(© Erik P./zefa/Corbis)

Need a reason beside aesthetics to tear out that ratty carpet? A good-looking floor can more than pay for itself. Hardwoods can boost sale prices by as much as 6%, and bamboo, decorative concrete and other hard surfaces are also gaining popularity.

Why?

1. Floors make a crucial first impression on prospective buyers, says John Spitzer, a principal broker for John L. Scott in Portland, Ore., “Go to an open house,” says Spitzer. “Most people are looking down. The first think they see is the carpet … They’re going to notice the floor way before they notice the windows.”

2. Today, people often aren’t shopping for fixer-uppers. “Buyers, for the most part, don’t want to do a lot when they move in. They want to re-create their lifestyle; people are busy,” says Andrea Lawrence, current president of the St. Louis Association of Realtors and co-owner of Prudential Alliance Realtors in the St. Louis metro area. A nice floor helps a home sell fast, and for more.

But how important, exactly, is it? While it’s true that the top return on investment is in renovating a tired kitchen and the master bathroom, “Floors are definitely in the top three,” says Jim Messenger, a Realtor in the Phoenix market with Realty Executives, and co-owner with his wife of Realty Executives of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

In a 2003 survey of 29,000 home sales in the Philadelphia area by Prof. G. Stacy Sirmans of Florida State University, having wood flooring in a home boosted its sale price by about 6% -- and having a combination of wood and tile added nearly 11% to a home’s sale price, over comparable homes with just carpeting.

Sleek is in
“The big thing that’s happening in flooring is the movement toward hard surfaces, whether it’s wood, ceramic tile or laminate,” says Santiago Montero, editor in chief and publisher of Floor Covering Weekly. Sale of hardwood floors, for example, grew more than 11% between 2003 and 2004, to more than 10% of the flooring market, says Montero. Tile flooring grew even more.

Wood is good. “When it comes to your money, I always would advocate wood because it’s a good return on your investment and it’s a product that everyone responds to,” advises Robert Wright, national president of the American Society of Interior Designers and co-owner of Bast/Wright Interiors in San Diego. “A nice hardwood floor -- that’s pretty much always been a sign of quality,” Wright says. “It invokes a good feeling in people.”

Homeowners have definitely heard the call of the natural material. “Downstairs, you’re definitely seeing people turn more to hardwood” -- often throughout the entire downstairs, says Lou Annatone, a real-estate broker focusing mostly on residential properties with RE/MAX Unlimited in eastern Massachusetts. Cheaper, lighter-colored woods can often be used and then stained a darker color like mahogany.

Historically, installing hardwood floors has been a long, rather messy affair: the sanding, the staining and sealing of the boards could keep a family out of the room for weeks. That’s often no longer necessary. “More recently, the trend has been towards pre-finished solid hardwoods that carry a 25- to 35-year finish warranty,” says Ari Ben Harav, a real-estate agent, owner of Boston-area hardwood floor company Tiger Floors and a writer for Boston Realty News.

Bamboo for you? Other woods are increasingly popular flooring options -- and “some perform just as well if not better than hardwood floors,” says designer Wright. Bamboo is increasingly popular because it has a handsome grain, comes in different looks, colors and styles, is usually a better environmental choice because bamboo grows much faster -- and costs $3 to $5 per square foot on iFloor.com, uninstalled. (Wood varies, but often starts at $4 per square foot, uninstalled, and goes up from there.)

Cork is poppin’. “We have used cork a couple of times this last year -- in places where people stand. And it’s a wonderful, sustainable product,” says Wright. Cork, which is very visually interesting, was fashionable in the 1940s. Today’s version is sealed multiple times and holds up much better than its predecessor. Yet it is still gentle on items dropped on it, and on bodies that stand on it for long periods. (Cork varies from about $3.50 to $5.50 per square foot.)

Laminate & vinyl: role players. Faux-wood laminate (like the brand Pergo) “probably was oversold in the beginning,” says Floor Covering Weekly’s Montero. Though its use continues to grow, “It has its limitations,” he says. It is fiberboard that’s made to look like wood flooring, but it doesn’t have that solid-wood sound underfoot. Nor does it last as long as wood, and liquid left on it can do bad things, Montero and others say. However, in small areas and in small doses, say some designers, laminate can work well in a home.

Ditto with vinyl flooring, says designer Wright; it’s cheap and comfortable underfoot, and can match the Craftsman-style homes, for example. So it, too, can play small roles in your home -- just don’t go paving the living room with it. 

Carpets still a comfortable, affordable choice
For all the buzz about the sleekness of hardwood floors and the like, carpeting isn’t, ahem, laying down. For both cost and comfort, it’s still hard to beat a warm carpet in a child’s bedroom -- and of course it’s much cheaper than a wood floor. “Of all flooring sold, carpeting is still over 62% of what’s sold,” says Montero.

Luckily, wall-to-wall has gotten an injection of style and innovation, too. “We’ve seen them go to much better fabrics -- wool, etc.,” Montero says. Look, too, for recycled fibers, and carpets without backings of formaldehyde that will “off-gas” throughout their lifetimes, as well as coverings made of sustainable materials such as sisal.

Another trend that’s been happening for a few years but that many people still aren’t aware of is the increasing residential appeal of once-commercial carpet companies like Karastan, says designer Wright. “Now people are really liking the clean, tailored look of these companies,” he says.

For something very different, several designers also said they liked Interface Flor -- carpet tiles that don’t look very modular and are not very expensive (about $3.75 per square foot and are self-installed). “It’s a great solution for large area rugs, or covering large surfaces, or for a mobile person who might be renting a place,” suggests Wright. 

And if you can’t decide on what covering to run with -- why not have a tasteful mix? “I think in many houses you’re going to see different floorings in different rooms” that flow into each other, he says. “I think it’s kind of a fun thing to play around with in a house.”

9 tips about flooring -- from buying it, to helping use it to sell your home:

  • When trying to decide what kind of flooring to install, think about the area’s use. Is it high traffic? High visibility? What’s your goal for this piece of your home?
  • Also ask yourself, “What kind of feel do I want underfoot: firm, glossy and sophisticated, or casual and barefoot-friendly?”
  • When possible, use environmentally responsible products. With wood flooring, for example, look for the FSC -- Forest Stewardship Council -- label that marks sustainably harvested wood, according to Seattle’s Environmental Home Center
  • Think low-maintenance, easy-care flooring, like hardwood floors with a polyurethane coating that protects them. And think twice about light-colored or grooved vinyl that can be hard to keep clean, suggests agent Lawrence.
  • Don’t forget about the eventual sale of the house. “One of the biggest mistakes we see is people putting too much in; don’t over-upgrade for the area” you live in, says Realtor Messenger. If homes in the rest of the neighborhood have vinyl floors, you probably won’t get your money back from installing heated slate floors.
  • Similarly, if you go with carpeting, “Don’t put in $50-a-yard carpet,” advises agent Spitzer. “It becomes so expensive that you may not recover the cost. You can get pretty good berbers or plush carpets for a fraction of that cost.” 
  • About to sell? Seriously clean that carpet -- and replace it if an agent says to. “Three thousand dollars worth of carpet can cost you $10,000 in an offering price,” says Messenger. Often, a carpeting company will be willing to submit a bill to escrow and be paid when the house is sold, says agent Spitzer. “They know that the money is there, that it’s in the house, and when that home closes, they will get paid -- so everybody wins.”
  • Say “no” to orange. “We tell people to neutralize the walls and floors of their homes when they’re selling their house -- and so then the buyers can envision their own things in the house,” says Lawrence. “Don’t go with dark blue,” seconds Spitzer. “Pick carpeting that will go with almost anyone’s furniture.”
  • Finally, says Wright, “Just really do your research. You don’t want to be changing your flooring out. Let it be a long-lived decision.”

Dollar values of different flooring options

Flooring material

Avg. dollar value per sq. ft.*

Area rugs and carpet

$0.78

Hardwood

$2.45

Ceramic and wall tile

$0.91

Vinyl sheet

$0.48

Laminate flooring (Pergo)

$1.58

Natural stone

Varies widely depending on the type of stone


Installation costs across the U.S.

Flooring material

San Francisco

Little Rock, Ark.

Boston

Carpet

$7/sq. yard

$5.50/sq. yd.

$5.65/sq. yd.

Hardwood

$5/sq. ft.

$2.25/sq. ft.

$3/sq. ft.

Ceramic and wall tile

$8/sq. ft.

$3/sq. ft.

$5/sq. ft.

Vinyl sheet

$24/yd.

$9/yard

$10.50/yard

Laminate flooring (Pergo)

$5/sq. ft.

$2.25/sq. ft.

$2/sq. ft.

Natural stone

$10/sq. ft.

$3-$3.50/sq. ft.

$10-$12/sq. ft.

Source: Several installers in the cities

By Christopher Solomon