Vinyl in Vogue

Luxury vinyl offers an affordable but elegant flooring option

  • Shaw's vinyl flooring, with its realistic look of authentic natural hardwood, is extremely durable and easy to clean. Shown here: Gunstock Oak from the Array Sumter Plank collection.
  • A beautiful tile design, Mannington's Obsidian Lava is a look inspired by volcanic rock. Available in 16”x16” squares and new 12”x24” rectangles, the tiles can be grouted for a more realistic appearance.
  • Armstrong's Alterna vinyl tiles mimic high-end ceramic and stone. Shown here: Athenian Travertine in Honey Onyx.
  • Vinyl is one of the few types of flooring that you can call truly water-proof, not just water-resistant, making it perfect for rooms prone to wetness like bathrooms and kitchens. Shown here: Mohawk's Simplesse in Driftwood Teak.

Story by Jamey Bradbury

Luxury vinyl: It might sound like a contradiction in terms, but this isn’t your grandmother’s orange sheet vinyl floor we’re talking about. Today’s vinyl flooring benefits from advances in technology that make it look and feel like hardwood, slate, stone or ceramic tile. And modern vinyl isn’t just easy on the eyes; the durability, feel and performance of this flooring has turned it into one of the most popular options for homeowners looking for a luxury look without a luxury price.

Picture Perfect

“Vinyl has come a long way,” says Sarah Bratten, sales manager with MacCheyne’s Carpets Plus in Fairbanks. While consumers can still find old-school sheet vinyl, which comes in big rolls that cover the floor of an entire room, luxury vinyl tiles and planks are experiencing a surge in popularity among homeowners. “It’s seen tremendous growth, and it keeps getting more popular every year. People are seeing how versatile and good looking it is.”

So what makes luxury vinyl so exciting? Digital photography. No joke: Vinyl flooring is made up of layers of material, starting with a thick backing layer and ending with a clear, protective film and an aluminum oxide layer that prevents scuffs and scratches. But the part of the tile you see is the design layer, a photo-realistic print of stone or wood. With digital photography, designers take a picture of the real thing – whether it’s rich walnut or elegant marble – then create a replica using a printing process called “rotogravure.”

Luxury vinyl looks so realistic, you’ll have to touch it to be sure it’s not actual wood or stone. And even then, you might be fooled: Mechanical rollers are often used to create textures that mimic wood grain or slate. “You can rub your hand across it, and it’s got a realistic feel,” describes Bratten.

On the Ground Floor

The shapes of the individual pieces of tile also provide versatility. While luxury vinyl that mimics the look of hardwood or laminate comes in long, narrow planks, stone- or slate-like vinyl is offered in tiles of varying sizes. “This opens you up to a lot of options,” explains Krystal Haavik, assistant operations manager at Super Floors of Alaska. “You can swap out tiles to create different patterns and really customize your floor.”

Like laminate, vinyl is relatively easy to install for the home do-it-yourselfer, especially one who’s looking to save on cost. Tiles or planks are either glued down or clicked together to “float” over the subfloor. “You can even grout between the tiles that are glued down,” says Bratten, “and it will look like a very convincing stone tile floor.”

Great Look, Great Performance

Unlike laminate or hardwood, though, vinyl stands up to the test of time and the elements. “It’s more water-resistant,” says Haavik. “And with humidity changes, wood can either swell or contract; over five years, the whole look of your floor can change. With vinyl flooring, you’re never going to have to get a commercial humidifier for your home just to maintain the integrity of your floor.”

Adds Bratten, “Luxury vinyl is durable, and it’s warmer than laminate or stone, and softer underfoot. It’s so much easier to maintain, which is a plus for active families or homeowners with pets. When it comes to durability and maintenance, vinyl can’t be beat.”

Things to Consider

So, with all its advantages, why would anyone choose anything other than vinyl?

While it’s comparatively less expensive than many flooring options, luxury vinyl isn’t the rock-bottom cheapest option, especially if you don’t plan on installing it yourself. Installation by a pro can run from $8 to $10 a square foot – about as much for some standard hardwood or ceramic tile. But, as Bratten points out, “People are willing to spend a little more to upgrade, and with a vinyl plank or tile floor that has a heavier wear layer, you get more bang for your buck.”

If you’re making upgrades to sell your home, remember that luxury vinyl flooring may not bring the same value to your home in resale as wood or tile would – no matter how realistic that vinyl looks.

“The number one thing a customer should think about,” says Haavik, “is what their expectation of the flooring is. If they want it to look the most like hardwood, they’ll be better off with laminate or actual wood, even though that’s more expensive.”

But, she adds, luxury vinyl is the best bet for those who want flooring that’s going to hold up over time, and still look great.