Basement Wood Flooring: What You Should Know

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If you want basement wood flooring, choose engineered not solid wood. It looks as good as solid wood, it's easier to install and lasts longer.

Whether you get your flooring advice by scouring the web or consulting with professionals in the trade, the virtually unanimous response to questions about installing solid wood flooring (instead of engineered wood) in the basement is: “Not a good idea.” I installed hardwood flooring for many years, and that would be my answer, too. Besides the fact that a basement installation would probably void the product warranty, I wouldn’t offer a workmanship warranty because of the potential for warping, curling and the other moisture problems inevitable in many basements.

Still, you’re probably safe going ahead with solid wood flooring if your basement is dry, already has a plywood subfloor, and you’re simply replacing an existing floor covering, like carpet. You’ll want to avoid solid wood flooring if your basement has a concrete floor, though. Even if the concrete is sealed, moisture can seep through and warp solid wood flooring. You’ll also have to address the issue of how to install nail-down flooring on a concrete basement floor. You could glue it and leave absorbent hardwood in direct contact with potentially moisture-laden concrete — which is risky — or you could install a plywood subfloor.

Engineered wood flooring is a more practical option for the basement. It has a stabilizing core of plywood or fiberboard that helps prevent warping, and each plank is coated on all sides with a durable, moisture-resistant finish. Engineered flooring is available in a snap-together format that lets you install it as a floating floor, and once installed, it looks exactly like solid hardwood. To be on the safe side, choose a product rated for below-grade installation.

Benefits of Basement Wood Flooring

The qualities of hardwood flooring that make it a popular choice for the rest of the house also apply to basement installation. If you choose engineered flooring, there are even more added benefits:

  • Luxurious appearance. Hardwood flooring enhances any room in the house, but none more than a basement. The warm tones of real wood offset the darkness and make the space visually more inviting. Choose from a wide selection of wood grains and tones.
  • Easy to Install. When you install engineered wood flooring as a floating floor, you simply snap planks together like puzzle pieces. Anyone with the skill to use a circular saw to cut planks to length can do the installation.
  • Increases home value. The conventional wisdom is that wood flooring increases home value. This is true even if you install it in the basement.
  • Comfortable for walking. Wood flooring is already more comfortable for walking than concrete, but when you install engineered flooring with a cushioning underlayment, it’s even more so. The extra padding, as well as the wood itself, help insulate the floor.

Drawbacks of Basement Wood Flooring

The number-one reason to avoid wood flooring in the basement is its susceptibility to moisture, but you’ve got that covered if you purchase an engineered wood floor product rated for below-grade installation (and you properly prep the subfloor.) There are some other drawbacks:

  • Products vary in quality. Lower-grade engineered flooring planks have fiberboard cores that may absorb moisture even if the planks are sealed.
  • Expensive. Engineered hardwood flooring costs from $3 to $9 per square foot, on average. Top-quality products can cost even more. And that’s without installation, which can add another $3 to $5 per square foot if you don’t do it yourself.
  • Vulnerable to scratching. The factory finish on engineered flooring is very durable, but it’s still vulnerable to scratches from pets, kids and heavy objects. When scratches completely ruin the floor’s appearance, you can sand and refinish once or twice, but not indefinitely.

Installing Basement Wood Flooring

Gluing hardwood flooring to concrete in the basement is risky. If you choose nail-down flooring, it’s safer to install a plywood subfloor on 2×4 sleepers to keep it off the concrete and nail the flooring to the plywood. If you go this route, you’ll raise the floor level (possibly by several inches), so you’ll have to plan for that. You’ll also create a potential moisture trap under the subfloor unless you install a vapor barrier and seal the concrete.

If you choose a basement-safe engineered wood flooring product that installs as a floating floor, you won’t have to go to this trouble. You can install it directly on a concrete slab, although you should seal the concrete first with a waterproofing sealer and lay down a moisture-proof underlayment. Engineered flooring planks snap together, and once the floor is in, it looks virtually indistinguishable from a nail-down or glue-down floor.

Basement Flooring Alternatives

Wood and wood fibers are inherently vulnerable to moisture and shouldn’t be installed in a basement with moisture problems. Here are some alternatives:

SPC luxury vinyl planks

SPC stands for solid polymer construction, which means the rigid core of the vinyl planks is made entirely from inorganic materials that include crushed stone and resin. SPC flooring is affordable, snaps together like laminate and provides good cushioning and thermal insulation. It isn’t wood, but it’s designed to look like it.

Ceramic tiles

A concrete subfloor is an ideal substrate for laying ceramic tile. Because some expansion and contraction of the subfloor is to be expected, you should install a decoupling membrane on the subfloor before laying the tiles to prevent cracking.

Carpet

The basement is no place for natural fiber carpet, but synthetic fibers can handle a limited amount of moisture and provide coziness underfoot. Polyester, nylon, olefin and triexta are four possible choices. Go with cut pile rather than loop pile for maximum breathability and moisture resistance.

Epoxy

If your basement floor tends to stay damp because your house is built on a high water table, the best floor covering may be a coat of epoxy paint. Epoxy, being an impermeable plastic resin, helps control seepage from underneath, and if the concrete is in good condition, it looks great.

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Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, Apartments.com and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.