Don't get in over your head with an intricate home improvement project. Here's how to seek professional help.
Intricate inlay work performed by professionals makes an elegant statement.

Flooring installation procedures vary depending on the type of material and the complexity of the job. A custom hardwood or tile floor with decorative borders and inlays, for example, requires a skilled craftsperson. Standard carpet, vinyl, and laminate flooring installations are less demanding. Sometimes floors are installed by a subcontractor chosen by the builder. In other cases the flooring retailer's crew handles the work.

Regardless of the situation, good flooring materials can be ruined by poor installation, so you'll want to know that your installer is qualified. Ask the pros (builders, architects, interior designers, and flooring retailers) for recommendations. You also may want to talk to the tradespeople who are working on your home, says Jay Smith, senior vice president of sales and marketing for FloorExpo, a national network of flooring contractors: "That's where the contacts are going to be. If you have a great painter, chances are he's going to know a flooring contractor who does quality work."

As you should when hiring any contractor, get references. Be sure that the contractor has experience with the type of flooring and finish you want, and ask about training or certification.

Carpet installers should adhere to the Standard for Installation of Residential Carpet, CRI 105. Among other things, this standard requires that carpet be "power-stretched" to minimize wrinkling and rippling. The standard also mandates that the seam edges be sealed. Buying carpet from an authorized "Seal of Approval" retailer is one way to ensure a professional installation.

If possible, visit homes the installer has worked in previously. With hardwood, look for uneven areas that could indicate a problem with the subfloor, says Randal Weeks of Bruce Hardwood Floors in Addison, Texas. Notice how floors are finished around the edges of rooms, at thresholds, and on stair nosings. Finish details may vary from job to job, so it's a good idea to ask installers what approach they plan to take in your home.

With ceramic tile, Lori Kirk-Rolley of Dal-Tile Corp., a Dallas-based manufacturer, recommends choosing an installer with a lot of experience. "I wouldn't be afraid to ask them if they have pictures of work they've done, especially if you're putting in a pattern that's a little bit more complicated." When viewing a tile installation on-site, look for any uneven areas in the floor, and listen for a hollow sound as you walk across is. "If it echoes a bit, it probably means that the bed wasn't prepared correctly," she says.

Working within your budget, an interior designer can coordinate the colors, patterns, and textures of existing furniture and accessories with appropriate flooring choices, and suggest where materials can be mixed and decorative elements added. Interior designers can also act as you eyes and ears on the job site. "I'm not there to supervise, but as it's getting started I'm usually there to see that the right thing has been delivered and that they're installing it properly," says New Jersey designer Thom Sweeney.

An experienced installer can bring out the best in your flooring materials.

New houses are prone to high moisture levels from newly-poured concrete foundations, not to mention rain, sleet, and snow that can get into the framing and wood subfloors during construction. Problems can arise if subfloors aren't allowed to dry thoroughly prior to flooring installation.

Because hardwood flooring expands and contracts with changes in a home's humidity, the flooring and wood underlayment materials need to acclimatize for at least 4-5 days before installation. (Some manufacturers also recommend an acclimation period for laminate and vinyl flooring.) The installer should use a moisture meter to test for excessive moisture levels on all subfloors, including concrete, before putting down any hard surface. When job-site conditions are satisfactory, the flooring should be unwrapped and stored in the rooms where it will be installed. Temperature and humidity should be maintained at or near occupancy levels. Installers usually leave a gap between the floor and the wall to compensate for expansion and contraction, covering the gap with base molding.

Some new carpeting may give off vapors that are toxic to people with chemical sensitivities. To be on the safe side, let newly delivered carpeting sit in a detached garage or well-ventilated area for a day or two before installation.

After vinyl flooring has been installed, let the adhesive dry 24 hours before walking or moving furniture onto it. Hardboard or plywood runways should be used to move heavy appliances or furniture over vinyl or any other hard-surface flooring. In rooms with hardwood floors, place walk-out mats or area rugs at exterior doors to protect them from tracked-in dirt and moisture.


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