Kristy Kitzmiller had three requirements of the flooring for her new beachfront home in New Buffalo, Mich.
It must be beautiful, environmentally friendly and able to withstand sandy feet from her human and canine visitors. Her choice: wide-plank (6- to 20-inch widths) American pine with a dark-stain finish.
"Pine is a fast-growing tree, so I feel good about (my choice)," she said. "After two years of traffic, it's gorgeous, but rustic."
Although pine is softer than some woods, nicks add to its character, she said. Kitzmiller's choice reflects the latest trends in wood flooring.
Continuous flooring. Homeowners like Kitzmiller are showing that hardwood doesn't have to be limited to formal rooms. The popularity of open floor plans has made wood flooring a natural choice for achieving a seamless look. When remodeling, replacing wall-to-wall carpeting with wood has become an appealing option.
Radiant surfaces. No longer does radiant floor heating limit the homeowner to engineered wood, which expands and contracts less than solid-wood flooring. Kitzmiller has solid wood and radiant heating because her floor manufacturer uses a multistep drying process that makes it stable, explained her architect, Tai Kojro-Badziak, of roomTen Design in Chicago.
Array of choices. There are many wood options available beyond basic oak and pine, from exotic species to reclaimed wood.
Before you step foot in a showroom, learn the industry jargon.
Style. Strip style has 1 1/2- to 3-inch-wide boards. Plank flooring is wider. Parquet is a geometric design made of short boards.
Solid or engineered. Solid wood flooring is about 3/4 to 5/16 inches thick and can be sanded and refinished repeatedly. Engineered wood is a thinner solid board on top of a plywood or composite substrate. Some engineered woods have veneers that can't be refinished, but the new, thicker ones can be.
"You can refinish it many times," said Tom Shafer of the 3/4-inch-thick engineered-wood floors his company, Maine Heritage Timber, makes from sunken pine, fir and spruce trees he harvests from Quakish Lake in Maine.
Engineered-wood manufacturers say their floors are as scuff-resistant as solid wood.
"They can take high heels and dog toenails," said Emily Morrow, director of color, style and design for Shaw Floors.
Cut. The least expensive hardwood is plain sawn, with a grainy look. More expensive but less grainy is quarter sawn. Rift sawn is top-dollar, with a cleaner look.
Species. Hardwoods include oak and hickory, while softwoods include pine and black cherry.
Many buyers demand American-grown trees from forests that are guaranteed sustainable, said the suppliers. The "socially responsible consumer" especially appreciates reclaimed wood, said Shafer. "We're using trees that were already felled and saving 1,000 acres of trees a year from being cut."
Finish. A wood floor can be factory finished or finished on site. Factory finished is no longer inferior to site finished and no longer comes with wide bevels that trapped dirt between boards.
"By doing the finish here, we can make it stronger and longer lasting," explained Todd Waterman, design program manager of Carlisle Wide Plank Floors, which made Kitzmiller's floors.
Water-based finishes are in and oil-based is out. They last longer than their predecessors, installers said.
"We call them 200-year floors," said Butch Kirk, owner of San Jose Hardwood Floors in San Jose, Calif. "They'll outlive us."