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The wood floors in our new-to-us house are kind of beat up. There are very few indelible marks and scratches that will require strategic furniture placement, but most of the damage is just superficial scuffing, discoloration, and irregularities in the stain. Notably, they have no polyurethane or other clear coat protecting the finish.

Ultimately they deserve to be stripped, sanded, and refinished. However, with the number of pets and young children we currently have, I'm reluctant to do a full refinish job when realistically they will get pretty beat up again within 3-5 years. I'd like to delay the full refinish until after this damage-intensive period of child rearing tails off. However, I'm concerned that with the total absence of clear coat the floors may in that intervening time acquire much more damage than they would with one.

I'm now thinking that I'd like, for now, to lay down some polyurethane on the freshly cleaned but otherwise unrepaired floor. This would be cheap, give some protection from incurring further damage, and only take a day to do. My question is, will doing this make my already beat up floors look appreciably worse?

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Are (were) these high traffic areas, or just random spots? If high traffic, then a fresh coat will work wonders without implying lots of extra work ten years down the road. –  Wayfaring Stranger May 13 at 12:58
    
It's a very high traffic area, essentially the entire first level of the house including the living room. –  Clay Fouts May 15 at 17:10

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In my experience, it will tend to make them look a bit better as opposed to worse. The polyurethane will obscure some of the scratches, diffuse some discolorations to make them less noticeable, and the added gloss will also make imperfections a little less visible.

The flip side to this is that it will make it much more time consuming to do a full refinish in 3-5 years, especially if you are putting down enough polyurethane to give any sort of appreciable protection from further damage. Also consider the added time and hassle of clearing out furniture, dust issues from sanding, etc. The absolute best time for refinishing a floor is when the house isn't occupied yet.

As far as the "right decision", there really isn't one - you can price out refinishing with a high traffic, durable coating and compare that against sanding off 2-3 coats of polyurethane in 3-5 years and then refinishing.

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I am a firm believer in doing it right the first time. The most expensive part of this type of job is the urethane. Good quality oil based urethane can go $50 to $90 per gallon. you really need at least three coats to do the job properly, with a light sanding between coats.

If you take the time to sand the floors now, get them in a good condition, balance the color if necessary, then put on 3 or 4 coats of oil based quality floor urethane, you will amazed how well they will hold up to kids and pets. The other advantage is that spills, surface scratches and normal wear and tear can be easily repaired a few years from now with a light sanding and a couple fresh coats of urethane.

The disadvantage of doing a quicky overcoat now over a damaged floor is that it will be much harder to sand, a lot messier later to remove all the urethane and surface damage on the wood. The job will take a lot longer and any $$$ you spent on urethane will be wasted.

If you do it right now, you will enjoy a nicer looking durable floor now and the freshening 3 to 5 years from now will be simple and fast.

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