A Guide on Apartments with Hardwood Floors

A look at your options when this wishlist feature is well-worn: repair or leave it alone?

Apartment with hardwood flooring

If you’ve been shopping for your next home, you’ve probably seen some apartments with hardwood floors. If you’re buying anything other than new construction, though, you might be faced with hardwood floors that need some professional attention. Sweeten takes a look at what you can expect when viewing apartments and their floors that can potentially be your new home. How do you decide whether they need repairing and how much does replacing hardwood floors cost? 

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Carol Wang works in real estate sales in New York City and has helped scores of clients with their home purchase and renovation options. The most-prevalent flooring type she comes across is hardwood floors. “In New York City, very rarely do you come across a property that doesn’t have hardwood floors,” she said. The rest is “a mix of just the different types of engineered or manmade flooring. And then a very small percentage would be carpeted.”

Visual inspection before purchase

When she sells an apartment with carpet, she noted, nearly everyone wants that carpet gone, but they want to know what the floor underneath looks like. Often, she said, they can find a corner or edge where they can pull the carpet back a bit to see the wood floors and judge if they’re salvageable. 

“More often than not, they are because they have been covered for so long,” she said. “They have that nice protection from the ugly carpet.”

So it’s mandatory to have a visual inspection of the floors to know what steps to take next. Some people insist on a full refinishing of their floors, and some will opt for complete replacement. “Neither is required, though,” Carol said. “A lot of times it’s just part of the charm of living in a home with hardwood floors.”

Old floors, as Carol noted, may have a certain charming patina, and you might find that you can easily live with the imperfections. Will you even notice the existing wear and tear when you have rugs and furniture in place?

Solid planks are the hardiest

That said, some floors do need refinishing, and this is one of the major points in favor of traditional hardwood floors. Traditional solid-wood planks can be sanded heavily and refinished multiple times, making them easily last for several decades. Not all floors need heavy sanding to look fantastic again, though. It depends on the overall condition of and wear on the wood itself. Your general contractor can inspect the floors and determine if just a light sanding and new finish can do all you need, or if it does need heavy sanding.

More recently-built apartments with hardwood floors, from the last two decades or so, will often have composite or engineered materials that may or may not be refinishable. This type of plank has just a thin layer of wood on top with a factory-applied finish. They’re stable, install quickly, and work well, but probably won’t last for decades like old-school hardwood planks, unless they are top-quality products.

Is replacing hardwood floors a good idea?

In some cases, you’ll find it best to replace the whole floor. If you loathe the aesthetics of the existing floor, for example, replacing the whole thing is the only way to be satisfied. “People have really strong feelings about parquet, for example,” Carol said. “Some people love it and other people hate it. And so if it’s a parquet floor, there’s nothing you can change about that. You have to replace it.” The next question is whether replacing hardwood floors costs are within your budget. More on that below. 

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Wood floors in apartment with murphy bed

Also, if any portion of the floor has developed a crown, or “hump” anywhere, you might notice a squeaky spot. This sort of problem could be due to water damage, which often occurs near the windows. Condensation drips off the windows and onto the floor and can cause real trouble over time.

Water damage anywhere, in fact, could be real trouble. If there was a plumbing leak in the apartment that caused water to reach the subfloor, there could be rot in the subfloor. The only way to rectify this is to pull some planks and inspect visually. You can also opt to live with some surface water stains, but most of us don’t want to endure warped and squeaky floors in our new home.

In some buildings, the main structure is concrete and/or masonry. In that case, the wood floors in each apartment might be sitting on a concrete subfloor, which means there’s no wood in the subfloor to rot. As a result, you might be able to repair sections of the flooring.

Is repairing hardwood floors an option?

Repairing floors can be done, but it’s challenging. First, do you have access to materials that can be made to match the existing flooring? A skilled professional can get the finish and color close, but it’s unlikely to be perfect. In some buildings, if you’re lucky, the builder will have left the extra flooring in the basement or elsewhere so it’s available for repairs. You or your contractor can also visit salvage material shops and perhaps get lucky. Oftentimes, replacing some planks and then sanding and refinishing the entire floor is the only way to get a consistent result. At that point, it’s a good idea to get a quote for a brand new floor as well as for the repair and refinish. A good rule of thumb is that if more than 30 percent of the floor needs repair, you should replace the entire floor.

Old apartments with hardwood floors

If you happen to buy into an historic building, you might be in for a different set of challenges. Original materials from the 19th century and earlier were made from trees that are no longer available. Those trees from times past grew slowly in the dense forests, which created tighter rings and denser wood. An oak floor from 150-year old trees that was installed a century ago will be tough to match. There is, however, a robust salvage industry that pulls salvageable materials from demolition projects, but matching remains challenging. A full floor replacement may be your best option in that case, as is working with a knowledgeable contractor.

Apartment with hardwood floors with Dining area with open shelving unit after renovation

How much does refinishing, repairing, and replacing hardwood floors cost?

Refinishing floors is fairly straightforward, and contractors usually charge from $3–8 per square foot, according to This Old House. In New York City, a Sweeten contractor included a refinishing job for an apartment with hardwood floors. The cost was $12,800 for a 1,600-square-foot apartment, which comes to $8/square foot.

Repairing floors will usually involve some work at the contractor’s labor rate, plus refinishing. You can go with the figure above, $3–8/square foot for the refinishing and get a rough estimate. Plus, have your contractor check it out in person for the number of hours of labor required for repairs.

What do replacing hardwood floors cost? Here, you’ll have some variables for tearing out the old floor, if necessary, as well as a great variety in the cost of the new floor. Here’s a recent example of a Sweeten project in Fairfax County, Virginia:

  • New 5” wide red oak planks: $14.91/sf
  • Vapor barrier: $0.50/sf
  • Sanding and finishing: $4.75/sf
  • Apply 2 coats of clear coat finish: $2.15/sf
  • Install new base shoe: $2.85/sf
  • Professional labor rate: $82.98/hour

So in this case, for new red oak planks, you’re looking at just over $25/square foot, plus labor. New oak planks are a standard, mid-range product, and you can spend double that if you choose.

We also have a couple of recent examples of new installations in New York City. Here is how much replacing hardwood floors cost for these Sweeten homeowners. One client supplied the engineered wood floor and soundproofing and spent $3,300 for labor in a 475-square-foot studio.

Another client spent $8,770 for 3 mm soundproofing, glued-down engineered flooring, moldings and reducers, and cleaning in a 616-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment. That works out to $14/square foot for materials and labor.

Apartment with hardwood flooring and ceiling beams

How to upgrade an apartment with hardwood floors

For most of us, bringing a tired hardwood floor back to life is not a do-it-yourself endeavor. The job requires specific tools and machinery as well as meticulous attention to detail, such as rigorous cleaning and dust removal before applying the new finish.

If you are already planning on a renovation project in your home, this is the ideal time to include your hardwood floors in your scope of work. You’ll have the advantage of a renovation crew already on-site with your contractor’s access to flooring subcontractors saving time and money. 

Sweeten can put you in touch with top general contractors for your remodeling project. If you post your renovation project with us, you can schedule site visits and request bids from each firm.

How long do hardwood floors last?

As usual, it depends, but if it’s properly installed, most hardwood floors should last more than 50 years. It really depends so much on the wear and tear, the foot traffic, the objects that get dropped on it, and so on. The number one cause of damage is water. If a floor can avoid major water damage, it can get a periodic refinish and look great again for another decade or more.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation with Sweeten.

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