How To: Which direction to run wood floors, installing vinyl in a basement

Q.I have been talking to two flooring companies about replacing carpet in my hallway and master bedroom with hardwood or engineered wood. One person told me that I could run engineered wood in any direction. The other said I must run it across the joists for support. The hardwood in my living room and dining room does run across the joists, as the second person suggested. Is this the correct advice? Does it make a difference if it is engineered vs. real hardwood?

Secondly, I asked about putting vinyl sheet flooring on top of vinyl tiles installed in 1977 in the basement when the house was built. The first person said that would be fine. The second said absolutely not. She said moisture would build up between the vinyl tiles and the vinyl on top of it because it was below grade and the base floor was concrete. She suggested carpeting.

Columbia

A.Regarding the wood flooring, there’s a little truth in what both people told you, though the second person was more correct. The National Wood Flooring Association’s technical guidelines call for installing both hardwood flooring and engineered flooring crosswise to joists. Real wood needs to be installed that way to give the nails something to bite into. With engineered flooring, which is often glued or clicked together, the issue is more cosmetic. If engineered planks run in the same direction as joists, pieces with a joist underneath will be much stiffer than those that don’t have solid support, and that could affect the way light is reflected off the finish. “Even a slight flex could cause a distortion, so you’d see where the joists are,” says Frank Kroupa, training director for the flooring association.

That said, if you think it would look a lot better to have the strips run parallel to the joists, you can invest in some fixes that stiffen the flooring enough so the joists won’t show. Solutions include adding a layer of half-inch plywood before the flooring strips are installed or adding cross-bracing underneath the floor.

In a hallway, it would look silly to install the wood crosswise, regardless of which direction the joists run. So you should do what makes sense visually, and you probably don’t need to worry about stiffening the floor first. “Use common sense,” Kroupa says. “In 30 years, I’ve never laid flooring in the short direction in a hall. There just isn’t enough space.” Also, a hall is narrow enough that you wouldn’t notice differences in reflected light anyway.

As for the vinyl, ensuring that moisture isn’t coming up through the concrete is usually a big issue in basements. However, the existing flooring has been in place for decades. Assuming it isn’t crumbling or coming loose, you can probably safely conclude that moisture isn’t an issue. Applying new flooring on top of the old is probably preferable anyway, because vinyl flooring and flooring adhesive made before 1981 often contain asbestos, an ingredient that becomes a problem only if you rip it out or if it’s breaking down. Chris Davis, president and chief executive of the World Floor Covering Association, a trade group, says the installers should probably use a “floating floor” method, which calls for spreading a thin underlayment over the floor and then attaching the new vinyl only on the perimeter. If there are seams, they can be glued together, but not to the floor.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo .

The Checklist: Read Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you should tackle in September, such as replacing weatherstripping.

 
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