Photo Credit / ShawnHenning 

Q. I am buying a prewar apartment and the hardwood floors do not appear to be in good condition. What should I know about replacing them? How can I keep costs down?

A. The first thing to know--whether you plan to replace the floors or just refinish them--is to do it before you move in, says architect Tom Degnan of Degnan Design Group. You'll want to avoid the inconvenience and hassle of moving your furniture out of your apartment, as well as the dust and dirt caused by sanding and refinishing. 

Cost-wise, according to Michael Savino of MD Floors, expect to pay between $2 to $4 per square foot just for the existing floors to be removed and disposed of.

New floors will start at about $15 to $18 per square foot and go up from there depending on variables including species, cut, pattern, complexity of the stain and the choice of new floor stain color and the finish (polyurethane, tung oil or wax). This cost includes sanding and finishing. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Take your time

It's important to hire a contractor who won't rush through your job.

“Many want to simply get the job and race to get it done without concern for the quality of the installation, the environment (humidity & temperature) as well as the expectation for finish consistency and quality,” says Degnan.

Flooring should be delivered to the location at least one week prior to the installation so it has a chance to acclimate to the proper temperature and humidity level of the house (temperatures 65-72 degrees F and humidity 30-40 percent), says Savino.

This ensures that the wood will not shrink after installation, which will make for fewer problems after the job is done. 

2. Select the proper width and patterns

Especially in prewar where there is more herringbone and border work, the flooring should compliment the period of building construction, says Joe Scerri of Scerri Quality Wood Floors.

"Anything that doesn't reflect the original design concept of the building should probably be avoided," agrees Savino.

Try to coordinate your choice with what was there originally. Too costly? Try using a similar type of wood and board width and replicate any pre-existing inlay patterns if not cost-prohibitive. The overall look and quality of the new floor is what matters.

"Disparate levels of quality are easily detectable because there's a lack of harmony, and generally, buyers looking at 'renovated space' are not looking for a re-do," according to Manhattan real estate broker, Gordon Roberts of Warburg Realty. 

3. Choose the right wood

Selecting the appropriate type of wood is as important as the pattern. If the original floors are white oak, it’s best to stay with white oak or a wood with a similar look and hardness. Also keep in mind that the harder the wood, the better the durability.

Oak is the most prominent and versatile type of wood. American Walnut and maple are other suitable hardwoods for prewar apartments. 

Exotic woods like mahogany, rosewood, and teak, which tend to be more desired, "may separate more during the winter months with radiator heat, which still exists in prewar buildings," says Scerri. All rainforest wood species are included in this category, he says, while "North American woods have much more stability in a pre-war environment."

4. Think carefully before putting prefinished floors in a prewar

Solid wood flooring is the best match for a prewar apartment. Prefab flooring, on the other hand, can affect the marketability of your prewar apartment. It may take longer to sell and attract fewer interested buyers.

Still, you may find that engineered floors (a.k.a. prefinished) are less expensive and more dimensionally stable (they won't expand and contract).

Research all of the options available, as some engineered flooring will appear more authentic than others. (Also know that prefab flooring can affect the marketability of your prewar apartment. It may take longer to sell and attract fewer interested buyers.)

“Prefinished wood flooring comes in various quality and types, so it is important to look carefully at the application to a given space as well as the finish expectations,” Degnan says.

Prefinished can offer a significant advantage over “unfinished” hardwood flooring, since no onsite sanding and finishing is required.

“Believe it or not, prefab floors have come a long way,” says Savino. “These come in a multitude of species, widths, lengths and thicknesses; also the stains, finishes, and textures come in as many colors, sheens, and surfaces.”

Unlike on-site finished flooring, prefinished floors are extremely durable, often bearing 6-8 coats of polyurethane. So while refinishing prefab floors is less common, "be sure to pick one with a 'wear surface' that can accept more than one sanding in case you want to re-sand the floor and change the stain color," Savino says.

Avoid prefinished flooring manufactured overseas, which tends to be the most problematic due to climate differences, says Scerri.

“When there is no other choice and the client feels that due to time and cost they must go prefinished, Mirage is my best recommendation," because it's manufactured in North America, Scerri says. 

Avoid "fake-looking stuff which is offensive, and especially jarring if it's imposed on a beautiful old interior with interesting architectural details," says Roberts.

5. Don't pick a stain that's too light or too dark

Light stain colors (including those on many prefinished floors these days) can look out of place in an older apartment. 

If you choose a dark stain, bear in mind that it won’t hide lint or dust, and you may wind up sweeping and mopping more than you would with a neutral, mid-range stain.

If you’re unsure about the color, ask your flooring contractor to do a mock-up sample on actual pieces of the wood you’ve chosen. You may need to mix stains and customize your color until you get something you’re happy with. Once you have samples, you can finalize your stain selection.

6. Don't ignore the subfloor

“Not budgeting money for proper subfloor preparation and just installing a layer of plywood does not correct the 'rolling effect'"--floors that are not level--"that most subfloors have,” says Savino.

Wood flooring will follow the contours of the existing substrate (that layer beneath the floor) below, but they will slope and “roll” to changing levels. Unless the subfloor or slab is corrected, simply adding plywood underlayment will not correct this issue and you may not be happy with the end result.


Tracy Kaler was a designer, decorator and renovator in her last life. Before working as a freelance writer, she held several furniture sales jobs in the Big Apple and purchased a new wardrobe. Now she works in her pajamas and commutes two feet to her desk each day. This is one of the few advantages of living in a New York apartment, and well, so much for that wardrobe.

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