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Few things can be more saddening than a beautiful culinary space with dated flooring. Whether we’re talking avocado-green patterned linoleum flooring that is a blast from the retro past or some faux-wood press-on that isn’t fooling anyone, a sinful slab underfoot can’t be easily hidden under a rug. And while a full-on remodel is everyone’s dream of living out their Jeremiah Brent kitchen moment, you might live in a rental (hello, city dwellers) or simply not have the budget. “The floor of a kitchen can make a huge difference since it is the glue that connects the entire space,” affirms Brooklyn-based architect Devin O’Neill.
Fear not, tastemakers, you needn’t fork out thousands on handcrafted stone tile or real wood—you have options. There’s groutable luxury vinyl tile that takes just a few days (you heard that right) to install and engineered wood that is so realistic it can actually be sanded down for a second finish. There’s also stick-and-peel vinyl that printing technologies have nearly perfected, and some pretty impressive ceramic tile that is as chic as it is affordable.
But a kitchen floor is so much more than just backdrop beauty. The trusty base to your culinary adventures—catching all the spills, splatters, and crumbs we throw at it—the kitchen floor must hold up to relentless wear-and-tear, so durability is top of mind when it comes to what’s on the ground. There are also labor considerations. “You can always change the face of a kitchen cabinet but changing a floor is much more work, so finding the material you love and installing it right the first time is important,” O’Neill explains. All things considered, we’re here to say that, yes, it is possible to find lasting, budget-friendly kitchen flooring that doesn’t compromise on style or quality.
Ready to get into the brass tacks—er, vinyl surfaces? We’ve tapped three experts—Another Human’s Leah Ring and O’Neill Rose Architects’ Devin O’Neill and Faith Rose—who can give you the lowdown on how to cut all the right corners (literally) to transform a kitchen space. So let’s find our footing, unleash our inner handy(wo)man, and get revamping!
Luxury Vinyl Flooring
Vinyl flooring is an excellent budget-friendly option for the kitchen. It comes in various designs, including wood, tile, and stone patterns (Lowe’s has a selection of more than 500 vinyl flooring options, including a handful that are now under $5 per square foot), allowing you to achieve the look you desire at a fraction of the cost. And the best part? It’s groutable. Bringing in a grout line between the tiles truly makes for a finish that feels high end.
Available in sheets, tiles, or planks, luxury vinyl flooring can be installed right over most existing floors, if they’re in good shape, eliminating the labor and cost of removing flooring. The tiles generally come in 12-by-24-inch peel-and-stick pieces that are made to look like ceramic or porcelain tile. The planks are usually thicker than standard vinyl tile and can be installed as a click-together floating floor. As for upkeep, luxury vinyl flooring is durable (it lasts 15 to 25 years), water-resistant, easy to clean, and relatively easy to install, making it a practical and economical choice. But while vinyl is sturdy, it’s not indestructible. It can be damaged by sharp objects and extreme heat, and colors can fade with too much direct sunlight.
“A low-cost material that I love for kitchens is linoleum flooring,” says Los Angeles–based designer Leah Ring, who’s recent vibrant house project in Yucca Valley, California, is proof that her flooring A-game is in top shape. “It’s a great way to add color to the room if you don’t want to change your cabinets, and the material feels great underfoot. We used bright teal linoleum in a warm-wood midcentury kitchen, and it changed the feeling of the room completely!”
Linoleum comes in sheets or tiles that snap together. While the material has been around for over 150 years and has a bad rap sustainability-wise, O’Neill says fewer companies are manufacturing real linoleum made of cork and linseed oil these days—though he’s a fan of Forbo’s linoleum line. That said, the material has vastly improved in terms of durability and variety.
The secret, both Ring and O’Neill say, is to get the large commercial rolls of linoleum, rather than individual tiles, to achieve a seamless, color-blocked look. “There are so many beautiful solid colors of linoleum now, which can bring an amazing pop of color and low maintenance to a kitchen,” O’Neill adds. If you can’t decide which one to select, try out Lowe’s flooring visualizer to visualize the perfect color and style for your space.
Looking for something that can withstand anything you throw at it? Enter ceramic tile. Made from clay and other natural materials that are molded and fired at high temperatures, ceramic tile can take on scratches, stains, fading, and regular wear-and-tear with little evidence. It’s water-resistant, which makes it suitable for humid environments and a practical choice for kitchens. On the flip side, ceramic tile can be relatively hard and cold underfoot, lacking the warmth and comfort of other flooring options like carpet or hardwood. To address this, area rugs or radiant floor heating can be used for added comfort.
While high-end ceramic tiles can be expensive, there are plenty of affordable options—from classic to contemporary—that can give your kitchen that tasteful glow-up you envision. “An inexpensive material in a unique pattern can go a long way,” says Rose. “One favorite of mine is using a 2-by-12-inch or 2-by-18-inch porcelain tile, which is quite inexpensive, to create a herringbone pattern.” Rose sources many of her projects from Daltile, who used to make very limited sizes of tile (think, glossy white 3-by-6-inch subway tile) but now has a much wider array of shapes and finishes. If you’re having trouble finding something you love, look for discounted or clearance tiles, or consider mixing and matching different tile patterns to create a unique and budget-friendly look.
When installing, Rose recommends removing the “kicks” of the cabinet base. “The edges of any flooring tend to be uneven, so removing the kicks allows the flooring material to slip under the cabinets a little,” she explains. “Then when you reinstall the kicks you can hide any of the inevitable unevenness.”
Few things beat the classic look of wood flooring. “Our go-to kitchen floor is wood,” O’Neill agrees. “It can bring warmth to a kitchen and seamlessly connect it to the rest of the house.” Alas, such a luxury requires a big budget and a potential overhaul that might not be worth it for a rental. Engineered wood flooring is a great compromise. It consists of a thin layer of real hardwood bonded to a plywood base, offering a similar aesthetic to solid hardwood at a lower cost.
The top oak layer, often referred to as the wear layer, is available in varying thicknesses from 1½ to six millimeters. Anything thicker than four millimeters can actually be refinished up to two times during its lifespan, and a six-millimeter layer can be refinished as many times as real wood. What’s more, engineered wood is much more stable than traditional solid wood floors and will not expand or contract as easily with changes in temperature and humidity. It is also more resistant to moisture and works with radiant floor heating systems, eliminating the coldness of solid woods. And if you asked us to tell the difference between engineered wood and a solid timber finish, we would totally be fooled.
Laminate flooring is another affordable alternative that mimics the appearance of hardwood or tile floors at one-third the price. Composed of multiple layers, the top wear layer is designed to resist scratches, stains, and fading, making it highly resilient to everyday use. Beneath the wear layer, a high-resolution image layer mimics the look of real hardwood, stone, or tile.
But a laminate’s most appealing trait is its ease of installation. It typically comes in planks or tiles with a click-and-lock system that allows for straightforward and hassle-free installation, making it a popular choice for DIY enthusiasts looking for a quick flooring upgrade. As for maintenance, laminate is ideal for households with children or pets, as it’s resistant to dents, scratches, and stains. It’s also moisture-resistant when properly installed.
With advancements in technology, today’s laminate flooring options don’t look straight out of a terrifying Zillow listing. The high-resolution image layer creates realistic patterns and textures that closely resemble natural materials. Whether you prefer the classic warmth of oak, the elegance of marble, or the rustic charm of reclaimed wood, there’s something for everyone.
We’re going to let you in on a secret: Cork floors are conducive to your health. The eco-friendly material, made from the bark of cork oak trees, offers exceptional comfort and softness underfoot that has become a popular floor choice in recent years. Its natural elasticity provides cushioning, making it a comfortable surface to walk and stand on for extended periods. But the benefits don’t stop there. Cork’s cellular structure creates a natural insulation that simultaneously keeps rooms warm and reduces noise transmission between floors (we see you, drummer stars). Cork floors are also known for their durability, with a resilience that allows them to bounce back and recover from impact, minimizing the appearance of dents or scratches. As for moisture, cork is fabulously resistant to it.
What’s the catch, you ask? Cork can fade over time when exposed to direct sunlight, so it’s recommended to use window coverings or area rugs to protect the surface. Additionally, cork flooring requires proper sealing to protect it from moisture and stains. Regular maintenance, such as sweeping and occasional damp mopping, is necessary to keep the floor looking its best.
Still interested? Beyond its practical benefits, cork flooring offers a distinct aesthetic appeal. It comes in various shades and patterns, from light to dark hues, allowing homeowners to find the perfect match for their style and decor. Cork’s natural texture and warm tones create a cozy and inviting atmosphere in any space.
Maybe you’re not ready to go for a full-on makeover. For an ultra-budget-friendly solution, consider sprucing up your existing wood flooring with the oldest trick in the bag: paint. Choose porch and floor paint that is specifically designed to withstand heavy foot traffic. Go ahead, unleash your creativity using stencils or tape to create patterns or even simulate the look of tiles. With the right color scheme, a paint touch-up can be just the dash of whimsy your kitchen needs.
Assistant Digital Editor
Rachel Silva, the Assistant Digital Editor at ELLE DECOR, covers design, architecture, trends, and anything to do with haute couture. She has previously written for Time, The Wall Street Journal, and Citywire.