Laminate flooring emerged on the residential flooring scene decades ago as an easy-to-install, attractive, and durable alternative to solid hardwood flooring. Its technology has advanced with sharper high-definition imaging, deeper embossing, better seaming mechanisms, and a host of other innovations.
Yet no floor covering is perfect in all ways, and there are many similar products. Luxury vinyl flooring and engineered wood flooring are close matches with laminate flooring. So, in all of the major categories related to flooring—installation, cleaning, durability, and more—laminate flooring possesses both pros and cons that may influence your decision.
What Laminate Flooring Is
Laminate flooring is a multi-layered floor covering with a top image layer that reproduces the look of wood or stone. Laminate flooring is installed on top of a subfloor, with an intervening underlayment that is either applied separately or is attached to the bottom of the floor boards. The layers of laminate flooring from top to bottom:
- Wear layer: A tough, transparent layer that allows the image below to show through.
- Design or image layer: A high-resolution image of the texture that the floor is simulating, such as wood or stone.
- Core layer: The core layer is thickest section of laminate and is a durable, high-density pressed board.
- Underlayment: Where applicable, a thin, waterproof, and soft layer of underlayment is fused to the bottom of the board.
Laminate flooring manufacturers have introduced improvements like micro bevels, deeper texturing, and better graphics reproduction to more closely align laminate flooring to engineered wood flooring or luxury vinyl flooring.
Still, laminate flooring remains a budget flooring material in performance, appearance, and reputation. Because product quality differs greatly, life expectancy can also vary. Some laminate floors can last as much as 25 years or more in rooms that see light use, while others installed in heavy-traffic areas may need replacement in as little as 10 years.
Easy DIY installation
Good stain resistance
Susceptible to moisture
Hard and noisy underfoot
Some chemicals present
Laminate Flooring Cost
Average material costs for plastic laminate flooring range from $1 to $3 per square foot at big-box home centers, but you can spend as much as $10 or $12 per square foot for designer products. Many very good laminates can be found in the affordable $2 to $3 range.
The differences in pricing are influenced by the thickness of the wear layer and the quality of the print layer. Considering how inexpensive it is, it's a good idea to invest in the best laminate flooring you can afford.
Because laminate is easy to install, professional installation is not always needed. Nationally, the average price for a laminate flooring installation—materials plus labor—is only about $5 per square foot. This makes laminate flooring one of the least expensive of all flooring materials—comparable to a mid-level carpet. Hardwood flooring, by contrast, can easily cost $15 to $20 per square foot to install.
Maintenance and Repair
Laminate floors are easy to clean with a bare-floor vacuum, dry mop, or a soft broom. For stains, mop with a slightly damp mop, or better yet, use laminate floor cleaner. No floor waxing is ever necessary for laminate floors.
Avoid excessive water when mopping, which can seep into the seams between boards, causing swelling. Laminate flooring will not tolerate standing pools of water, which often appear in bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. For areas with heavy moisture, you need an impervious surface, such as vinyl or porcelain tile.
Laminate flooring has a wear layer that protects the photographic layer underneath and makes it somewhat resistant to scratches and dents, and very resistant to stains. Some manufacturers even issue long warranties on the wear layer itself. If you do get a stain, it is usually easy to clean off.
The inability to sand and refinish is a disadvantage of laminate flooring. If laminate flooring is heavily worn, deep scratched, or grooved, it cannot be sanded or refinished like solid hardwood—it must be replaced.
Laminate flooring can faithfully reproduce the look of wood, stone, and other natural materials—at least at a distance. Unlike real hardwood, which comes with many imperfect pieces that need to be discarded or trimmed, there are no defects in laminate flooring. Every board is of consistent quality and appearance. Deep embossing adds to the illusion of wood grain, as well.
However, laminate flooring's similarity to real wood or stone disappears when you look closely at the planks. Laminate flooring is by no means identical in appearance to real wood, partly because of pattern repetition.
For most brands, five to 10 differently patterned boards are manufactured, while less expensive products may only have three different board patterns. If the installation is not done strategically, you can end up with identical boards next to one another.
Laminate flooring is not a material that will add long-term real estate value to your home, although it can be a good way to quickly and inexpensively renovate a shabby floor. If you want to get top sale value for your home, hardwood and engineered wood flooring give you better value.
Laminate Flooring Installation
Laminate is very quick and easy to install. Even do-it-yourselfers with limited flooring skills can install laminate flooring in a small room in a day or two.
Older types of laminate flooring required you to glue pieces to each other. But virtually all of today's laminate flooring employ a modified tongue-and-groove system best described as click-and-lock or fold-lock, in which the planks are joined in interlocking fashion, edge-to-edge and end-to-end. Since the planks are constructed with a particleboard core, it's easy to cut them to fit with miter saws.
Laminate flooring is typically installed as a floating floor—the planks are interlocking at the edges, forming a solid mat that simply lies on the underlayment, without any glue-down required. Installation is a simple matter of laying a foam underlayment, then joining rows of planks edge-to-edge across the floor.
Click Play to Learn How to Install Laminate Flooring
Top Brands of Laminate Flooring
While there are dozens of laminate floor brands, the best products come from a relatively small number of manufacturers:
- Pergo is the company that originated plastic laminate flooring, and it continues to be one of the biggest manufacturers. It is now owned by Mohawk, but continues to manufacture independently. Widely available at big-box home improvement stores, most Pergo floorings costs between $2 and $3 per square foot.
- Bruce is now owned by Armstrong. Its laminate flooring is sold mainly through online flooring centers, where it sells for around $3 per square foot.
- Shaw Industries, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, offers a wide range of product lines, from bargain $2 per square foot laminates to high-end products costing $10 per square foot or more. It is sold mostly as specialty flooring stores, but you may be able to find online suppliers that offer the products at a considerable discount.
- Quick-Step, like other floor-covering giants, sells laminate, hardwood and luxury vinyl flooring. It offers very solid, affordable products selling for under $3 per square foot.
Comfort and Convenience
While laminate flooring can feel hard underfoot, most installations include a resilient foam underlayment that gives the flooring a slightly springy feeling. The underlayment also eliminates the hollow sound and feel that sometimes occurs with laminate flooring.
Traditionally, laminate flooring has been very slippery. More recently, though, laminate flooring manufacturers have been developing textured, slip-resistant wear layers. Also, laminate flooring tends to create static electricity, though this problem can be reduced by keeping the floor clean.
Laminate flooring is a good choice for allergy sufferers, as the product does not trap dust and allergens. A hard surface is not going to harbor allergens in the same way that soft carpeting will. That being said, a small number of chemical-sensitive individuals may have reactions to the resins and glues used in the flooring.
Laminate Flooring vs. Luxury Vinyl Flooring
Laminate flooring can be a good flooring material for quickly upgrading a floor if you're not worried about long-term real estate value and aren't obsessed with a luxurious look. And it is a very good choice if you want to do the work yourself—this is one of the easiest flooring materials for DIYers. But you might also want to consider luxury vinyl flooring (LVF), which is sometimes marketed as vinyl plank flooring.
Luxury vinyl has many of the advantages of laminate flooring, including easy installation and good performance, but it also has excellent water-resistant qualities. Unlike laminate flooring, which has a particleboard core that is easily damaged by water seeping through the seams, luxury vinyl flooring is made of waterproof materials all through its thickness, making it virtually impervious to water damage. And because it is a resilient material, it is quieter and softer underfoot than laminate flooring.
Luxury vinyl is now available in nearly as many styles and colors as laminate—including convincing reproductions of wood grains and natural stone. Luxury vinyl is slightly more expensive than laminate at $2 to $7 per square foot, but its many virtues make it a viable choice if you are looking for a slightly better quality floor.
Is Laminate Flooring Right for You?
Laminate flooring may be exactly the right choice for you if you are on a budget and want to save even more money by installing the flooring yourself. Few flooring materials are more economical or easier to install than laminate flooring.
While laminate flooring is perfectly functional and attractive, it does not carry the prestige and added real estate value found with real hardwood or stone tile flooring.
Is laminate flooring plastic?
No, laminate flooring is not plastic flooring. While the thin wear layer and the optional underlayment may be synthetic, most of the materials used in laminate flooring are wood.
What is the downside of laminate flooring?
While laminate flooring has many strong points, its most significant downside is its poor resistence to water. Laminate flooring can tolerate some water on top surface but it should not be allowed to pool and remain for long. Otherwise, the water may seep below and affect the sensitive core layer.
Carpets and Healthy Homes. National Center for Healthy Housing.