Since hardwood flooring is so popular right now and not everyone knows the answer to these questions... I thought I would share this info.
I'm often asked whether prefinished hardwood or unfinished hardwood is better. We install both and the truth is it depends on which of below factors is most important to you. The next question I get is, which is less expensive???
Just to make sure we are on the same page for definitions, prefinished means that it's all finished in the factory and then you just install it. Unfinished means you have raw hardwood that needs to be nailed into the floor and then sanded & refinished on-site.
Advantages of prefinished
More scratch resistant/lasts longer. Usually prefinished hardwood is 7-10x more scratch resistant than unfinished hardwood. That's because when it's finished on site, you generally get 2-3 coats of poly while when it's factory made, you usually get at least 6-7 coats which are oven baked along w/ aluminum oxide, the worlds' 2nd hardest substance.
Less messy - Anyone who has lived through sanding & refinishing knows what I'm talking about. It's a mess with all the sawdust. Oh, and did I forget to mention the smell?
Faster - Of course this depends on the space, but usually most of our prefinished jobs can be done in 1-2 days. When it's unfinished, it often takes 4-5 days + drying time, and you can't walk on the area at all during this time.
For do-it-yourselfers, prefinished is certainly easier. Some that are handy can just install it themselves vs. most do-it-yourselfers can't sand & refinish nor do they have easy access to these machines. I would definitely leave this up to the pros - I've seen way too many botched up jobs when homeowners attempt this on their own.
Advantages of Unfinished
Smooth edges - Most prefinished hardwood has a slight bevel at the edges. Some customers prefer this because they think it looks more real; other customers like the smoothed out look when you sand the floors. No right or wrong answer here; just a preference.
Matching color of existing - If you have hardwood in other parts of the home, using unfinished hardwood will be the easiest way to match it. You can have your installer select and/or test the stain colors as well as make sure they get the matching wood (e.g. is it red oak or white oak and which grade).
Choosing a very specific color - If you want to mix and match/blend stains and finishes you have this option vs. with prefinished, the color selections are sometimes a bit more limiting.
So which is less expensive???? Hard to say and it actually changes over time since the price of unfinished hardwood usually fluctuates. The truth is, over time, if comparing apples to apples, they are prob. about equal in cost. Last year and beginning of this year, it was less expensive to do unfinished; now, with all of the recent increases on oak, prefinished is currently a bit less expensive.
Essentially with prefinished hardwood, you are paying more for the wood and less for the labor; for unfinished hardwood, you are spending less on the wood and more on the labor. Many general contractors prefer to do unfinished hardwood because they make more money on this since there's more labor. Cost is same to you, but more in their pocket.
I noted, before if you are "comparing apples to apples" and the issue is that often customers are not comparing apples to apples, esp if they are talking to a contractor they can't trust. (Have you ever met one of these?). It's very easy for a contractor to reduce the cost by giving you a lower grade of wood (e.g. No 1 common or worse No 2 common rather than select grade). This means you'll have hardwood w/ more color variation and more knots and sometimes shorter lengths. So be careful and hire someone you trust and check their references.
Debbie Gartner, Floor Coverings International in Westchester/Western Fairfield
"We bring the store to your door."