Vinyl vs. Laminate Flooring: What to Know Before You Buy

Chart comparing vinyl to laminate flooring
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2018

When you want a durable, economical, attractive floor covering for your home that you can install by yourself, you may find yourself gravitating toward vinyl flooring or laminate flooring. Both floors hit those key points and more. But between the two, which flooring is a better choice for your home?

If you find yourself confused, it's excusable. From a distance, they look alike. Both are economical. Both are synthetic. Not only that, flooring manufacturers tend to promote both products similarly.

For years, laminate flooring was considered the better of the two: thick, easy to install, rigid, and with realistic graphics and embossing. Then luxury vinyl flooring (LVF) entered the market and challenged laminate flooring with comparable graphics and embossing. When thicker luxury vinyl flooring with pre-attached underlayment came long, even more differences between laminate flooring and vinyl flooring collapsed.

What should you know about the two floors before purchasing?

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Vinyl vs. Laminate Flooring Installation Areas

The ability to stand up against moisture is the chief difference between vinyl flooring and laminate flooring. Moisture resistance, then, dictates areas where laminate flooring may or may not be installed. Vinyl flooring may be installed anywhere within the home.

Recommended Installation Areas
  Laminate Floor Vinyl Floor
Bathroom, Full or Partial No Yes
Powder Room Maybe Yes
Kitchen Maybe Yes
Dining Room Yes Yes
Living Room Yes Yes
Bedroom Yes Yes
Home Office Yes Yes
Mudroom No Yes

Moisture

Vinyl Flooring

All types of vinyl flooring are waterproof, not just water-resistant. Sheet vinyl, vinyl tile, and luxury vinyl flooring are usually made with materials that are 100-percent waterproof. In full bathrooms and damp locations such as basements, vinyl flooring materials excel over laminate materials.

Older forms of vinyl flooring may have a fabric or felt backing that is not waterproof. But newer iterations of vinyl flooring are made of 100-percent polymer materials. Luxury vinyl flooring can be fully immersed in water for long periods, dried out, then reused, completely unaffected.

For truly wet locations, water-shedding flooring such as vinyl or ceramic tile is the best option. Sheet vinyl that comes in 12-foot wide rolls often requires no seaming, making it an excellent choice for a waterproof floor.

Laminate Flooring

Virtually all laminate flooring uses a fiberboard core. Because this core is a wood product, it will soften and swell if it is exposed to water. The fiberboard core will not resume its original dimensions after it has dried. Additionally, the wear and design layers sometimes peel away after the core has become waterlogged. Severely water-damaged laminate flooring usually needs to be replaced; it cannot be fixed.

Laminate flooring manufacturers often state that the product is water-resistant. Correctly installed laminate flooring, with tight seams and good baseboards or moldings, can tolerate pooled water, but only a short period of time. For family bathrooms or other areas where standing water is likely, laminate flooring is a poor choice. Some manufacturers stipulate that their laminates should not be installed in basements.

What is less clear is whether laminate flooring can be installed in lower-moisture areas. Some areas of the home might experience moisture: kitchens, powder rooms, guest baths, laundry rooms, mudrooms, and entryways. If you can reasonably dedicate yourself to cleaning up occasional spills and puddles immediately, then laminate flooring may be used in these areas. The danger with laminate flooring is when standing water is left on the floor long enough for it to seep through the seams and down into the fiberboard core. Even good seams will eventually leak water.

Composition

Vinyl Flooring

Vinyl flooring is usually 100-percent synthetic material. In standard sheet vinyl and vinyl tiles, the base layer is usually fiberglass which is then coated in PVC vinyl and a plasticizer. The resulting sheet is printed and embossed with a surface print layer. Over this, multiple wear layers are applied, along with a layer of no-wax polyurethane. With vinyl plank flooring, the core layer is a thicker, multi-layer PVC vinyl.

Luxury vinyl flooring comes in planks or tiles that fit side-to-side to form a floating floor. The overall thickness for vinyl flooring ranges from 1.5 mm for sheet vinyl to 5 mm for luxury vinyl planks.

Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring is similar to luxury vinyl planks in its look and installation, but the critical difference is that its core is made from wood byproducts bonded with resins. The top surface is a hard, transparent plastic wear layer that covers the printed design layer. The overall thickness for laminate flooring planks ranges from 6 mm to 12 mm.

Appearance

Both laminate flooring and luxury vinyl flooring are comparable in appearance. Both types of flooring can look remarkably like wood, stone, ceramics, or just about any material. They may have deep and realistic three-dimensional embossing on the surfaces, with some even resembling hand-scraped hardwood.

Do-It-Yourself Installation

Both laminate flooring and vinyl flooring in plank or tile format (not sheet) are comparable in terms of ease of installation.

Both employ comparable click-and-lock installation methods. With this method, the tongue of one plank is fitted into the groove of an adjoining plank at an angle. Then the first plank is folded down until it is level with the other plank. This action draws the boards together and closes the seam. An ordinary circular saw or table saw equipped with a fine-tooth blade, or even a hand saw, is used to cut laminate or vinyl planks. Vinyl planks can be cut with a utility knife, as well. A score mark is first made, then the plank is bent back on itself and a second cut is made from the rear.

Sheet vinyl can be a difficult material for do-it-yourselfers to install. The material is large, heavy, and unwieldy. Plus, it can be hard to make complicated cutouts from sheet goods. If you are installing sheet vinyl, professional installation is often your best bet.

Material Costs

Laminate flooring and luxury vinyl flooring are roughly comparable in price, although sheet vinyl does hold an edge. Both laminate flooring and vinyl flooring are usually less expensive than natural hardwood, engineered wood, and many types of ceramic or porcelain tile.

Vinyl Flooring

Vinyl flooring can cost as little as $1.00 or even $.50 per square foot for thin, glue-down vinyl flooring. Vinyl costs rise to around $3.00 to $5.00 per square foot for luxury vinyl planks. Select vinyl flooring might cost more than $5.00 per square foot.

Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring ranges from about $1.00 per square foot for 7 mm-thick planks to about $3.00 per square foot for lower-end 12 mm-thick planks.

Home Value

A home's value and subsequent resale value is dependent on many factors: overall real estate market, neighborhood sales, remodels and additions to the house, and curb value. Since flooring is a major component of a home, it can have an effect on a home's value.

Generally, quality laminate flooring and quality vinyl flooring lend a comparable amount of value to a home. Neither bring the high-value prestige of solid hardwood, engineered hardwood, or designer ceramic tile or natural stone floors. At the same time, quality laminate or vinyl flooring usually will not put off prospective home buyers.

Comfort and Sound

Vinyl Flooring

Vinyl floors of all types can feel cold or hard on the feet, especially when they are installed over concrete or existing ceramic tile floors. Thicker vinyl floors with pre-attached underlayment are somewhat more comfortable and quieter.

Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring products can feel somewhat hollow underfoot when compared to the wood floors they are supposed to mimic. They also tend to transmit noise, though including a foam underlayment beneath the flooring, as recommended by some manufacturers, can reduce both the hollow feeling and the noise factor. Some users may feel that because laminate floors incorporate wood content, they are warmer to the touch and easier to walk on.

Environmental Factors

If using green building materials is important to you, laminate flooring has a small advantage, thanks to the natural wood content of the fiberboard core. Some manufacturers offer laminates that qualify for LEED MR4 (Recycled Content) status. But laminate flooring still uses a plastic surface layer, and the melamine resins used in the creation of the core level are by no means green materials since they may off-gas chemicals.

Vinyl flooring has improved its green stature in recent years. Some manufacturers now produce vinyl flooring that achieves a LEED credit EQ4.3 for Low-Emitting Material. Still, vinyl is a synthetic material that is known to produce toxic chemicals when burned. Vinyl does not decompose in landfills, and recycling it is usually not an option.

Neither of these materials is environmentally friendly in the way that natural wood, linoleum, or bamboo floor coverings are.

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