What's the Best Flooring for High-Traffic Areas?

Wood might look great, but other materials are better at resisting wear

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Child, dog and scooter in the living space of a home. Photo: Getty Images

For warmth and texture on a new floor, nothing beats real wood. But almost everything beats up real wood—dragged furniture, dropped pots, cleats, cocker spaniel claws—and common wisdom has it that a high-traffic area in your home needs tougher stuff underfoot, like tile or stone.

So you may be surprised to learn that the holy grail of flooring—the look of wood plus the strength of tile—is now a reality. Wood-look porcelain tile, a relatively new flooring type, doesn’t have the “give” of a new wood floor, but on the whole, it looks like a pretty good facsimile. And Consumer Reports’ tests find that it’s tough enough to hold up in highly trafficked areas like hallways, kitchens, and basement dens.

“Tile is the highest-rated flooring among the categories we test,” says Enrique de Paz, who leads flooring testing at Consumer Reports. “It doesn’t wear out, scratch, or stain. Its color doesn’t fade, it’s waterproof, and it is surprisingly slip-resistant, even when wet.”

More on Flooring and Floor Care

Wood and engineered wood—that is, layers of plywood and other materials topped with a thin slice of real hardwood veneer and a protective coating—don’t stand up well to everyday assaults. And when faced with the abrasion machine in Consumer Reports’ surface-wear tests—a stand-in for the abuse of high-traffic areas—most of the prefinished solid-wood and engineered-wood products in our recent evaluations receive Good or Fair ratings.

The unimpressive performance of prefinished solid wood has to do in part with the upper “wear layer”—polyurethane, for instance—that manufacturers apply to floorboards. When Consumer Reports tests these two wood flooring types, the resulting wear is visible more quickly than for other types of flooring.

“Laminate and vinyl products are generally made of tougher stuff­,” de Paz says. Porcelain is even better for wear resistance, he adds, but it’s more expensive and trickier to install.

Our top-performing flooring products in laminate and porcelain tile, and most top-performing vinyls, get superlative ratings not just for resisting foot traffic but also stains and sunlight.

Tips to Keep in Mind

Before you make your final choice, consider these key factors.

• Vinyl, tile, and most prefinished solid flooring types are better choices when it comes to formaldehyde emissions. Just be sure to use glues that don’t contain the gas when installing those materials. Bamboo prefinished solid-wood, engineered-wood, and laminate flooring products are made with glues and resins that can emit formaldehyde.

• If you’re worried that lower-cost laminate and vinyl will look fake, our experts say to mix up planks from di­fferent boxes as you lay them down. That helps to break up a repetitive pattern.

Here’s what to know about each of these if you’re planning to install flooring in a high-traffic area.

Check out the top-picks in flooring from our latest tests.

Laminate

Laminate flooring can resemble almost anything: stone, tile, even wood. That’s because it’s composed of a photograph sandwiched between a dense fiberboard base and a clear plastic protective top layer. The repetitive patterns of laminate boards, however, can betray their fakeness.

Laminate can be extremely tough stuff. But you’ll have to replace the flooring once its top layer has worn through because it can’t be sanded like wood.

This laminate flooring from Pergo is a CR Best Buy because of its Overall Score of Excellent and its competitive price per square foot. It performs extremely well against foot traffic, stains, and sunlight. And it earns Very Good ratings for its scratch and dent resistance.

Porcelain Tile

A classic flooring material, tile tends to resist wear, moisture, scratches, dents, and stains. But installing porcelain tiles can be challenging, so for most applications it might be best to hire a professional. Dropped cups and dishes break more easily on tile, and grout can stain. Replacing cracked tiles also can be a challenge.

These porcelain tile choices earn Excellent scores for colorfastness against sunlight and for resisting foot traffic, scratches, water spills, and flooding. For resisting dents and stains, both products earn Very Good scores. You can expect the other colors of these products to perform similarly.

Vinyl

This type of flooring is especially good at fending off wear, dents, scratches, discoloration from sunlight, and stains. So it’s an appropriate flooring for high-traffic areas. It’s relatively easy to install—particularly as tiles or planks—and has numerous color and design choices. Premium brands can resemble stone, tile, and even wood. But even the best of these products look fake up close.

These two vinyl flooring options are rated Excellent overall, and in fact perform the same in all our tests (rounding accounts for the tiny score difference). Their resistance to scratches, dents, and color change from sunlight, water spills, and flooding is outstanding. They resist foot traffic, stains, and slipping very well.

Prefinished Solid Wood

When all is said and done, if you still hanker for wood in a high-traffic area, opt for the real thing. A major benefit of real wood is that it can be refinished many times, de Paz says. You may be able to refinish some engineered-wood products, but just once.

“If you love wood and are handy and can refinish it or are willing to pay a professional to do it, it’s not a bad choice,” de Paz says. “You just have to know what you’re getting into.”

The first prefinished solid-wood product shown below performs better than its peers in our tests; it earns an Excellent score for scratch resistance, a Very Good mark for dent resistance, and a Good rating for foot traffic. (While it’s marketed as solid wood, it’s actually made from long bamboo fibers that are glued and pressed together into floor planks.) The second product isn’t as resistant to dents, but in its manufacture it doesn’t use glue that can emit formaldehyde. (Glue is used in the first model.)