"What's under the carpet?" home buyers want to know. Implicit in the question is the answer they're hoping for: hardwood floors.
According to a recent national survey of real estate brokers, homes with hardwood floors sell for more money and faster than those without. If you're planning to remodel or add on, a wood floor could well be a wise investment, not to mention a beauty to behold for as long as you live there.
To capitalize on its investment potential and its aesthetic appeal, don't settle for a one-color wood floor -- or even a one-wood floor.
Thanks to new technology, new stains and finishes, and new attitudes among designers, architects, artists and flooring contractors, you can personalize a wood floor to your heart's content.
Think location: With the exception, perhaps, of the basement, there's not a room in the house where a wood floor would be inappropriate. Because of moisture-resistant urethane finishes, that now includes bathrooms and kitchens. Of course, wood is not as impervious to water and soil as, say, ceramic tile. But, then, that's what bathmats are for.
Think color: The white- washed, bleached and pickled finishes of recent years have taken traditional dark wood beyond the pale. Now, thanks to aniline dyes and pigmented stains, you can have a wood floor in a nonwood color -- pine-needle green, slate gray, mandarin red or any other hue you can think of.
Think pattern: Row after row of boards all the same size can produce an attractive floor. But there are options. Install the floorboards on the diagonal or create a herringbone effect. Use boards of random widths -- 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 inches -- to achieve a look that is more rustic and less rigidly formal.
Think detail: If an overall pattern is too much for you, add some delicate ornament with wood inlays. Inlaid borders can put an ornamental frame around a wood floor.
You can make a border by using different stains on individual pieces of wood or even by using different woods.
Traditionalists may want to choose a classic border pattern, such as a Greek key design. Those with more contemporary tastes may want only a pencil-thin line to add a fine detail.
Think finish: For some people, there's nothing quite so glamorous and elegant as a wood floor polished to a high gleam. But low-gloss and no-gloss finishes are now available and finding a following. They tend to show dust and scuff marks less than polished floors.
Wood flooring comes unfinished or pre-finished. Unfinished wood is installed, then sanded, stained and sealed on site. Pre-finished wood is sanded, stained and sealed at the factory and arrives ready to install.
Think mixing materials: For a wood floor in the kitchen, put a ceramic tile inlay in front of the sink. In the bath, extend ceramic tile out from the shower and tub 24 to 36 inches and reserve hardwood for the dry areas.
You can mix materials for aesthetic as well as utilitarian reasons, too. Mix wood with stone, framing sections of granite or marble tiles with wood planks. Or frame sections of brick or wood parquet tiles with wood planks.
To keep costs down, install a hardwood border around the perimeter of a room and use carpeting directly on the subfloor in the middle of the room. As the carpet wears or your tastes change, you can change the carpet inlay without disturbing the wood border.
If you're not working with an interior designer or architect, search out a like-minded flooring contractor with a record for innovative floors. He or she should have photographs of previous installations and should be willing to work with you on a custom design or custom coloring. When you encounter anything less than enthusiasm for doing things in a way that's different from the way they've always been done, you're dealing with the wrong individual. Keep looking.
To give the contractor an idea of what you're looking for, order product brochures from wood-flooring manufacturers (you can find them in the final pages of many decoration magazines or at your local lumberyard). Tear pictures out of the magazines that show the kinds of wood floor treatments that appeal to you.
Another good source of information is the National Wood Flooring Association's consumer hot line at (500) 443-WOOD. For 25 cents a minute you can talk to a wood-flooring expert about woods, finishes and installation.
Whether it's dramatic or subtle, a wood floor can indeed be a decorative element, not just an unnoticed surface for furniture or a taken-for-granted foundation for household traffic.
Once you know there are options and alternatives to conventional wood floors, give yourself permission to consider a floor that reflects your personal taste and temperament.