Published on June 28, 2021

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Photography by Leed Dong/Getty Images

Replacing and refinishing the mélange of yellowing, 2-inch-wide white and red oak; terracotta tile; and vinyl floors throughout my mid-century, 3,000-square-foot raised ranch was a top priority when we closed last December. Not only would fresh wood floors reset the tone of the house, they would improve its value down the line. But like all good things in life, wood flooring doesn’t come cheap. According to HomeAdvisor, refinishing hardwood floors will cost you $3 to $8 per square foot, while installing new ones totals anywhere from $6 to $25 per square foot (including material and labor). 

Even though I knew those numbers, when I got my initial estimate from a local contractor for $70,000, my jaw hit the ground. Surely this can’t be right, I thought. It wasn’t—I ended up paying only about $20,000 to refinish approximately half of the house’s original wood floors and replace the rest with beautiful 7.5-inch French white oak. To score $50,000 in savings, I became somewhat of a specialist; here’s what I learned.

Shop Around for a Good Contractor

After the shock wore off, I started searching for a flooring contractor, instead of just a general contractor, to manage the job. This cut out the middleman and essentially got me direct-to-consumer pricing. I relied on Google reviews, Yelp, and the Better Business Bureau to gauge how skilled the contractor would be and modeled my interview questions after tips I had read in online home renovation guides and forums.

Kelly Finley of Joy Street Design also recommends tapping local Facebook and neighborhood groups for recommendations and asking contractors you speak to for references and photos of previous work before committing. 

Yes, you’ll have to do more legwork this way, but once you’ve picked the right person, they’ll handle the rest—just like a general contractor, but you’ll have saved thousands. 

Buy Your Own Wood

Whether you’re replacing old wood floors or just laying down new boards, one of the best ways to cut costs is to purchase your own materials. Even after I found a much more affordable contractor, their price for what I was after—a wide white oak plank—was still about double what I ultimately found online. To ensure that I’d receive exactly what I wanted, I ordered samples from a variety of retailers, from the high-end LV Wood to the budget-friendly Build Direct. It was good to see these products in person, lay them down in the room, and inspect them for their character and construction. In the end I found a great 7.5-inch engineered white oak from Hurst Hardwoods in Florida for $3.79 per square foot (my contractor’s price was $8.23 per square foot!). What ultimately led me to go with the company, even though it wasn’t the absolute cheapest, was its customer service and patience answering my millions of questions—similar to my contractor! Once I placed the order, the wood arrived in Connecticut within five days. Even my contractor was impressed.

Read Up

One of the things that gave me the confidence to buy more than 1,300 square feet of wood planks on my own was that I had done a considerable amount of research. To start, it’s important to know what species of wood is right for your lifestyle. Oak is popular right now due to its availability, versatility, and durability, explains James Caroll, owner of LV Wood. But it’s certainly not the only type on the market, and depending on your family (kids? pets?) and personal preferences, there are a lot of others to choose from, including walnut, hickory, and maple. 

Then there’s width and climate to think about. Because I live in the Northeast and wanted a wide plank, several flooring specialists recommended engineered wood over solid. This saved me money in two ways: First, the engineered hardwood that I got at Hurst was about $1.40 less per square foot than a similar solid hardwood. Second, if I had pushed for the latter, I likely would have run into expensive issues in the future. As Caroll explains, if you really want solid wood at a more substantial width, you need central humidity control and wood subfloors. Otherwise you might experience stability and shifting issues that can be costly to correct later. (It should be noted that the pricing for engineered wood can easily rival, and even surpass, solid—it depends on a lot of factors. For example, I was able to find an 8-inch solid white oak option at Build Direct for $2.99 per square foot—so don’t despair if you have your heart set on solid.) 

You’ll also encounter additional options, such as square or beveled edges, plank length, grade, thickness, milling type, and installation style. I thoroughly investigated all of these factors before making my final selection. I went with square over beveled edges and longer plank lengths (generally more expensive) for a smoother appearance. But because I wanted some character, I opted for something with a few natural knots and flaws, aka live sawn grade

Finish in Place

Your final choice: prefinished or unfinished wood. (The latter is just as it sounds, unfinished, and you or your contractor will need to add a color and seal once it’s installed.) Both options have positives and negatives. Prefinished wood is completed in the factory, and once it’s installed, it is done. No need to wait to lay down your beautiful area rugs or walk on it. You eliminate chances of error and are usually left with a more durable finish, according to Caroll. 

With unfinished planks, you have a wider range of stains to consider, the ability to tweak the results, and no bevels between the planks. “We always finish in place,” says Finley. “You get a smoother surface and complete control of the color. There’s no need for dozens of floor samples, and you can create a stain that suits your overall design aesthetic.” 

The difference in pricing ultimately evens out: Prefinished wood is more expensive than unfinished wood, but you end up paying more in labor for the latter.

Unlike when I attempted to manage my own demo process, handling my wood flooring upgrades yielded serious savings—and the end result was gorgeous. It was worth every obstacle, even lugging and unpacking dozens of cartons of timber myself. My only regret? Not going with the new, wider planks for the entire house.

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