Wood Flooring for the Basement: Which Kind to Buy

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Wood flooring in basements is not such a far-fetched idea. Many homeowners immediately discount the idea in favor of more moisture-resistant floor covering options like tile, vinyl, and concrete.

But if you still want wood, there are two ways to approach this. The safest answer: Never do this. The unconventional answer: You can do so if the conditions are right.

Why Wood Is Not the Safest Approach

Being underground, basements are dreary places. So when finishing (remodeling) their basements, homeowners often take extra-special efforts to make the space warm and comforting—more so than they might with upstairs spaces  

Brighter lighting, vivid wall colors, extra heating, and more windows all make basements feel more welcoming. Wood, too, transforms sterile basements into places that feel fit for human habitation. It's this desire for wood for comfort and familiarity that creates problems.  

Concrete is the safest basement flooring. Second to that would be ceramic or porcelain tile, sheet vinyl flooring, or plank luxury vinyl tile. Even in the event of something as catastrophic as a water heater flooding the entire basement, these floors would dry out to their original condition.  

The theme is that these are all inorganic materials. Any material that comes from a tree is organic and will be prone to rot and decay. The minerals in tile and concrete or the plastics in vinyl flooring will not rot.

Fighting Water in Basements

Basements are known as below-grade ("grade" being ground-level). That's important to remember.  Elementary physics says that if water starts at grade level, such as pouring from a downspout, it will seek to move below-grade. And that's your basement.

In basements, water can come from within, sideways, or below.

  • Within: This can mean water springing from leaky plumbing pipes, a backed-up clothes washer, or a failed water heater. Water may come from outside, via the edge of the foundation.  Even 1/8 inch of water is still enough to flood solid hardwood and ruin it.
  • Sideways: This can mean groundwater relentlessly pressing against foundation walls and forcing its way through cracks.  
  • Below: This is the more common than you may think, and this is moisture will seeping up through concrete in the form of vapor. Even if there is no visible moisture, vapor may slowly migrate upward. The classic test is to firmly tape an 8" square of clear plastic wrap to the floor on all four sides of the wrap. After waiting several days, beads of condensation will develop on the inside of the plastic if there is vaporous ground moisture.

Alternatives to Solid Hardwood

There is simply too much moisture present in basements to comfortably install solid hardwood flooring. You do have three alternatives. The first two are made from wood but considered to be more moisture-stable than solid hardwood. The third is not wood but it looks amazingly like wood.

  1. Engineered Wood Flooring: A thin veneer of real hardwood sits on top of a plywood base. This plywood is considered dimensionally stable as it holds shape better than solid hardwood in the presence of moisture.
  2. Laminate Floor - The top is not wood, but it looks like wood (it's the photographic layer). But since its base is made of pressed wood, a laminate isn't the best choice for high moisture environments. In that case, purchase moisture resistant laminate flooring.
  3. Luxury Vinyl Flooring - Yes, vinyl is inorganic, and we know that is a good thing is below-grade areas. But isn't vinyl flooring sterile? Not so anymore: manufacturers have stepped up their game and much of it ( especially the major brands) does a great job of simulating real wood flooring.​

Conditions Where You Can Install Solid Hardwood Flooring

In theory, though, if you have a dry basement that will remain dry, you can install hardwood flooring.  When all conditions are the same as are found above-grade, you would be able to do this. Potential sources of moisture have been stopped:

  • Pipes and water-related services that might leak are intact.
  • Groundwater does not pose a problem. Grade-level water moves away from the house.
  • Moisture barrier is installed on the floor.
  • Humidity kept in check with a dehumidifier.
  • A sump pump is operational.

It then becomes an issue of how confident you feel that these conditions will remain intact. What if you're away on an extended vacation and your power goes out, disabling the dehumidifier? What if the sump pump stops working? Maybe you've done a great job of grading your yard to move water away from the house—but then you get the storm of the century that overloads your best defenses?  

Artificial methods of preventing the build-up of moisture—and outright flooding—have a tendency to fail.  If you're confident about these methods, and your desire for solid hardwood in your basement is powerful enough, then do it.