When Hardwood Floors Are Worth Saving

Learn how to tell when interior hardwood floors are worth saving or replacing.
By: Wendy A. Jordan

"Wood is good" when it comes to floors, says John Lessick of Apex Wood Floors in Downers Grove, Ill. It's beautiful, natural, hypoallergenic and long-lasting, and it's considered a sign of quality in a home. Old hardwood floors offer the extra allure of charm and a little history. But along with the charm may come stains, squeaks and other signs of age. How do you decide whether to try to salvage that 50-year-old hardwood floor or just replace it?

The answer usually comes down to preference, not do-ability. Jamie Lupresto of Diamond Flooring of Elizabethtown, Ky., says there's an excellent chance you'll be able to accommodate your client. "Ninety-five percent of the time, if not more, you can refinish a hardwood floor, replace boards, make repairs and have a very nice floor."

As with just about everything else in remodeling, the key issue is expectations. Homeowners who have old floors should not expect them to look like brand-new floors, according to Sprigg Lynn of Universal Floors in Washington, D.C. Over the years Lynn's company has restored or refinished historic or just plain old hardwood floors in buildings ranging from simple homes to the White House.

Floor Face Lift

Almost all old floors can be salvaged and refinished by skilled contractors. Termite-damaged planks, insect-infested boards or delaminated strips can be replaced if there aren't too many. Squeaky floors can be tightened and quieted, at least temporarily, with nails or dry lubricant. Holes can be plugged. Damaged floor sections can be patched. Patches that match the species, cut, grain and color of the wood and are feathered in go unnoticed, Lynn says.

Pet urine and water marks can be minimized with stain or covered by a rug. "We like to sand the floor down to raw wood and walk it with the customers to let them decide if the stains are acceptable," Lynn says. He applies the desired finish color to the questionable areas and lets the customers decide if they are content.

Of course, some old floors are beyond repair. Here are some symptoms that indicate a terminal condition:

  • Floors with extreme movement between boards are not good candidates for refinishing because "the movement will affect the sanding and finish," Lupresto says.
  • Substantial structural problems — those that require the flooring to be removed so the subfloor can be fixed.

And floors that have been sanded too many times may have "no meat left on the wood," Lessick says. The tongue and groove is falling apart and nails may be exposed. "If 30 percent of (a floor like this) is bad, 50 or 60 percent will be bad after sanding."

Antique Floors

Replacing a wood floor usually is considerably more expensive than refinishing it, once you factor in removing the existing floor, buying the new flooring, and the labor required to install, sand, finish it and cut it to fit at walls and doorways. "Refinishing a wood floor is cheaper than putting in nice $50-$60-a-yard carpeting," Lessick says.
Besides, a properly maintained wood floor can go 20 or 30 years or more before needing to be refinished, says Lupresto. And it can be sanded and refinished "easily six or seven times" over its lifetime, he says.
If you still have any doubts, take a look at this list of the characteristics of what today's homeowners want in hardwood floors, and compare them to what you're likely to find in an old floor:

  • Dark stains, including ebonized or black, finishes
  • Hand-scraped boards (factory scraped or scraped on site), often with pillowed or beveled edges
  • Natural characteristics, such as knotholes and mineral streaks
  • Wood reclaimed from old buildings. "All the basic species are available in the U.S.," says Lynn.
  • Virgin wood, such as antique heartpine logs dredged from river bottoms and sold through distributors
  • Environmentally friendly wood that's certified to be from sustainable forests
  • Water-based finishes (wax or tung oil may be appropriate for antique floors)
  • Oil-based finishes in kitchens or other heavy-traffic areas
  • Special installations, such as parquet and "wood bricks" or cobbles
  • Painted, stained or inlaid patterns and borders

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