Laminate vs Hardwood Flooring: How Do They Compare?

Installing Laminate Flooring in Kitchen
Installing Laminate Flooring in Kitchen. Getty / Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

At first it would seem that solid hardwood--as long as you can afford it--is a better flooring choice than laminate flooring.  During the early, formative years of laminate, that was very much an easy decision.

Laminate was the inferior wood-look flooring that you sheepishly bought when you were not able to afford real hardwood.  When your design-conscious cousin visited, you would make feeble excuses for your Pergo-floored kitchen.

 Besides looking nothing like wood, laminate flooring developed waves across the surface, and boards forced too tightly against each other could form peaks.  

But now, with laminate looking better and performing ever better, the decision gap has narrowed.  Laminate, in fact, outperforms hardwood in many categories.  With the differences blurred, no longer are the two floor coverings like night and day.

 Laminate FlooringSolid Hardwood Flooring
MaterialsLaminate is thin fiberboard topped with an image of wood or stone, itself topped with a transparent wear layer.Solid hardwood is 100% wood (unlike engineered wood, which has a plywood base).  
Do It Yourself InstallationVery easy. Most types of laminate flooring snap together--no glue.  No special tools are needed.Difficult for non-professionals to install.  Rental of special tools such as a floor stapler is required.  Even then, staplers do have a significant learning curve.
CostDecent quality laminate can be purchased for about $3.00 per square foot and up.  Thinner laminate can be had for less money but at the cost of poorer appearance.Always more expensive than laminate, low-end oak, maple, and ash solid hardwood goes for $3.00 to $5.00 / sq. ft.  Wider format plank flooring of the same species and narrower flooring of exotic species go for $5.00 / sq. ft., with prices steeply escalating after that.
DurabilityExpect 10 years of use, maximum.  Hazards that lessen the life span of laminate:  water infiltration, scratches from chair legs, and even UV rays.Hardwood flooring will last a lifetime and more.  Unusual circumstances, though, like flooding can render a hardwood floor worthless if rescue attempts come too late.  UV rays will discolor solid hardwood stains and coats.
Refinishing and SandingLaminate flooring cannot be refinished or sanded.  When it is ruined, replacement is the only cure.Solid hardwood can be sanded and refinished multiple times.  Pre-finished hardwood, due to the sheer toughness of the factory-applied urethane finish, can be very difficult to refinish the first time.
Resale ValueSome premium laminate flooring has moderate resale value.  Many flooring warranties are transferable from owner to owner.Well-maintained hardwood floor has better resale value than laminate.  Less desirable hardwoods like red oak may actually have lower resale value than premium laminates.
AppearanceFrom a distance, quality laminate flooring can look much like real wood.  Higher quality laminates have a lower frequency of pattern repetition, too.Solid hardwood floor is highly attractive.  Even cheaper species of real hardwood (red or white oak) can be more attractive than laminate's artificial "premium" exotic species.
Below-Grade InstallationWhile laminate flooring can be installed below-grade, it is still not the best flooring for basements.It is not recommended to install solid hardwood flooring below-grade
Moist EnvironmentSimilar to the question above, laminate behaves moderately well in semi-moist areas such as lightly used bathrooms and kitchens.Never install solid hardwood in a moist environment.  Solid hardwood can be used in kitchens.  Site-finished hardwood vs. pre-finished works better as the sealant fills gaps between the floorboards, preventing moisture from infiltrating.
Floating FloorLaminate is always installed as a floating floor.Solid hardwood flooring is never installed on a floating floor basis.  However, some engineered wood floors will install in this fashion.
UnderlaymentInstall with a foam underlayment.  This is a debatable point, though.Install with red rosin paper under the wood.  Do not use foam underlayment.
Install Over Radiant HeatingYes.  Unless expressly not allowed, most laminates can have radiant heating under them.Not recommended.  However, solid hardwood's natural insulating properties lessen the need for radiant heating.
PetsLaminate is an excellent floor to install in a house with pets.  Its wear layer performs well against dog claws.Wood tends to gouge.  Purchasing more expensive and harder hardwoods and laying down mats can help mitigate this problem.
Impact ResistanceModerately well.  If an object is heavy enough and hits laminate with sufficient force, the floor will be gouged all the way down to the fiberboard base.Excellent.  Solid hardwood can tolerate the most brutal impacts.  Species selection can greatly influence this, though.  Extremely hard tropical woods are virtually dent-proof.
Unusual Things To ExpectLaminate flooring can build up static, a phenonenom that can be cured with regular cleaning.Wood may contract--or shrink--leaving gaps between boards.  This may happen over long periods of time, even when the wood is not subjected to extreme moisture.
Buy It If:You want your floor to be simple to install, cheap, and easy to maintain.You are aiming to put maximum value into your house, not just for yourself but for future owners.