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DON'T BE FLOORED // It's the natural choice

HARDWOOD

Why do the manufacturers of vinyl, plastic laminate and ceramic tile floor coverings all make wood lookalikes?

Probably for the same reason real estate agents always remember to point out hardwood floors in a home for sale: People like them. They're considered beautiful, natural and desirable in a home. A wood floor is long-lived: It's the wood floors in homes built 75 years ago or more that make buyers' hearts pound.

"It's a natural product, and the cost you put into the flooring will go right on your appraisal sheet and become part of the value of your home, while carpet or laminates will not do that," said Sam Lembo of Custom Hardwood Flooring, which has branches in Tampa and Largo. "The demand for hardwood floors has been unbelievable," he said, prompting his company to schedule the opening of another store in Sarasota this fall.

Wood starts at about $4.50 a square foot, Lembo said. "The average price of a good-quality wood product is around $7 a square foot."

Oak and maple are the most popular hardwoods, but consumers are also attracted to pecan, cherry, walnut and ash, as well as exotic woods for borders and inlays. Typically the woods are stained, then sealed with urethane.

"Hardwood flooring" is a broad term that covers a variety of products:

Solid strips and planks, usually } inch thick, which are nailed into a subfloor, then sanded and finished.

Prefinished strips and planks. Also referred to as engineered floors, these consist of three or more thin wood veneers. (They are sometimes referred to as laminated floors, but don't confuse them with plastic laminates; see the separate story on those floor coverings.) Prefinished strips or planks range from / to | inch thick and are designed to be glued directly to concrete or wood subfloors. They are already stained and sealed, so they are popular for remodeling jobs because installation is much faster than that of unfinished floors, which must be installed, sanded, then stained and sealed. Prefinished floors are popular with people who are concerned about the use of chemicals in their homes.

These engineered floors represent about 25 percent of the $861-million wood flooring market and are expected to double their share within 10 years, according to Floor Covering Weekly, the industry newspaper.

"Wood is priced in the range of the mid to top line of carpeting," Lembo said, "but it's cheaper in the long run because it won't have to be replaced every five years."

Advocates say wood is more forgiving and quieter than an extremely hard surface such as ceramic tile. Unlike carpet, "there's no hidden dirt; you can see everything," said Terry Reeb of Hardwood Specialists of St. Petersburg. He won first place for best residential historical renovation in the 1995 competition sponsored by the Florida West Coast chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

Some people shy away from wood floors for kitchens, "but it's the easiest thing to keep clean. There's one solid surface, no grout joints," Reeb said. "As long as you wipe up spills in a reasonable length of time, it comes right up."

Sand, grit and dirt act like sandpaper on a floor's finish, so it's important to use door mats at a home's entrances and to sweep up those abrasives. Spike heels can damage wood and other floors.

Floors can go for years without refinishing unless homeowners want to change the color of the stain. Often buffing or small repairs are all that is needed to rejuvenate a tired floor. Wood floors are subject to termite damage.

Information from Hardwood Floors magazine and from the Hardwood Manufacturers Association was used in this report.

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