We are beginning to look at replacing the floors in our home and are considering laminate flooring. We are wondering if there is a difference in type and quality, especially when pricing is concerned. For example, the flooring at Lowe's is considerable more expensive than at Sam's Club; should I be worried that the lower cost flooring is a lesser quality? Are there other considerations besides price?
Great question! My wife and I were examining laminate flooring a little while ago too. Not all of them are alike -- here are some things to consider.
Check the warranty. Cheaper laminate will usually have a shorter warranty with more conditions (e.g. 10 - 15 years only protecting factory defects). More expensive laminate will usually cover more conditions for a longer time (e.g. 25 years+ covering factory defect, normal wear and tear, fading, staining, denting and water resistance). Keep in mind that these are examples -- every manufacturer is different.
Find out details of how a sample is made A lot of laminate flooring is now treated with Aluminum Oxide which protects it against scratching and denting. More expensive laminate may have more coatings. If you're expecting heavy foot traffic or have animals with nails, you might want to take it into consideration. For answers to questions like this, you might need to contact the manufacturer directly.
Thickness varies Laminate thickness can vary anywhere from 5mm to 12mm. The thicker laminate can feel more stable and supposedly be less likely to have problems with humidity changes.
Joint integrity varies Not all laminate flooring interconnects in exactly the same way. Some joint connections can withstand weight and water leaks better than others. Name-brand manufacturers claim to have more experience with this. Be sure to check how the pieces fit together.
I can add one other option from my own experience as a first time laminate buyer/installer.
I'm in a rental where "anything goes" - it's an open floorplan but for the bedroom and bathroom. It came with horrid (and asbestos-containing) floor tiles. I eventually decided to buy the cheapest laminate flooring I could find. I covered an area of about 550 SF and laminate was actually the cheapest option compared to everything else I could find (I'd even considered epoxy paint).
First thing to note is that Lowes and HD have a pretty small selection and even their "cheap" stuff is expensive. Google found me Lumber Liquidators and I just waited until some of the 6mm stuff fell below $0.60 SF. It had fairly good reviews (most complaints were about installation issues, which I didn't encounter, being a reader of directions and such) and I was allowed to try to damage the sample in the store.
So in short, I suppose my answer is this - from what I could see, the differences in quality seem to have more to do with ease of installation and appearance than overall durability. My $0.59/SF flooring shows no signs of wear after a year (and two dogs). I've tried to damage some extra pieces with varying success - scraping a key does nothing, a sharp nail does nothing, but really gouging at it with a sharp screw can leave a mark. I suspected as much as I went through 4 circular saw blades cutting each end piece. The coating seems exceptionally tough and so far I see no issues with the adhesion of the coating to the underlying fiberboard, nor did I see any signs it was not well bonded when cutting it (I never saw the top layer separate from the board). The joints seem to be holding up, but are slightly visible, perhaps the high-end laminate has tighter tolerances in manufacturing.
Bottom line, if you're looking to spend less than $2.50/SF or so, go with something extremely cheap from a place other than HD or Lowes.