Awhile back I was hired to do sales education training for a big flooring retailer, so ahead of time my wife and I went secret-shopping to the company's various retail outlets. We targeted the most popular and high-end locations with the most hardwood flooring so we could write down some of the statements the salespeople made and incorporate them into the sales training. In many cases, the statements that were made were false. Here are some of the real statements that we wrote down and I discussed in the training:
"Engineered wood flooring is harder than solid flooring."
"The warranty covers gapping and checking."
"I won't sell solid wood floors." (Even though they sold them.)
"Engineered flooring cannot be sanded."
"Engineered won't crack."
"Sound pad can be used under nail-down."
"Subfloors MUST be level."
"Windows affect outside air and humidity."
Most of us in the wood flooring industry aren't too surprised by these statements. When I do inspections, I see that the point of sale is often where most wood flooring problems start. Why? Most likely it's due to a lack of retailer education when it comes to choosing the appropriate product to fit the right environment for the right purpose. Following are examples of real inspections I have done; they are some of the most typical complaints I see in which I think the wood flooring professionals let their customers down by not educating them about their floors.
Complaint #1: My Floor Has Gaps.
In a high-end home in the Midwest, the owner had spent a large amount of money on his 5-inch-wide, factory-finished, dark-stained solid birch floors. His flooring contractor left behind a hygrometer and told the homeowner to make sure the humidity stayed in the recommended range. Now the homeowner was furious because, even though his hygrometer said the relative humidity was in the right range, the floor had shrunk and you could see gaps everywhere throughout the floor.
In spite of this being a high-end job for the geographic region, the wood flooring contractor had left the homeowner relying on his gift of a cheap $10 analog hygrometer. When I tested the RH using two different professional-grade hygrometers, it measured 15% less than the reading from the cheap one-out of the recommended range.
Even though the gaps were unsightly, they weren't excessive. When I told the customer the gaps were normal, he said, "Well, no one ever told me that, or I would never have bought this floor."
This is one of the biggest problems I come across time after time. Unrealistically, customers expect their flooring to look identical to the day it was put in. Although it can happen with any floor, I find it happens more often with factory-finished floors than site-finished floors. I believe this might be because contractors tend to do a better job of explaining what will happen to the floors with the change in seasons, while many retail salespeople are more focused on the design aspects of choosing the product and making the sale.
Any floor, whether solid or engineered, will shrink and swell with changes in humidity. The wider the flooring, the more it will shrink and swell. If a floor has large permanent gaps, no matter the season, that is a problem. If the gaps come and go with the seasons, that is just wood being wood. Oftentimes people forget to explain what is considered "normal" for seasonal gapping. For example, the standard for a red oak strip floor for a seasonal gap is 1/32, or 0.03125 inch. That equals a gap of 0.01388 per inch. Therefore an expected gap for 5-inch oak plank would be .070 inch (0.014 x 5 = 0.070), approximately the thickness of two dimes.
Even when contractors try to educate their customers that they need to maintain the recommended humidity, things can go wrong. In this case, simply leaving behind a quality hygrometer would have alerted the homeowner that the RH was low before everything dried out enough to leave him with light-colored gaps throughout his floor.
People often have unrealistic expectations of what's necessary to maintain the right humidity levels. Many areas of our country get extremely dry seasonally or, in desert or other arid regions, are continually at low RH. I've had people point at a small tabletop humidifier-the only one in the whole house-as evidence that they are maintaining humidity in their homes. Adding in-line humidity to a home isn't typically a huge expense, especially if it's a higher end job, but it's something that should be addressed up front.
With a stained floor like this, if the top of the flooring is a color closer to the natural wood color, it doesn't look so objectionable. If low humidity is a concern, that's a good reason to reconsider installing dark-stained flooring.
Complaint #2: He Said I Could Get a New Floor.
A 5-inch engineered plank was installed over a plywood subfloor and appeared to be delaminating. The retailer did the pre-inspection and made a predetermination that it was delamination, going so far as to tell the customer that it was a manufacturing-related problem and that they would talk to the manufacturer about getting a new floor.
In their efforts to avoid getting in a dogfight with customers upset about their floor, or to avoid taking five minutes to try to identify what's actually wrong with the floor, salespeople often seem to pacify the homeowners by immediately promising that the manufacturer or distributor will pay for a new floor. That sets up a long process with some unrealistic and expensive expectations and leaves the inspector to be the "bad guy" and potentially deliver very bad news.
Creating any expectations up front is a bad idea. Typically the retailer should call the distributor with the complaint and the distributor should do a site visit and make a report to the manufacturer regarding the site visit in order to determine if the problem is site-related or manufacturer-related. Typically the manufacturer will commission an inspector to perform an inspection and compile a written report defining the concerns. That official report is the determination on whether a floor can be replaced. Keep in mind that an inspection report should determine the cause of the problem, but that doesn't necessarily mean the report assigns blame. For example, if an inspector determines a floor fails because of moisture on the job site, the inspector doesn't say whose fault it was that there was extra moisture on the job.
Complaint #3: My Engineered Floor is Covered in Dents!
A homeowner complained that the barstools around her island in her kitchen were denting her exotic engineered wood floor, which had only a 2-mil wear layer. The retailer who sold the floor had told the homeowner that the floor was "hard as nails." She picked her floor specifically to hold up to the wear of her dog and her furniture. When I inspected the floor, you could dent it with your thumbnail.
When people shop for flooring, they seem to be easily misled by Janka ratings for hardness, especially when buying an engineered floor. A Janka test measures how much force is necessary to embed a .444-inch ball halfway into a plank at least 1 inch thick. If you're dealing with a floor that has a 2-mil wear layer over a different core, such as Baltic birch, then you can't expect it to have the dent resistance of a solid piece of wood. Even if the top layer has a high Janka rating and it didn't dent, the thin wear layer will telegraph the dent in the softer core underneath. I've noticed increasing numbers of engineered wood flooring manufacturers taking Janka ratings off their literature due to this fact.
It would serve all of us in the industry well if, at the point of sale, we didn't try to convince customers that Janka ratings are a guarantee of durability (this goes for solid and engineered). Whether a floor will dent depends on its species, how it was cut, how thick the floor is, how sharp the object denting the floor is, and more.
Just a final word regarding finishes and Janka ratings: No, a hard finish won't help prevent dents.
Complaint #4: The Finish Looks Smudgy.
The customer complained that she could see footprints and other marks on her dark-colored prefinished floor that had a matte finish. When I went to inspect the floor, it was summer and I was wearing shorts and sandals, and when I was done with the inspection I could see the marks where I had bent down on the floor. The customer, who had small children, mentioned that those marks were exactly what she hated about her "*$#^$ wood floor."
This is something that should have been covered during the pre-sale. Some colors and sheens are simply prone to showing those types of marks, and dark-colored floors are going to show more signs of smudging and marring than earth-toned floors and other light-colored floors.
Complaint #5: My Finish Isn't Perfect.
The homeowner was upset about his finish because he noticed a hair in the finish of his site-finished wood floor. (Hard to believe, but I really have done inspections just because of a hair in the finish coat.)
Many customers expect a table-top finish on their wood floors, but that is virtually impossible to obtain on a job-site finished floor. The NWFA guidelines allow hair or debris to be present in wood floor finish but not predominant. Explain that to your customers before you do the job! And remember that floors should always be evaluated for acceptability from a standing position in normal ambient lighting, not at a certain time of day when the light hits it just right.
It may sound ridiculous to hire a certified inspector simply because of a minor finish imperfection, and in my contracting business, I would rather do a simple finish repair to make the customer happy than go through an inspection just to prove I'm right.
These days, customers are overwhelmed with options, and they are looking to the wood flooring professional to make sure they get the right product for their home and their lifestyle. The more they are educated before the sale, the more likely it is they'll be happy with their hardwood floor and make all of our lives easier.