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Laminate vs. Vinyl Flooring (Exploring Your Options)

Learn the difference between Laminate and Vinyl Flooring and explore the benefits that both flooring options offer.

Our house had 1970’s faux-brick sheet vinyl flooring in the kitchen when we bought it. It had cracked and peeled where the old subfloor was uneven. Updating it with a basic cream tile sheet vinyl in the ’90s resulted in the same issue and duct tape to keep the edges flat.

Right now we have a wood grain laminate and the duct tape is gone but chairs scratched the floor and the dishwasher started leaking so the planks are beginning to swell and separate where the water has gotten under the flooring. Every flooring upgrade over the decades has been worth it — for a while. Now, the time has come to explore my options for a new kitchen floor and things have really changed!

Related: 57 types of laminate flooring | Types of House Siding | Installing Vinyl Siding on your Home | Yellow Exterior House Ideas

Brief Definitions & History of Vinyl and Laminate Flooring

Vinyl flooring was introduced in 1933 at the “A Century of Progress” Exposition in Chicago. By the end of World War II it was a practical flooring choice in homes and institutions because the plastic construction of the tiles came in many colors. Vinyl was easy to install and maintain. The 1960s brought no-wax and cushioned vinyl floors. Vinyl plank flooring was introduced in the 1970s and up into the 80s asbestos was part of vinyl flooring. (This means taking out an older floor could involve asbestos.) Today’s vinyl flooring can range from the solid composite tiles used in many institutions to luxury vinyl planks that look like wood or stone. Vinyl flooring can be peel-and-stick tiles, sheets up to 12″ wide, or click-together planks but it all is made from various types of plastic in every layer. A thin photographic layer creates the look of whatever the designers come up with and protective layers keep it looking good for a while.

Laminate flooring has a core of wood byproducts mixed with resins. This puts it into the sustainable category since it utilizes what would otherwise be wasted. Laminate for countertops had been in use for years before Pergo, the first modern laminate flooring, was developed in 1984 by Chemical industry giant Perstorp AB Holdings. Pergo immediately became popular in Europe before reaching the North American market 10 years later. Because it “floats” over the subfloor rather than being glued or nailed, it can adjust to changes in heat or humidity without buckling.  Laminate flooring has a backing and photographic layer, protective layers, etc. just like vinyl flooring and has gone from looking “fake” to be an attractive investment in the home.

How Are Vinyl & Laminate Different?

Despite the similarities, vinyl and laminate flooring options have differences that affect where they should be used. Since the flooring industry is working hard to improve both types of flooring, these differences are fading. Vinyl flooring can be found in many forms that laminate cannot copy, like the wide sheet vinyl rolls that are laid in one piece. For this article, I am going to focus on the form that is most similar to laminate. This is the click-together style that looks like wood planks or ceramic tiles.

Features of Vinyl Flooring

One of the most attractive aspects of vinyl flooring is that it can be used in bathrooms, laundry rooms, basements, and kitchens where water often becomes a problem. This is because of the way it is made.

Materials

A solid core made of carefully-researched composite forms a rigid base for many vinyl planks. Sometimes that core is a combination of wood flour, thermoplastics, and calcium carbonate. Other styles are made with natural polyvinyl chloride, natural limestone powder, and stabilizer. These are impervious to water damage and, unlike the older styles of vinyl flooring with fabric backings, can withstand flooding. There may be a backing layer to the plank but there always will be a thin layer that has the floor you see and protective layers over that. These layers are usually polyurethane or PVC vinyl. More expensive styles have thicker layers. Some luxury vinyl planks are not resilient rather than rigid and can compensate for uneven subfloors. Manufacturers have proprietary features that differentiate their particular flooring from the rest so do your research.

Design Options

Vinyl flooring can look like anything they want to make it look like. As technology improves, it looks better and better all the time. You can match your home’s style easily with a wood look or choose a colorful tile. You can even customize a design with coordinating pieces. Luxury vinyl planks are only about 5mm thick and will not usually affect doors or floor registers when installed.

Durability

Flooring is a perfect example of “you get what you pay for”. A high-end luxury vinyl plank floor has thicker layers of protective finish that keep it looking good but with reasonable care, even budget options can last for decades. Some vinyl flooring will fade in sunlight but this is a factor that is being improved every year. Where vinyl shines is in places like bathrooms where water is going to be splashed or rooms where an appliance could leak. A 100% waterproof floor is a beautiful thing when the inevitable happens.

Cost Range

Because vinyl flooring comes in so many styles, the cost range is huge. A thin tile that is glued directly to the subfloor could be as little as $.50 per square foot. As you move up the scale there will be various factors like thickness of the core or surface layers and more. Luxury plank styles run between $3.00 and $5.00 per square foot but could be more expensive.

Benefits and Drawbacks

The same characteristic that gives vinyl flooring its waterproof qualities gives it a cold, hard feel underfoot. This is especially evident when installing over concrete or ceramic tile. Many of the luxury planks have attached underlayment layers to counteract this. Some are cushiony underfoot, more like a thick rubber tile than a stiff board. These are more prone to dents from heavy furniture but are really nice to live on. Vinyl handles spills well so you don’t need to panic about that pitcher of lemonade tipping over. Just mop it up and move on. Regular sweeping or vacuuming and an occasional damp mop are all you need.

The click-together planks are not difficult for a DIYer to install if they have some experience with problem-solving and the right tools. It only takes a utility knife to cut vinyl. The challenge comes around the edges where a room may not be square or has unusual features. A closet or pantry where the floor runs past the doorway can be tricky.

Features of Laminate Flooring

The wood-based core of laminate flooring has a positive effect on your room. Most people feel that a laminate floor is more comfortable to stand on for long periods of time and think it is warmer to the touch than vinyl.

Materials

Most laminate flooring has a backing layer, photographic layer, and polyurethane or PVC protective layers like its vinyl counterpart. The difference is in the core layer. In a laminate floor, this layer is a high- or medium-density fiberboard made from wood fibers and resins. A core with more wood fiber will be susceptible to water damage because the wood fibers will swell when they get wet. The backing layer often is designed to have insulating properties. The photographic layer is usually wood but today can also look like metals, stones, and tile. The protective layers are constantly being improved for performance. Flooring companies have proprietary features that will be pointed out in their marketing and could be exactly what you are looking for.

Design Options

The first laminate flooring was designed to mimic hardwood flooring but fell short. Modern laminate flooring looks so much like the real thing that the only giveaway is the shorter board length and the easier maintenance requirements. Sometimes there will be textured detailing like beveled edges, grooves, or wood grain. Because the design is a photographic image, these floors can look like hardwood, stone, tile, or whatever the designer decides that the market will buy. Laminate is thicker than vinyl flooring and can be as much as 12 mm thick. This can be a factor when installing a new floor in an older home because baseboards will need to be raised and doors or heating elements can be affected.

Durability

Pet owners and parents love the way a good laminate floor holds up to kids and claws. It is often used for high-traffic areas like entryways, living rooms, and kitchens. Many laminate floors will start to look rough after about 10 years but the lower cost means you can update your floor easily. Again, this is changing all the time with improvements in the industry.

Cost Range

Right now the price of laminate flooring can be as low as $1.00 per square foot in 7 mm thickness and up to $3.00 or more per square foot when you look at the luxury 12 mm thick styles. Pay attention to water-resistance and underlayment needs for the particular installation because it will add to the cost.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Laminate flooring became popular because the planks can click together to form a seamless floor. It was viewed as the perfect DIY project, one that improves your home’s looks and value with one weekend of work and a table saw. Just like the vinyl planks, the edges and tricky spots can be a challenge. Laminate flooring creates a floating floor over whatever is underneath. In older laminate floors this caused a “hollow feeling” and noise when walked on but the insulating underlayer in many newer designs counteracts that issue.

Purists don’t like the shorter planks because a true hardwood floor is made from 8-12 foot boards but most people do not even notice that difference. What they do notice is a floor that is easy to maintain and feels comfortable to live on. All laminate flooring needs is regular sweeping or vacuuming, a slightly damp mop occasionally, and a fast wipe up of spills.

Both Laminate & Vinyl Win

When deciding between laminate and vinyl flooring, you don’t have a bad choice. Some are going to be better for a specific installation than others, but modern flooring options are the result of manufacturers working hard to eliminate the downsides of their product. Look at your budget, your time constraints, the sales offers, and the way you want your room to look.

Explore your options in a store where you can see and touch the different choices. Talk to people who have that type of floor. Decide what is important to your particular lifestyle. Do you need a floor that is completely waterproof? One that recycles leftover materials from another industry? A floor that integrates with existing floors and the style of your home? One that holds up to the activity of your pets or your kids? You can find what you need in laminate and vinyl flooring.

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