Vinyl vs. Laminate Flooring - Which Is Best For You?

Young boy walking with toy robot on laminate
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If you confuse vinyl flooring, especially vinyl plank, with laminate flooring, you might have a hard time deciding which to purchase and install. This is not your fault: manufacturers equally promote both as barely distinguishable durable, budget-friendly, do-it-yourself products.

And that is where the similarities end.

Materials, thickness, comfort level, and resistance to moisture are different. Base materials are at the core of the differences.

Begin with two simplifications:

At the Core: Vinyl and Laminate Defined

Vinyl Flooring: 100% plastic.

  • This Means: Superior resistance to moisture. You could submerge vinyl flooring in water for days, with no ill effect.
  • Features: Forget the ugly vinyl tiles of the past. Plank shapes that are long and narrow, mimicking real wood boards; "click" joinery, allowing adjoining boards to snap together; and improved embossing techniques, vinyl flooring is gaining in popularity once again.

Laminate Flooring: 99% wood product.

  • This Means:  Reasonably moisture resistant if planks remain firmly locked together. Will not be resistant to water in the event of flooding, such as dishwasher overflow.
  • Features: Laminate flooring gained its foothold on the modern home--especially kitchens--for one reason: it was the first truly wood-look flooring that homeowners could install by themselves.

When Context Is a Consideration

Winner: Vinyl flooring in bathrooms, laminate flooring everywhere else.

Details below:

Full Bathrooms: pick vinyl flooring because it matches laminate in cost, looks, and DIY-friendly installation.

But the real deciding factor is moisture. Vinyl flooring decidedly beats laminate in its performance in wet places. Even in better homes where you would not expect to find vinyl flooring, exceptions are made for bathrooms.

It is understood that in these spaces, water-shedding coverings like vinyl flooring or porcelain tile will be used.

All Other Rooms: laminate flooring provides better looks and greater comfort.

Kitchen and Powder Rooms: Kitchens and guest bathrooms (i.e., powder rooms that have no bathing facilities), you do not expect water to pool on the floor. However, some key areas, such as around the sink and dishwasher, can experience enough water to cause laminate to swell up over time.

Costs

Winner: Comparable

Vinyl flooring ranges from extremely cheap (about $0.50 for thin vinyl squares in basic patterns and styles) to moderate (about $3.00 for vinyl plank in so-called premium luxury styles).

Laminate flooring ranges from very cheap (about $0.50 for 6mm oak-look laminate) to moderately pricey (about $3.00 for long-plank 12mm oak-look boards).

Ease of Installation

Winner: Comparable

Sheet vinyl comes in large rolls and is difficult for homeowners to install because it is so unwieldy and so hard to shape around obstructions. But who installs sheet vinyl?  Instead, most homeowners are now buying and installing vinyl plank flooring--easier to install even than square tile-sized vinyl because you have fewer pieces to lay.

Laminate requires foam moisture underlayment, though this is inexpensive and can be rolled out and taped together quickly (some laminate comes with the underlayment pre-attached to the back). Laminate must be cut with a hand saw, circular saw, or table saw fitted with an ultra-fine blade or a conventional blade installed backwards.

Thickness

Winner: N/A

Ranging from 1.5 mm to 5 mm, vinyl flooring is decidedly thinner than laminate's 6 mm to 12 mm. But this is the nature of the two products. Laminate flooring will always be thicker by virtue of its pressed-board wood core.

Looks and Resale Value

Winner: Laminate flooring

Formerly anathema to a good house sale, vinyl flooring's stature has been creeping upward in recent years, especially with the introduction of luxury vinyl flooring (LVF). Still, as noted earlier, buyers may expect--or excuse--vinyl flooring in the bathroom but will cast a more critical eye on a living room floored with vinyl, even nice vinyl plank.

While not having resale value approaching solid or engineered wood flooring, laminate does have moderately good value and usually will not put off home buyers. If anything, laminate flooring has had a few years' headstart over vinyl in terms of introducing features that consumers like, such as deeper embossing, better imaging, and improved click-joinery.

Moisture Resistance

Winner: Vinyl flooring

It is impossible to beat vinyl flooring in the area of moisture resistance.

Sheet vinyl flooring is 100% impervious to moisture, even standing water, because it can have as few as zero seams. Thus, vinyl can be installed in any room of the house. Vinyl is one of the few types of flooring that you can call truly water-proof, not just water-resistant.

Laminate is only moderately water-resistant and is not recommended for bathrooms or basements that experience even the slightest moisture infiltration.

Waterproof laminate flooring, once a dream of flooring manufacturers, has become a moribund product.

Comfort

Winner: Laminate flooring

Vinyl flooring, if installed directly on a subfloor or concrete, is hard and cold.

Because laminate is thicker than vinyl and incorporates wood content, it is easier to walk on and warmer to the touch than vinyl. Introducing foam underlayment adds even more comfort to laminate.

"Green" Value

Winner: Comparable

At one time, vinyl flooring was the "bad boy," earning status as one of the least "green" flooring products. But now, flooring manufacturers now produce vinyl flooring that achieves a LEED credit EQ4.3 for Low-Emitting Material.

Laminate flooring uses wood content. Manufacturers produce laminate that qualifies for LEED MR4 (Recycled Content) status.