Begin by considering where the flooring will go and how much traffic, sunlight, and other wear and tear it will get. Vinyl proves tops in our moisture tests, and most linoleum, laminates, and solid wood fare nearly as well. But many engineered woods, along with some solid woods, and a linoleum product we've tested have flubbed that test—a serious drawback in a busy kitchen. And while the best vinyls and laminates fend off wear better than solid wood, they can't be refinished when worn.
How to shop
Before settling on a product, spend a few dollars on two or three samples. That can be a lot less expensive than winding up with flooring that looks great in a catalog or on a website but awful in your home. Manufacturers generally match most solid- or engineered-wood flooring for color and grain. But variations can occur from one batch to the next, so buy the flooring you'll need all at once. All the laminate floorboards in a package often have a similar pattern, so you may want to pull from multiple packages to reduce repetition.
To determine how much flooring you'll need, measure the room's square footage by multiplying its length times its width. (Divide an irregularly shaped room into smaller rectangles, calculate the square footage of each rectangle, and then add them together.) Then buy 7 to 10 percent extra to allow for mistakes, bad samples, and waste. You might also want to invest in an extra box of flooring for future repairs or additions.
Know how rough you'll be
The best products in every category have also been also the best overall in our simulated foot-traffic tests. For less busy kitchens, you might want to consider the top engineered wood or bamboo floors, with their blend of natural veneer and easy installation.
Pick a factory finish
Prefinished wood floors cost about 40 percent more than unfinished products. But you're likely to save overall because a factory finish tends to last longer—and paying a pro to apply the finish adds costs, mess, and hassle. Factory finishes are also warranted by the manufacturer, which is more likely to still be in business, years later, should you need to make a warranty claim.
Check for certification
Vinyl floors with the industry's FloorScore certification emit relatively low levels of volatile organic compounds, substances linked to health problems and pollution. All vinyl we recommend has that certification. For wood flooring, certification by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative offers some assurance that it comes from responsibly managed forests, a plus for the planet. The product and manufacturer must be certified; check the packaging.
When you get it home
Before installing wood or laminate flooring, unpack it and let it sit for one to three days in the space where it will be installed so that its temperature and moisture match the levels in the room.
Keeping new floors looking good
If you need to heat the room soon after installation, raise the temperature gradually over the course of a week—especially if you have radiant heat—to allow the flooring to adjust. Sweep or vacuum floors with a soft broom or brush, and clean with a damp but not overly wet mop. Check the manufacturer's guidelines for recommended cleaning products. And put felt pads under furniture to prevent scratching.
Where to save
One way to save is on overstocks. Discounters such as iFloor (www.ifloor.com) and Lumber Liquidators (www.lumberliquidators.com) buy directly from manufacturers, and they often buy overstocked flooring and sell it below list price. Also, take advantage of mistakes. You can often save on opened or damaged boxes or on flooring with minor flaws you can install where they wouldn't be noticed.
Hiring a pro to do the installation? You can trim hundreds of dollars off the job by doing the time-consuming prep work such as prying up the old flooring, leveling or filling the subfloor, and removing any baseboard that's in the way.