Even Mother Nature isn't without weaknesses. Yes, wood and stone last generations, but they take maintenance and periodic freshening up.
"Everything scratches. It's a matter of how easily," Logan, of Baltimore Flooring Supply, said about wood floors. "Scratching is determined by the finish. You need a good finish. You don't paint your own car. You need a good contractor to finish the floor."
Even so, standing water, as from a leaking refrigerator, can stain, bow or cup hardwoods, making many homeowners avoid putting it in bathrooms or kitchens, though Logan insists a good finish makes kitchen uses "no sweat." Engineered wood floors, made with a thick veneer over plywood, are a fast-growing part of the wood industry and don't readily cup or bow.
Natural stone also needs care. Like wood, some stone is softer than others. Marble is among the softer grades, while granite is harder. A "haze" can appear on older marble, marring its sheen. It can be honed instead of polished, which creates a duller but less slippery floor. Interior designers urge clients to be careful where they put it within the home. High-traffic areas aren't the wisest places for this stone.
Even tile takes maintenance. Terra cotta is a low-density natural clay fired at a low temperature. With that beloved old-world look, terra cotta tiles still require care because they're very porous. A sealer is usually recommend to avoid staining.
Laminates, which most often resemble hardwoods, are usually guaranteed 15 to 20 years against denting, staining and fading. Because they're made out of tough melamine, much like Formica counters, there's no staining, resanding or waxing involved. Laminates can scratch, but not easily. They also don't absorb water like many woods can - making them popular in kitchens and bathrooms.
Don't expect laminate to hold up two or three generations like hardwoods or stone. It can't be resanded since there's nothing beneath the exterior surface to refinish. It's just decorative paper beneath.
One criticism has been that if a laminate is damaged, the entire floor must be ripped up. Not true now, said Riley of BHK Laminates. With newer, glueless laminates that interlock, just unclick the pieces until the damaged ones are reached, and click in new pieces.
What's on most floors?
Market-share percentages for new-home flooring (from the 2000 Annual Builder Practice Survey, by the National Association of Home Builders):
Carpet: 65.6 percent
Ceramic tile: 12 percent
Vinyl: 11.5 percent
Wood: 9.7 percent
Natural stone: 1 percent
Laminates: 0.2 percent
The floor beneath you
A description of the various materials used in house flooring.
Hardwoods: Solid wood floors are available in everything from common oaks and pines to exotics from South America such as ipe (Brazilian walnut) and Brazilian cherry. Boards are cut in narrow or wide planks, depending upon how "rustic" the look.
Prices range from $6 per square foot to "you name it," according to wood-floor contractor Tim DiPaula, president of Lady Baltimore Floors of Glyndon. He said that among the most expensive is a domestic type - a heart pine, so difficult to obtain that it usually has to be removed from vintage American buildings and remilled for new floors. Heart pine can cost over $30 per square foot.
Wood can be installed unfinished or finished, and fastened with nails or glue depending upon whether concrete is at the base. Companies, such as Bruce, make prefinished wood floors. Some insist that unfinished installation looks best in the long run, while others say the dust and grit associated with finishing floors can be a horrible mess for months.
Wood planks need to "acclimate" inside the home for 24 to 48 hours before they're put in place. This allows the wood that's brought in from a truck to expand or contract with interior humidity. Also, the basement should be dry and leak-free. If the home is moist, allow wood to sit longer, up to a week.
Ornate wooden borders, parquets and medallions are also popular for that finishing touch. Many of these inlays are made with laser cutters for the most precise lines and designs. Such borders and medallions cost up to $25 a linear foot.
Laminates: A growing competitor to hardwood, laminate flooring, which originated in Europe, has wood's look but is often compared to Formica (a trade name associated with laminate counters). It is a replica of wood or stone on top of melamine, which is hardened, sealed and waterproofed. Laminate resists pressure of 4,200 to 9,000 pounds per square inch. Easy care is its main draw.
Don't expect laminates to be significantly cheaper than natural wood. Many are comparable at about $1,800 to $2,800 for 400 square feet. The latest laminates just arriving at the showrooms offer a textured look - available in wood, tile and natural stone.
Natural stone: Granites, marbles and limestones are among the most popular natural stones on the market today.