Fantastic Flooring: How to Navigate the Shopping Process

If a new floor is in your home’s near future, study up on the basics of what’s available, what’s popular and what it takes to make the right selection for your home.

Shopping for new flooring isn’t something homeowners do very often, and the multitude of flooring options can be overwhelming – especially at big-box stores that typically don’t have experienced salespeople who can help narrow down your best options. At locally owned retail flooring specialists, that’s not the case.

“When you come here, you’re not going to talk to somebody who just started yesterday or has only been doing this for a year or two,” says Kevin Rose, president and owner of Carpetland USA, in Rockford and Sycamore, Ill. Rose notes that his staff – which includes sales pros with decades of experience – always start by asking customers qualifying questions like: How many children do you have? How many pets? What kinds of pets?

It never hurts to do a little homework before hitting the stores, either. Consider not only what colors and styles you like, but the type of foot traffic you can expect.

“If you have multiple animals or young kids, you’re probably thinking about something waterproof or scratchproof, so I know we’re going to start in the vinyl area. For people who love the traditional look of wood, we take them to the wood area and educate them on the differences between solid hardwood versus engineered hardwood, and from there we’ll discuss color,” says Kayla Hauch, a designer at Benson Stone Co., in Rockford.

“Once we know what they’re interested in, we ask if they have a budget in mind,” adds Mark Unger, sales consultant at Floor to Ceiling Interior Design Showroom, in Freeport. “That way, we’re not showing them something outside of their budget.”

Flooring pros will quickly guide you toward the best products for your application and answer questions about the materials, installation requirements and maintenance. Now and then, they even advise customers against certain ideas, like installing hardwood in bathrooms or carpet in kitchens.

“You’ve got to look at which styles work best with your house,” Rose advises. “We’ve got so many options available that it just comes down to individual personalization. And I always tell people: Buy what you want in your home. Don’t buy to resell it to the next person. It’s your house. You’re going to live there, so enjoy it.”

Unless, of course, you’re planning to sell your house within the next year or so. Then, you might want to opt for something a bit more conservative.

Need more reasons to shop with flooring specialists instead of the big-box stores? Retailers that specialize in flooring have access to a far wider selection of products, can fulfill custom orders and are installation experts as well.

Before you start shopping, here’s a primer on what’s new in flooring.

(Benson Stone, Co. photo)

Luxury Vinyl Plank

Without a doubt, experts agree, luxury vinyl plank (LVP) is the hottest trend in flooring.

“The planks have a texture that looks like a real wood grain,” Hauch says. “The biggest benefit to this product is that you can use it in wet areas of your home, like bathrooms and laundry rooms.”

She says costs are similar to engineered hardwood, but LVP is faster, easier and less costly to install. Its versatility also makes LVP a great solution for open-concept spaces. Unger says sales of LVP are far outpacing hardwood.

“Luxury planks have taken a large share of the market both commercially and residentially,” Rose says, noting that LVP blends the warmth of wood with the practicality of vinyl. “It’s simply floating on your floor, so it’s very easy and cost-effective to replace. It’s also durable. It’s waterproof; hardwood is not. And it’s more scratch-resistant than a lot of hardwood floors.”

LVP comes in a wide range of styles and price points – ranging from $2-10 per square foot. “Some luxury vinyl planks can cost just as much as hardwood,” Rose says, “So, cost can be a factor, depending on the quality you purchase.”

(Benson Stone, Co. photo)


There are two main types of wood flooring: solid hardwood and engineered hardwood.

Rose points out that three-quarter-inch solid hardwood can be sanded and refinished every few decades, but the thinner wood layer – or veneer – on an engineered hardwood can only withstand a light screening.

Hauch points out that the trend in hardwood is leaning toward a more time-worn look, wire-brushed finishes and distressing marks. “Matte finishes and distressing marks are very forgiving,” she says. But homeowners need to know those marks might be removed later on if they decide to sand and refinish the wood.

Be it natural or engineered, hardwood can come in natural tones as well as dark stains, and it can even be whitewashed. A couple of years ago, a dark espresso stain was popular, but homeowners soon realized how quickly dust showed on it.

“In color tones, lighter blonde or natural wood tones are everywhere now,” Hauch says. “And wider plank floors are definitely very popular – no more 2¼ or 3-inch boards. Now they’re up to 6 or 9 inches wide.”

Carpet and Rugs

Rose says the Midwest remains one of the biggest carpet markets in the nation because the colder climate here makes people tend to crave warmth and coziness.

“Saxony plush is still big in the Midwest, but you’ll also see a lot of a Berber fleck and LCL – which is a cut and loop,” Rose says. “We have everything. We have wool carpets, and we have extremely patterned carpets. We have woven, patterned carpets which are 13 feet, 2 inches wide that feel like an area rug but we can install wall-to-wall.”

Unger says stain resistance has improved dramatically over just the past decade.

“It used to be that the carpet yarns were died and tufted, went through a shearing machine and were then sprayed with Scotchgard for soil protection. Now, the soil protection is fifth-generation,” Unger says. “The entire yarn is protected, not just the top, and the Scotchgard won’t come out in cleaning.”

Pet protection has also improved over time.

“The industry came out a few years ago with a pet-proof carpet that has a plastic barrier on the back,” Unger says. “So, if there’s an accident, the urine is not going to get through the carpet and into the subfloor where it can cause continual odor emission. It will stay on the carpet and give the homeowner a chance to wick it up and clean it.”

Boldly patterned carpet isn’t typically in high demand for residential use, but if that’s what a customer wants, they can find or order it from a specialty flooring store.

While most homeowners opt for neutral, solid, or flecked wall-to-wall carpeting, area rugs can be a fun way to inject bolder colors and patterns into a home.

“Area rugs are a must now that we’re seeing more living and dining rooms going to a hard surface like hardwood or LVP,” Hauch says. “We have a wide selection of area rugs and can custom order them, too. But we also have a full line of carpet. With the carpet, we can cut and bind it to make any size area rug you want.”

(Benson Stone, Co. photo)

Tile and Stone

Bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and mudrooms have always been ideal locations for tile. While ceramic tile is still available, porcelain tile and natural stone have gained in popularity. Unger credits a shrinking price differential between ceramic and porcelain tiles.

“Porcelain is a step up from ceramic and used to cost 50% more. Now, it’s down to just 25% or 30% more,” he says. Unger adds that the biggest challenge in installing any kind of tile is ensuring the subfloor is strong enough so the tile won’t crack. Labor costs to install tile are higher than most other flooring materials.

“Patterned tiles have been really popular,” Hauch says. “But if somebody really loves a patterned tile, I suggest they use it in a laundry room or powder room – a smaller space – because they might get tired of a busy pattern after a few years and want to switch it out.”

“We do a lot of large-format tile,” Rose says. “Very large tiles, about 24 inches by 48 inches. They’re very fashionable right now. I love the large-format tile – fewer grout lines, and it gives you more of a slab look on your floor.”

At a store called Benson Stone Co., customers are prone to ask about stone flooring like marble or travertine, but Hauch says it’s not for the faint of heart. “Because it’s real stone, it requires sealing, so there’s more maintenance. But some people really want that look, so we educate them on the proper maintenance so they know what they’re getting into.”

Unger says innovations in the manufacturing of grout have made tile an easier choice for homeowners who don’t want to bother with cleaning or re-sealing grout lines.

“They now have grout with a sealer right in it,” Unger says. It also speeds up the installation process, since there’s no waiting time for grout to cure before it’s sealed.

Heated Flooring

Perhaps the ultimate luxury in flooring – at least in colder climates – is heated flooring.

“Most people think of heated flooring as very luxurious and expensive to do, but it really isn’t,” Hauch says. “You can do it under tile, so it’s wonderful under a master bathroom. We use Schluter’s DITRA-HEAT systems, and you can program it on a wall thermostat. There’s also a Wi-Fi option and an app you can download to control it by your phone. You can say, ‘I want the temperature to be 72 degrees at 6:30 a.m.,’ and it will automatically do that.”

Underfloor heating systems can be installed under many types of flooring, including engineered wood and LVP.

Special Service

Because big-box stores have limited space for flooring departments, they tend to stock only popular and trendy flooring options, but specialty retailers have more looks, styles and brands than most homeowners can imagine. They even stock – or can order – less-popular materials.

If you want to custom-order boldly patterned carpeting, hand-painted tile, or some good, affordable, old-fashioned sheet vinyl, stores like Carpetland USA, Benson Stone and Floor to Ceiling Interior Design Showroom can help you find what you’re looking for.

“One of the largest values nowadays is being able to walk into a store and talk to someone who has experience and knows the product you’re purchasing,” Rose says.

“Speak to an expert to really get the full scope of what’s out there and what meets your needs,” says Hauch, who also reminds consumers to consider maintenance and upkeep before making any flooring purchase.

Unger knows not all consumers will buy from his store. “I still encourage them to shop at a family-owned business,” he says. If you experience a problem with your purchase, installation or the quality of the materials, it’s easier to get help from someone at a locally owned business than at a chain. “With a chain store, you’re going to dial an 800 number and sit on the phone for hours waiting to talk to somebody in New York or somewhere else. Here, you can walk right in and talk to the owner.”