Laminate Flooring Ultimate Guide – Reviews, Pros & Cons, Best Brands 2019

Our goal is to give provide you with a comprehensive laminate floor buying guide for easy research of this popular floor material.

Essential topics are covered with enough depth to provide clarity, but we try not to get bogged down in details.

The Navigation Guide is available if you choose to jump to topics of greatest interest to you.

Thank you for stopping by. Here we go.

What is Laminate Flooring?

Laminate Flooring Layer

Laminate means layers. This is a rigid flooring type composed of a few main layers.

From the bottom up:

1). The "Backing Layer" is a heat-fused composite layer that has a few purposes. It resists moisture from below, which is important when installed over concrete. And it helps the planks lay flat rather than curling up at the ends.

2). The "Inner Core" is usually medium-density fiberboard, or MDF. Some floors use high-density fiberboard, or HDF. Both are made of wood pulp/cellulose and glue mixed and pressed for bonding and hardness. It's the thickest layer of the laminate.

Note: Waterproof laminate has an inner core that is made from synthetic material rather than organic material. It won't absorb water, so the flooring can be called waterproof rather than water-resistant. See the FAQs below and our Best Waterproof Laminate buying guide for details.

3). The "Design Layer" is also called the photographic layer, pattern layer and décor layer. It is a high-definition photograph of wood (or stone or tile). The quality of the image gives the floor its realistic look. This is the genius of laminate – the look of the real thing at less than 25% of the cost.

4). The "Wear Layer" is a tough, clear topcoat often made from aluminum oxide and melamine. It is resistant to scratches and general abrasion.

What about attached underlayment pad? Our image doesn't show any, but some laminate comes with attached underlayment that saves a step in installation.

Laminate Flooring Underlayment

The pad is 2 or 3 mils of foam that slightly softens the flooring feel when walked on. It muffles a bit of noise, though you'll want 6 mil sound-reducing underlayment if the laminate is going on an upper floor of a home, apartment building or commercial building.

The underlayment prevents the backing layer from damage as the floor shifts slightly with foot traffic and temperature changes.

Laminate is a floating floor. It isn't glued or nailed down. Each brand has a slightly different tongue & groove connecting system.

The floating design speeds up installation and it allows for the slight expansion/contraction that happens with changes in temperature and humidity.

Laminate Flooring Pros

This section gives more than basic "pros" like the affordability and beauty of laminate. It also discusses options, styles and other benefits this floor type offers.

1. Cost is Affordable

This is the main reason homeowners choose laminate. vs hardwood, stone, ceramic tile and luxury vinyl planks and tile (LVP/LVT).

Check out these cost comparisons for average installed costs.

  • Laminate: $6.10/sq. ft.
  • LVP/LVT: $7.70/sq. ft.
  • Hardwood: $11.15/sq. ft.
  • Ceramic tile: $14.50/sq. ft.
  • Stone tile: $21.65/sq. ft.

2. It Looks Like the "Real Thing"

It has the look and feel of what it's replicating – genuine wood, stone or ceramic tile. Actually, it is warmer than stone and tile, so that's an advantage for bare feet and pets in cool weather.

3. So Many Wood Options

This should probably be its own section, since there is so much to cover.

But we'll make it brief, because you'll see for yourself how many options there are as you shop for laminate locally and online.

Species:

There are laminate floor styles in every type of domestic wood used for flooring: Lots of red and white oak, but also ample choices in maple, hickory, cherry, ash, acacia, pine, walnut, mahogany and more.

Then there are the exotic options – not as many, but still quite a few like Brazilian cherry, merbau, tiger maple, chai acacia and bengalwood.

Colors:

Hardwood manufacturers use different stains and techniques to enhance the appearance of wood.

All those "looks" are available in laminate, since the photographs are of genuine wood products.

Wood can be clear-coated or stained to produce amber, ruddy red, honey brown, milk chocolate and a range of charcoal tones. White-washed, bleached and weather wood looks are available too. That's a small sample of options.

Plank Widths, Shapes and Textures:

Planks range from about 3.5 inches that have a modern/contemporary look to those from 6 to 8 inches that generally have a more traditional or rustic look.

A few reclaimed and barn styles use planks of different widths to create a uniquely appearance.

Edges can be squared for a traditional look or beveled in several ways to create additional looks.

1-strip, 2-strip and 3-strip Planks: This means that a single laminate plank will have an image on it of one, two or three wood planks. This technique allows a wider range of appearances from thin, modern looks to wide, beefy rustic and traditional looks.

Plank surfaces can be textured with real woodgrain feel, scraped or hand-scraped like hand-worked rustic wood, smooth like sanded planks and more. A technique called embossed in register, or EIR, produces a very realistic wood texturing.

4. Put it "Anywhere"

For a long time, you couldn't put laminate in bathrooms, laundry rooms and basements (anywhere "below grade", which means below ground level) without voiding the warranty.

Now, moisture-resistant and waterproof laminate is approved by the manufacturers for those locations.  – and you have plenty of attractive flooring options.

Speaking of anywhere, this is an ideal floor material for use over a radiant heat system.

And, it's an interesting choice for wall and ceiling paneling too.

5. It is Softer than Tile

This makes it easier to stand on while cooking or cleaning up.

And if you have young, playful children roaming the house, falls on laminate are less risky than tumbles on tile.

6. Inexpensive or DIY Friendly Installation

Other than peel-and-stick carpet and vinyl tiles, laminate flooring is the easy to install.

This means that if you're a fairly handy homeowner, DIY is a definite option.

Or if you’d prefer pro installation, labor costs are lower than for most other floor materials.

7. Low-VOC Options & Allergy Friendly

Most brands make laminate that is certified to be low in volatile organic compounds. See the "Certifications" section below for details.

Generally, laminate is a good choice when someone in the household has allergies or other breathing issues related to poor air quality.

Why? It's simple. Dust and other allergens are easily removed. Laminate doesn't harbor them like carpet does.

8. Easy Care

Laminate can be vacuumed with a hard-floor vacuum or swept with a dry microfiber mop.

For cleaning, a damp microfiber mop is the best for large area. For small, sticky spots, a little spray cleaner and a cloth do the job.

9. Commercial Options

Most major laminate brands make commercial-grade laminate. Commercial warranties are 5, 10 or 15 years.

Laminate Flooring Cons

It’s a very compelling floor material, but laminate isn't perfect.

Keep these potential disadvantages in mind as you compare floor types for your home or commercial setting.

1. Durability Varies

Cheap laminate is a flooring solution of 7-10 years.

Most lasts 10-15 years. Premium laminate should look good for 15+ years. You get what you pay for.

Of course, laminate will last much longer in a home with a "no shoes" policy and a cat than it will where shoes are worn and a large dog roams the home.

We looked at a cost comparison above. Now, here's the longevity comparison:

  • Laminate: 7-20 years
  • LVP/LVT: 15-20 years
  • Hardwood: 50 years to "forever"
  • Ceramic tile: 40+ years
  • Stone tile: 50+ years

In short, the cost of replacing laminate flooring two to four times over 50 years starts to make it as expensive as some of the more durable flooring options.

2. It Isn't the Real Thing

If you really want the look, feel and aroma of genuine hardwood, then laminate probably won't make you happy.

The same goes for stone tile or luxury ceramic tile.

On the other hand, if you don't plan to live in your current home for 15 or more years, you wouldn't get the full value of those costlier flooring options.

3. Water Can Be a Problem

If the laminate you choose isn't waterproof or at least water-resistant, here are do's and don'ts:

Do:

  • Clean up spills and pet stains ASAP
  • Take off or wipe dry wet shoes before walking on laminate

Don't:

  • Put it in the bathroom, laundry, entryways/foyers or below grade
  • Use a wet mop or steam mop

4. It's Not Completely Green

There are two sides to this story.

The production side is environmentally friendly. Recycled materials are used. New materials are often sourced from sustainably managed forests. Some laminate gets Green Building Council and LEED certifications.

We mentioned that low-VOC laminate is available, and that's a good thing.

The problem is what happens to laminate later.

What about recycling laminate? Some say that, technically, it can be done because the core of most is wood.

However, in reality, less than 5% of laminate is recycled. The rest goes to the landfill.

At best, laminate flooring can be re-used or repurposed. It can be taken apart and re-installed somewhere else – on a floor or wall. But that rarely happens.

5. It's Noisy

Laminate shares this "con" with other hard surfaces. Hard shoes, hard toys and similar objects make a clickety-clack on it. A thicker underlayment can help alleviate the noise.

What About Waterproof Laminate?

Both water-resistant and waterproof flooring gets labeled "waterproof". But that's not accurate.

They're made differently.

  • Water-resistant laminate has a wood/cellulose core that will definitely absorb water. The resistance to moisture is usually achieved with a tight planking locking system and sealer around plank edges.
  • True waterproof laminate has a non-absorbent core. Even if moisture gets between planks, it won’t cause swelling and water damage.

We discuss the moisture-fighting design of each brand in our Brand Reviews.

An overview of the waterproof guarantee and the technology used are found in our Best Waterproof Laminate Guide.

Laminate Flooring Costs

Laminate starts at about 60 cents per square foot for the cheapest planks. The most expensive are more than $4.00 per square foot.

Then you have accessories and installation supplies plus labor costs if you hire an installer.

Our comprehensive Laminate Flooring Cost Guide is loaded with details.

Here is a summary.

Cost Factors

Factors affecting the material cost are the flooring quality, warranty, design and whether it is waterproof and has pad attached.

The biggest installation factor is whether you pay someone to install it or DIY. If you hire a pro, complex jobs like a lot of small rooms will cost more than one large room or a home with an open floor plan.

Stairs are time consuming, so expect the installation labor to cost to be $60 to $100 per stair.

Price Ranges

We've identified five laminate cost ranges.

They are summarized in this table with a few key factors:

Category

Cost/sq. ft.

Longevity

Selection

Warranty

residential / commercial

Cheap

$0.99 - $1.29

5-10 years

Poor

10-20 yeats / None

Low-cost/Basic

$1.30 - $2.49

8-12 years

Very Good

Up to Lifetime/ Up to 5 years

Mid-price/Better

$2.50 - $3.49

15-20 years

Excellent

Up to Lifetime / Up to 15 years

High-cost/Best

$3.49 - $4.00+

15-20 years

Good

Lifetime / Up to 15 years

Waterproof

$1.79 - $3.75

10-20 years

Good

Up to Lifetime / Up to 15 years

The Cost of Accessories

Many online estimates fail to consider accessories and supplies.

Again, see the Cost Guide for details. Accessories include vapor barrier when installing over concrete, underlayment if not attached, transition strips between flooring types and sealant at the room perimeter when required.

Total cost of laminate installation accessories is $.55 (55 cents) to $1.20 per square foot based on the materials used and the scope of the job.

How Much Will You Save by DIY?

The average cost of professional installation is $1.75 to $2.50 per square foot. If you're installing 500 sq. ft. of material, that's $875 to $1,250 in savings.

Certifications: What Do They Mean?

As you shop for laminate, you will see several certifications on most flooring. Here is the list of possible certifications you will run across and what they mean.

AC Rating: This is the Abrasion Class. It's commonly called the "wear rating", and refers to how tough the floor is against scratches.

Laminate Flooring AC Rating

AC Rating is determined by the thickness and toughness of the wear layer. Almost all laminate sold today is either AC3 or AC4.

  • AC3: As the diagram indicates, AC3 laminate is suitable for large households or very light commercial use. Many AC3 laminates do not have a commercial warranty, so check before you install it in the "wrong" place.
  •  AC4: This rating shows the flooring is suitable for light and moderate commercial use. Sometimes commercial warranties list the types of buildings that apply, so again, read the fine print.

Environmental Ratings

There are several ratings in this category.

Flooring Environmental Ratings
  • CARB2: California Air Resource Board rating certifies the flooring has zero or low formaldehyde emissions.
  • E1: This is the European version of CARB2. You might see it because quite a lot of laminate is produced in EU countries.
  • FloorScore: This is another indoor air quality (IAQ) certification. It shows the floor has low-VOC content.
  • AAFA: Most laminate is certified to be Asthma and Allergy Friendly by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. This means it is easy to remove allergens from the floor, unlike carpet.
  •        
    Green Building Council and LEED: Both of these certify that the flooring has little embedded energy. That means it takes less energy (usually produced with fossil fuels) that required to manufacture most flooring.

Top Laminate Flooring Brands

Here are the best laminate brands. We've dedicated our Best Brand Guide to this topic.

Also, we have completed individual Brand Reviews for most top brands.

Follow the links for more details on flooring, features and cost for each.

AquaGuard is premium laminate flooring and our choice for the best waterproof laminate available. Selection is quite good considering it is all waterproof.

Armstrong offers a large selection of styles and colors. It has the largest collection of laminate that looks like stone and tile. Audacity is the brand's waterproof line.

Dream Home is the Lumber Liquidator brand with a good selection of options from cheap to very good. Dream Home X2O is waterproof laminate.

Mohawk has a large selection of laminate in the midrange and premium tiers. Mohawk RevWood Plus is a waterproof laminate.

Pergo is the original laminate brand, but is now owned by Mohawk. Selection is good, mostly in midrange laminate flooring plus waterproof WetProtect. Today, Pergo is sold only at Lowes and Home Depot.

Quick Step has a smaller number of styles than larger manufacturers, but its lines range from affordable to premium. Some Quick Step lines are sold exclusively at Lowes, but others are available more widely.

Shaw is one of the largest manufacturers of laminate flooring. The range is from midgrade to premium – nothing below about $2.50 per square foot. Shaw Repel is a top-selling water-resistant line with more styles than most.

Tarkett offers a pretty large range of styles. Some are sold exclusively at Menards. The rest are sold at home improvement stores and independent flooring stores. Aquaflor is Tarkett's waterproof laminate flooring.

TrafficMaster is produced by Shaw and sold exclusively at Home Depot. Quality ranges from cheap to mid-grade.

FAQs

Here are common questions we get and our responses.

What's the difference between water-resistant and waterproof laminate?

Water-resistant laminate has a wood-based core. It is susceptible to water damage if moisture gets to it.

Waterproof laminate is made with a non-absorbent core. The core technology is borrowed from luxury vinyl tile and planks.

What is the best way to clean laminate flooring?

We recommend a microfiber mop. Use it dry for light cleaning. Wet it and wring it out until it is lightly damp for heavier cleaning.

For stuck messes, use a gentle spray. Let it sit for a few minutes, and use a clean cloth to pick it up.

Some of the waterproof laminate flooring can be wet mopped. Be sure to read the Warranty or Care & Maintenance Guide before using a wet mop.

What should be avoided when cleaning laminate?

Avoid steam and jet cleaners.

How green is laminate?

The manufacturing of laminate takes less energy than other materials. Many products are low in VOCs and formaldehyde. That's the good news.

The bad news is that most laminate still ends up in a landfill at the end of its life.

Do I need to install underlayment?

Yes, unless the laminate you purchase has attached laminate, aka pad.

Can it be installed over radiant heat?

Most can. It won't be harmed like the typical heating and cooling off associated with radiant heat.

Can laminate be installed in a basement?

It depends. Most water-resistant and waterproof laminate flooring can be. Standard laminate should not be.

Read the literature on the specific flooring you are considering for whether it can be installed "below grade".

Can laminate be installed in areas that are not climate-controlled?

Generally no. The significant changes in humidity and temperature are too much for most laminate. It will expand, contract and eventually begin to warp or buckle.

Can it be installed over concrete?

Yes. Laminate is often laid over concrete. There's just one important detail: A vapor barrier must be placed over the concrete and sealed at the edges and seams. This will prevent moisture in the concrete from getting into the laminate and causing damage.

Is DIY installation easy?

Yes, for those with at least moderate skills and a willingness to follow instructions.

Why should I work from several boxes during installation?

There might be very slight color differences from one production run of laminate to another. Your boxes probably won't all be from the same run.

Working from several boxes at once blends these tones for a uniform look throughout the room.

What is flooring acclimation? Why is it important?

Most laminate must be acclimated before installation. Acclimation is bringing the flooring inside several days before installation. This allows it to become the same temperature as the home and acquire the same humidity level.

Acclimation prevents the flooring from changing after installation, which can cause buckling and cracking. Read the Installation Guide that comes with your laminate for how and how long to acclimate it.

What does a laminate warranty cover?

They differ.

All cover manufacturer defects for a period from 10 years to "lifetime".

Most cover stains when spills are cleaned up quickly.

Water-resistant and waterproof laminate covers protection against water damage for 24 hours or longer related to "normal" spills.

What isn't covered in laminate warranties?

  • Normal wear: If you have a 15-year warranty but the wear layer wears through in 10 years due to heavy foot traffic, the damage won't be covered.
  • Water damage from flooding, leaking pipes and appliances, storms and non-standard events.
  • Damage from improper installation: If you DIY, watch video tutorials and carefully follow the manufacturer installation guidelines.

How long will laminate flooring last?

7-20+ years in residential use. That's a wide range. The floor's quality and the thickness of the top wear layer are important considerations.

Household members play a role in laminate durability too.

It will last longer in a bedroom with a "no shoes" rule than an entryway where it is walked on in shoes. It will last longer in homes dog's nails are kept trim. It will last longer if care is taken not to drag heavy furniture over it. It will last longer when spills are quickly removed.

Laminate vs hardwood – Which is better?

Laminate costs less and requires little maintenance. It is easier for DIY installation.

Hardwood lasts longer and can be refinished.