefinished or finished onsite

Prefinished flooring is becoming more and more common a choice among homeowners.  Though it will tend to cost about $2-3 more per square foot, installation time (and cost) is significantly reduced because you don’t have to wait for several layers of finish to dry before you can move in.  This also keeps fumes and VOCs out of your home.  Plus, the polyurethane finishes available for factory-finished flooring are notably tougher than any that can be applied onsite.  Of course, there are those that still prefer an onsite finish, perhaps because they wish to avoid the slight beveling at the edges of prefinished planks that keeps a floor from being perfectly smooth, or because the particular finish they want simply isn’t available in a factory finish.

Leaving finishing for the end of a renovation is also easier for contractors (and DIYers) because they don’t have to worry as much about damage caused by dropped tools, work boots, etc.  For this reason they may make it worth your while go with unfinished flooring.  But be aware, even if you are performing the installation yourself, onsite finishing will probably not result in significant savings once all the necessary supplies are obtained, and it may still cost you more than prefinished.  If you are working with a smaller budget, you’ll definitely want to do the math on this, factoring in such things and sanding equipment, time off from work, time in a hotel while you wait for the finish to dry, and the cost of the finish itself.

Wire brushed/ Hand-scraped

Distressed wood has become very popular in recent years and is widely available in many species.  Though some purists may insist on having their floors installed and then hand-scraped onsite, this is a very expensive choice and is not really necessary.  If you are on a budget but want the character (and scratch-hiding capacity) of a hand-scraped floor, you can order pre-finished distressed flooring.  It will usually be a little more expensive than regular prefinished but far less than on-site scraping.  This is because the scraping or wire-brushing is generally done by a machine, significantly reducing the cost of production.  It is also possible to order boards that have been prefinished and scraped by hand, but these are, again, significantly more costly, though not quite as much as having it done post-installation.

Volume

Another factor to consider is volume.  Almost all manufacturers reduce the price per square foot at intervals as you purchase more.  Consequently, if you are planning to re-floor your whole house, it may prove more cost-effective to do it all at once if you are able.  Also, talk to your contractor.  If they are ordering a certain type of wood for another job, consider whether that wood would suit your home.  The larger order could reduce the cost of the flooring by as much as $1 per square foot or more.

So, in general, a traditional domestic wood floor—2 ¼” strips, plain sawn—with a simple polyurethane factory finish will be your best bet on a tight budget, running you as little as $5 per square foot.  On the other hand, if a luxury look is what you’re going for, you can pay upwards of $25 per square foot for a rare, exotic wood in long, wide, planks finished and hand-scraped onsite.