Wood Floors: Stop the Squeak and Keep ‘Em Looking Good

Faced with squeaks or water stains on your hardwood floor? Make the fix and protect your investment

SWEETEN_Jessica_Apartment-10Refinished wood flooring in Jessica and David’s apartment

Hardwood floors can be majestic. They bring an Old World charm to any home. Walk on them with bare feet and the quality is undeniable. Nothing man-made can ever quite replicate it.

Hardwood floors can also be enticing; more than 50 percent of people in the market for a home are willing to pay more for a place that has hardwood floors, according to National Association of Realtors. The average amount of that “more” is $2,080. And the younger the buyers are, the higher they rate hardwood floors on their list of desirable features.

As wonderful as they are, hardwood floors can come with some hiccups. They can squeak and creak. They can stain and buckle. The materials and installation can get pricey. But all that might be worth it when you gaze upon those gorgeous floors (and later sell your home faster and for a slightly higher price). Sweeten, a free service matching homeowners with vetted general contractors, illustrates how to navigate those few hardwood floor obstacles.

Why do hardwood floors squeak?

Contrary to popular belief, it’s likely not the wood that you’re walking on that is making all that racket, according to Scott, a general contractor with Sweeten, a free service connecting homeowners with vetted contractors. The culprit is often the subfloor and joists underneath. The material can become loose, causing friction between two pieces of wood, which emits the squeak. “It’s caused either by people walking on it for a hundred years or it hasn’t been installed properly,” said Scott.

Humidity can also be a major factor, according to Tom Jennings from the World Floor Covering Association. That is especially the case in places like New York, where temperatures “can vary 100 degrees between July 4thand January 4th,” he said. As the floors expand and contract with the humidity, hardwood floors can shift and become loose. At times they can even begin to buckle.

hardwood floor, apartment
Maple floors in Ana and Leo’s apartment

How to fix the squeak

The first question Scott asks when he encounters a squeaky floor is can he get underneath it. It is ideal if there is an open basement under it or the offending floor is on the second level of the home. If it is an apartment with someone else below, then to get to the subfloor the top flooring will likely need to be removed, he explained (unless your downstairs neighbor is very accommodating).
Sometimes the squeak might come from a loose nail as it goes in and out of its hole. This can easily be fastened with a screw. Other times, a shim is used (shims are small pieces of wood used as a re-enforcement to prevent the subfloor and joists from moving and squeaking). Shims are attached with either nails, screws or even a powerful glue. A simple and short nail can also help fasten the subfloor to the floorboards above if that is the cause of the squeak.
In a recent Sweeten projectgeneral contractor Keelin ended up installing a new plywood subfloor in an apartment. He also added a sound attenuation mat between the subfloor and the engineered wood veneer to further muffle any noise.
Controlling the humidity in a home is one way to help mute squeaks from hardwood floors, according to Tom from the World Floor Covering Association. This can be done with a humidifier and a hydrometer. The hydrometer will measure the humidity in a room, which is best kept between 40 and 60 percent.
Before plywood was introduced as a construction material in the 1920s, wide wooden planks were the go-to subfloor material which laid over rafters. Plywood—slim pieces of wood glued together—is much more stable and less prone to squeaks, Tom said.

hardwood floor, prewar apartment
Herringbone patterned oak in Kasey’s prewar apartment

Patching a hardwood floor

If you have a water stain or some floorboards in need of repair, it will be difficult to fix just that one patch. The damaged section would need to be sanded back and then restained. However, “the only portion of the job that is difficult is matching the existing stain,” said Scott. He is referring to the stain that you apply and not the damage.

If that small patch of mismatched floor is in an exposed area, or if you know it will just drive you crazy, the other solution is to sand back the entire floor and restain all of it. That way, you can ensure uniformity in appearance.

Cost to refinish a hardwood floor

Even if your hardwood floor isn’t damaged, giving it a sand and refinishing it will make it feel like new. It’s a good idea to do this every 15 to 20 years, according to Tom. That interval will be determined by the quality of your finish and how much traffic the floor gets. For example, your home entrance would wear faster than an upstairs area.

The national average cost to refinish a 500-square-foot floor is about $1,500, according to Improvenet. The size of the area to be refinished will be your biggest cost factor. Second to that will be the condition of the floor. If there are things like water stains and cracks, more sanding will be needed and that will increase the labor costs. What finish you choose will also impact your total budget. Staining can range from about 40 cents a square foot to just under $1, according to Homewyse.

hardwood floor, studio apartment
Restained maple flooring in Lauren’s studio apartment

Cost of a new floor

The average cost of installing a new hardwood floor including the subfloor is $4,000 for 200 square feet, according to Fixr. That price will move up or down depending on the area you want to cover. It will also depend on if the contractor will have to work around unusual room shapes. Material cost is another factor. Pine can cost $1 to $3 a square foot. At the other end of the scale, walnut costs $6 to $9 a square foot, according to Fixr. Add to that a subfloor, which is between $8 and $16 a square foot. Labor can range from $8 to $12 a square foot, depending on the difficulty of the install.

Hopefully, this advice will keep your hardwood floors in tip-top shape, and keep them quiet as well.

Wood floors look great in any space—and with the right care and maintenance—just get better looking over time. Check out 5 Sweeten homes with classic wide-plank flooring.

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