Smart Ideas for Your Basement Flooring

Learn how to keep moisture and humidity away from your basement floor during a basement floor remodel.

laminate wood flooring in a bright basement living area with lots of seating and egress windows
Image: PC Photography/Gety

If you're considering finishing your basement, you're probably rightly concerned about moisture problems. But the good news is that several types of basement flooring will work. And the keys to installing it are fairly simple: keep the basement dry and the surface smooth and flat.

2 Things to Consider Before Installing Basement Flooring

Moisture and Humidity

Because your basement floor is below grade and the lowest surface in your house, you'll need to consider a couple of issues before you install it. If water infiltration and flooding have occurred, you'll need to fix those problems first. 

Protecting your basement from dampness, or "damp proofing," typically costs $3 to $6 per square foot; waterproofing costs $5 to $10 per square foot. Damp proofing doesn't protect from water leakage, so paying more for waterproofing may be a better choice.

You also need to think about humidity and condensation. Because moist, humid air is heavy, it sinks to the lowest part of your house — your basement. There, the warm, humid air makes contact with relatively cool surfaces, such as a concrete slab floor, and condenses. Keeping that condensation in check during warm, humid months will help stabilize the flooring and keep it free from mold and mildew.

Your heating and cooling system probably has a dehumidifier that maintains relative humidity (RH) levels between 30% and 60%. The Environmental Protection Agency and building codes recommend that level for a healthy indoor environment. A portable, plug-in unit for single-room use will cost about $200 and includes a monitor to regulate the RH level.

Related: Evaluate Your House for Basement Finishing

Level Floor Surfaces

It’s also critical to inspect your existing concrete basement floor and adjust for any noticeable slopes or flaws. They might not only affect its aesthetic appeal but also damage the new floor finish.

Patch or fill minor cracks and flaws with an elastomeric sealant made for concrete. A 10-ounce tube runs about $4 to $10 at home improvement centers.

Use a three-foot or longer bubble level to see if any sections of the floor slope more than a half-inch in eight feet. Fill in low spots with a self-leveling compound, available at home improvement centers for about $30 for a 50-pound bag. For about $172 per day, rent a concrete sander to reduce high spots.

You can use tile backerboard, made from cement or fiber-reinforced gypsum, as a subfloor over your basement slab to create a smooth, level surface. The materials to install backerboard cost an average of about $1 per square foot. Labor and materials per square foot cost an average of about $6.

Once you've fixed all potential moisture-related issues and created a smooth, level surface, you’ll have several flooring choices for your basement retreat.

6 Common Basement Flooring Options

Carpeting

Carpeting offers some pluses for basements. It insulates the area and is comfortable underfoot, to name a few. It's also easy for DIYers to install the tile versions. The downside is that water and carpeting don’t mix. So, it your basement tends to be damp or, say, there's a leak, you could end up with mold. Worst case, flooding could require you to pull up and pitch the carpet. Carpeting also stains more easily than other flooring types. That said, some carpeting options work better than others.

For example, peel and stick carpet tiles are easy to install and remove if damaged. They cost an average $2.25 per square foot.

Low-pile carpets, such as Berber or other looped varieties, show less wear than cut-looped or shag-like carpeting and are less expensive. All or partial nylon blends are also more durable and less costly than all-natural options. In fact, some experts recommend using only synthetic materials.

Wall-to-wall carpeting is among the least expensive and easiest to install options for basement flooring. Installing nylon carpet costs an average $800 to $1,400, with most people paying around $1,000 for 200 square feet of cut and loop nylon carpet. For a plush nylon carpet treated for extra stain resistance, the cost would be about $1,800.

If you’ve addressed moisture issues in the basement but are still concerned about dampness or the liquid spills or pet accidents, consider a pad. They help block moisture from seeping up into the carpet or seeping down through the pad to the concrete floor. Moisture-resistant pads are about 70% more expensive than standard pads. Although they may reduce cleanup chores, they won't solve chronic moisture problems.

Vinyl

Resilient vinyl flooring has a lot to offer. It's durable, moisture-proof, and maintenance-free. Sheet vinyl comes in 12-foot-wide rolls that virtually eliminate seams. For DIYers, self-sticking vinyl tiles are a good choice.

You can choose from a wide variety of colors and styles. In general, thicker vinyl is higher quality but costs more. It can feature a textured surface, and some types resemble real stone and wood.

Vinyl installs easily over a concrete slab, but the surface must be smooth. That's because imperfections will show through and possibly damage the flooring. A thicker (and more expensive) grade of vinyl flooring may help hide slight bumps in the concrete.

Vinyl is one of the most affordable types of flooring, costing $1 to $2 per square foot for vinyl sheet flooring and $2 to $3 per square foot for vinyl planks. Professional installation costs another $1 to $2 per square foot.

Ceramic Tile

Installing ceramic over a concrete slab is relatively easy, and the many styles and colors available make it a good designer’s choice. If you properly install and maintain ceramic tiles, they should last as long as your house.

In some below-grade applications, condensation may appear on the surface of ceramic tiles, making them slippery. If you're concerned about slipperiness, consider glazed ceramic floor tiles with an anti-slip finish. Look for tiles that meet slip-resistance standards specified by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ceramic tile for floors averages $1 to $30 a square foot. A standard domestic ceramic tile at a home improvement center would be relatively inexpensive. But a decorative tile from Mexico or a porcelain stone tile from Italy could cost much more more. Hiring a professional to install ceramic glazed tile flooring costs about $3,500 for 200 square feet (national average).

Engineered Wood

Before manufacturers introduced engineered hardwood flooring, few builders or remodelers would recommend or risk installing a hardwood floor over a below-grade concrete surface. Because solid wood changes dimensions with temperature and humidity changes, the chances of warping and cracking were too great. In addition, there weren't many reliable options for installing wood flooring without traditional nails or screws.

But engineered wood floors provide a more stable substrate for the planks while looking and feeling like a solid wood floor. A thin veneer layer of solid wood is laminated to a plywood backing. Plywood planks are better able to withstand temperature and moisture fluctuations without warping.

The person installing engineered hardwood planks would glue them to the basement floor using an industrial adhesive or float them over thin foam sheeting. A system of interlocking ends and edges holds the planks in place.

Engineered hardwood flooring typically costs $2.50 to $10 per square foot, mostly falling into the $4 to $7 per square foot range. Their factory-finished veneer is virtually maintenance-free. Installation costs about $10 to $13 per square foot.

Laminate Flooring

Manufacturers construct laminate flooring similarly to engineered wood flooring. The difference? The top veneer is tough film covered with plastic resins that looks like wood, stone, and ceramic tile. Some varieties are treated to resist moisture and are good choices for basements.

Laminate flooring tiles click-lock together like the wood-look planks, so the edges aren't grouted or sealed. The tiles cost $3.50 to $5 per square foot, and the average installation cost is $6 to $14 per square foot, including labor and material costs.

Concrete

One of the simplest and least expensive options for finishing a basement concrete slab is to paint or stain the slab. Staining concrete typically costs $7 to $15 per square foot. Contractors charge between $2 and $4 per square foot for a simple stain job and $12 to $25 per square foot for high-end designs.

Assuming the basement concrete slab is unsealed and still porous, a colored stain will likely penetrate fairly well and hold its color for several years before you need to reapply. A concrete paint probably will show wear in a high-traffic areas and will require a reapplication every three to five years. 

An epoxy coating system, which combines a solvent-based adhesive coating with decorative (and slip-resistant) color chips, is far tougher than a concrete paint or stain. It costs about triple the cost of a gallon of paint or stain but covers four times the area and leaves a tough, industrial-looking finish.

You could also cover the concrete slab with an additional, thin layer of concrete that has been pigmented with color. A thin coat can also be stamped to resemble brick, flagstone, or even wood planks. Because the color goes throughout the coating, it will never wear off. Pigmented concrete costs 10% to 30% more than uncolored concrete alone.

Related: Waterproofing Basement Walls: Costs and Options

Rich Binsacca

Rich Binsacca

Rich Binsacca has been writing about home improvement since 1987. He is the author of 12 books on home-related topics, is a contributing editor for Builder and EcoHome magazines, and has written for Remodeling, Home, and Architectural Record.