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The Ultimate Guide to Buying Hardwood and Engineered Wood Flooring

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Walking into a flooring showroom and you’ll see a myriad of hardwood flooring options…

Solid hardwood, pre-finished, unfinished, engineered…wait, did I just hear someone say pre-engineered?! (That's not a thing, just FYI.)

Yes, there's a lot options to wade through and confusing terms that are not always used correctly can seriously make shopping for new wood floors a pain in the you-know-what.

But you want to make sure you’re making the right choice because it is a big decision and investment in your home. No pressure there!


I've helped hundreds of homeowners with getting new floors they love. From selecting the perfect flooring material to managing installations, my job is to make the process simple and stress-free. And I believe that always starts with a good bit of education so you can make the decision that is best for you! So here we go!

In this ultimate hardwood flooring guide, I’ll be covering topics such as:

After reading this article, you’ll have a better understanding of what wood flooring options are out there and be able to make an educated decision on what type of wood flooring is best for you in your situation.


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What is Hardwood Flooring?

At first, you’re probably thinking, “I know what hardwood floors are.” But it’s important to know the terminology used for hardwood flooring, because each type of flooring is drastically different.

It’s these nuances that can easily steer a hopeful shopping experience into an exhausting one. So, I’ll start with broader contextual terms and work down to detailed words you may come across in your wood flooring journey.

Unfinished vs Prefinished

First, there are two main types of hardwood flooring categories: unfinished and prefinished, which basically just tells you in what condition the material is arriving to be installed.

Unfinished floors arrive as raw wood planks, needing installation and staining on site. Whereas prefinished wood floors arrive already finished, only needing installation.

Unfinished wood floors are also known as sand and finish floors. Sand and finish wood floors are solid hardwood planks that get installed, then the installer will sand, stain, and apply a top coat or sealer to finish the floors on site.

Solid Hardwood

Solid hardwood is exactly as it sounds: the entire plank is one piece of wood, no other layers of any kind. The only type of unfinished hardwood is going to be solid hardwood flooring. Solid is typically the only type of hardwood that can be sanded and stained because you need a fair amount of material to sand down (and still have material above the tongue and groove connection that's holding all the planks together remain entact).

All other types of hardwood flooring are going to be prefinished.

Prefinished Hardwood Flooring

Prefinished hardwood is finished at the factory, not in your home. It doesn’t have anything to do with what wood species it's made from, what size it comes in, solid or engineered, or anything else, only that the flooring is ready for installation because the stain and top coats have already been done at the manufacturer.

Unless you’re specifically shopping for sand and finish floors, everything you’re going to see at a flooring showroom is going to be prefinished. If it’s stained, it’s prefinished.

That gets us into what can get a little confusing to some: prefinished floors can be both solid hardwood and engineered hardwood. Let me explain.

Prefinished and unfinished hardwood refer to manufacturing/installation details.

Solid and engineered are terms to describe the wood material itself.

Solid vs. Engineered

The debate whether solid or engineered hardwood is better, has been raging ever since engineered flooring came to the market. But before we can consider this, let’s take a look at what each flooring actually is.

We already covered that solid is one piece of wood, nothing else.

Engineered hardwood flooring is made up of layers that have been “engineered” together.

With an engineered wood plank, you have two basic components: a core that acts as a stabilizer and a veneer of wood on top.

I often get asked by clients, “Well engineered flooring isn’t real hardwood, right?” And honestly, that’s one of the biggest misconceptions.

The veneer on top of the core can range in thickness, but it is 100% hardwood. In fact, you could say it is a "solid hardwood veneer", and that wouldn’t be a stretch of definitions.

But it’s piecemealed is that good?

For one, solid hardwood flooring isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Unless you are someone who wants to regularly (every 3-5 years) change the color of your wood flooring, you pay a lot of money to have solid wood, instead of engineered together.

Solid hardwood flooring also has its issues. It tends to warp, gap, and split more than engineered hardwood. Humidity can greatly affect your hardwood. And I mean that in the sense of high humidity, low humidity, and most importantly, the ever-present fluctuations of humidity in your home.

Engineered hardwood helps with all of this. Because engineered hardwood has a layer of wood mounted on a core, that core is a lot more stable than solid hardwood.

A stable core makes it so the shrinking and contracting are happening uniformly. In solid hardwood, you’ll have each plank reacting differently, and even within each plank, certain areas will shrink and expand at different rates. This can cause issues with planks buckling and warping.

That being said, not all cores are created equal. If you’re looking at samples of engineered flooring that are the same species of wood and similar aesthetic details, guaranteed if you flip that sample over, you’ll see a difference in what the core is.

The most common core is ply. Ply or plywood is concentrated wood chips and particles glued together in thin sheet, then multiple sheets are glued together in opposite directions. By being in opposite directions, it acts as a cross stabilizer, so that the entire piece of flooring shrinks and expands uniformly, rather than warping in odd ways.

The other option is an MDF core, or otherwise known as Medium Density Fiberboard. Every company has their own name for their specific cores.

For instance, Shaw Flooring has the Stabilitek Core. Shaw describes it on their website as “constructed from wood fibers bonded with proprietary chemistry, Stabilitek holds up to the challenges of climate fluctuation and sub floor moisture.”

Other manufacturers use other names with their own “proprietary chemistry,” but basically it is a densely filled core made of wood fibers and glue that provide stability to your floors.

Not all MDF and ply cores are created the same. Some ply layers that are really thin and splintering edges with only the minimum of three layers, and I’ve seen some really dense plywood with crisp edges and five layers. Some MDF is loosely packed and some are really solid and hold up better.

Because of this, I personally don’t have a preference between MDF vs plywood core, but instead I pay close attention to the details of each individually.

Pros, Cons and Costs of Hardwood Flooring

What type of hardwood is right for you? Everyone’s preference and needs are different, but a huge consideration when deciding what floors to buy is going to be budget. So let’s go over the pros and cons of solid hardwood and engineered flooring as well as what to expect with the costs of each.

Sand and Finish Solid Hardwood

Solid hardwood that’s sand and finish is completely customizable for color options. If you’re someone who likes to change the color palette in their home regularly, you can re-stain these.

However, any texture is going to be sanded out, so if you’re looking for a floor that has some character (which can help hide scuffs and scratches down the road) this may not be the best option for you.

Also, if abrasions are a concern for you, a sand and finish top coat is never going to outlast a factory-finish. Ever.

Cost wise, expect to pay $3-5 per square foot for the material, and $3-6 per square foot for the labor. If you already have hardwood flooring down, each time you refinish the floors will be an additional cost.

Prefinished Solid Hardwood

Prefinished solid hardwood will have fewer color options to choose from, but you’ll likely be able to find options that have character. This can show in various ways through a wire-brushed finish or a distressed, rustic appearance to name a couple.

Technically, you could re-sand and finish this type, but I wouldn’t advise buying it for this purpose. As soon as you refinish your floors, it will not wear nearly as well as the original topcoat. And honestly, most hardwood (solid or engineered) should come with 15+ year warranties, so it’s not something you’ll have to think about for a long time. I’ve even seen some with 50 year warranties!

Materials and labor to install decent prefinished solid hardwood flooring is somewhere around $14 and up.

Engineered Hardwood

Engineered wood was developed to help alleviate the issues that can happen with solid hardwood, so if you are in an area that is prone to heat or humidity fluctuations, this would be a better option for you.

Unlike solid wood flooring, it can’t be re-finished, but why would you want to? The top coat is going to be highly durable, and with SO many options out there, you’ll be able to find the style and the color that is perfect for your home.

Also, if you’re into wider planks (the any planks over 4” in width), engineered is going to be your only option to get that wide-plank look.

Cost for materials and installation vary widely due to the multitude of options available, but for well-constructed engineered floors, I’d say a typical range is around $9-13 per square foot.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m a fan of engineered flooring. After living in Denver for almost 20 years and now Kansas City, I’ve seen the damage that can happen to hardwood flooring just by leaving your windows open and having the ambient humidity come into your home. I’m all for letting the outside in, so any product that allows for that lifestyle to happen more easily, sign me up.

Plus, throughout all my years in this industry, I’ve sold solid hardwood flooring a whopping total of two times. Two! With the benefits of engineered flooring and a price point that is often more affordable, it’s often the clear choice for most people who want hardwood flooring in their homes.

What Hardwood Flooring is NOT

We’ve gone through defining various types of wood flooring, but it’s worth mentioning what hardwood flooring is not. I’ve even heard (so-called) professionals use the incorrect names for products, which can really lead homeowners astray, so I like to clear up a couple misnomers here.

Engineered flooring is not laminate. Although they are both constructed in layers on a core, that is the only similarity. Laminate’s visuals are basically a piece of paper that has (literally) been laminated to the core. There is no real wood layer in a laminate. Engineered wood flooring is actual wood mounted on a core.

Ever heard of pre-engineered? Don’t worry, it’s not actually a thing. Although I’ve heard consultants at other companies use this term, it’s a mix-up on words and prefixes. There’s pre-finished hardwood and there’s engineered hardwood, but pre-engineered isn’t a term.

Other Costs to Consider When Purchasing Hardwood Floors

I mentioned general ranges when considering hardwood flooring for your home, but there are a lot of other labor costs to factor in that you should be aware of.

In order to make sure you have enough material to cover the entire project, an overage or waste percentage is usually factored in. Generally, you’ll need to order 5-10% more to account for waste.

Demolition costs can easily add up, especially if you are tearing out another hard surface, including wood, laminate, LVP or tile. In addition to demolition costs, there is also a fee for disposing of all that old material. Depending on the size of your project, your flooring contractor might suggest getting a dumpster delivered for the duration of the job.

Baseboards are always an extra incurred costs beyond the base square foot materials and labor price. As I detailed in my Ultimate Guide to Luxury Viny Plank, wood floors run into the same baseboard conditions.

All hard surface flooring is installed very close to the edge of the wall. One of three things will need to happen with baseboards:

One, you can have your existing baseboard removed and re-installed, but that doesn’t always work out great. Pieces can break and exact replacements are near impossible so I typically don’t recommend this method, especially if they’re old baseboards.

The second option is to not remove your existing baseboard, but to install quarter round along the perimeter instead. This is often the cheapest route to go, but it can look like an afterthought or dated.

The third option is to remove your existing and have new baseboards installed. Often this is the preferred method for homeowners because they can upgrade their baseboards into a more modern style and taller height option.

In any case, baseboards can contribute quite significantly to the overall cost of your project, so it’s a discussion you should be having with your flooring contractor.

Expect to see a separate line item on any quote you get for transition strips. These are solid hardwood pieces that are designed to create a smooth transition from one floor to the next. For example, if you have wood flooring in the hallway and a tile bathroom located off that hall, you’ll need a transition strip there. Same goes for wood to carpet transitions.

Lastly, if you’re thinking about doing your stairs in hardwood, expect to pay top dollar. I don’t say this to discourage you from doing it because hardwood stairs are absolutely gorgeous!

But the stairnose pieces aren't cheap and the labor to custom cut every stair tread and riser, mitering each corner, removing and re-installing balusters, finishing trim for the stringers, can add up! Don’t even get me started on how complicated a curved staircase can be to install! lol

Suffice to say, the basic material and installation costs don’t tell the whole picture, and that’s why it’s always good to get an actual estimate that includes all these additional costs so you can then compare your options.

Also, it might go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway: if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are reasons why products go on extra clearance, and it probably has to do with it not performing well.

Final Thoughts

With all the terminology floating around regarding hardwood floors, it’s easy to get lost in the verbiage. Especially since not every flooring consultant you speak to may know!

But with this guide to hardwood flooring, you have learned a lot!

You now know that pre-finished just means factory finished.

You know what solid hardwood flooring is and how it can be prone to issues stemming from humidity and that’s why engineered hardwood flooring was invented.

You know that engineered hardwood has the most options to select from as far as color, design, and you can get wide-plank widths.

Whether you are buying solid hardwood or engineered flooring for your home, it is an investment. But selecting a quality product over what is most economical will provide you with better value over the long run.

Best wishes to you on your hardwood flooring journey!

Stay well and be inspired,

Amy Farnum, Owner and Lead Designer of Inspired Design Inc

Hi, I'm Amy!

I'm a knowledge seeker, dog parent, nature lover, and a big fan of bubbly water. I'm also the owner of Inspired Design Inc, an biophilic interior design and flooring company in Kansas City. I help homeowners wade through the many decisions needed while renovating their homes, including how to add more natural elements into the space. Let's find the perfect solutions so you can finally be living in the home you've been dreaming of.


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