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Understanding Warranties: The Fine Print and What It Means

A manufacturer’s warranty can be a great selling point for consumers when it comes to choosing hardwood flooring. Warranties with names such as “Lifetime Finish” or “50-year Limited Residential Use,” sound like a guaranteed win-win situation for consumers looking for assurance that a product they find beautiful will also meet or exceed their expectations for long-lasting wear. But before making your hardwood flooring purchase, it is important to be aware of exactly what a product warranty covers and, even more importantly – what it does not.

Sorting Through the Fine Print

With any hardwood flooring product, the sole purpose of the manufacturer’s warranty is to protect the consumer if the purchased product is found to be damaged or defective in some way. This is a legal obligation to the consumer, whereby the manufacturer is effectively guaranteeing that its product is merchantable for use in its intended application.

Since planks are made of natural materials, certain imperfections are to be expected and are allowed per flooring industry standards, which stipulate an accepted imperfection rate of 5% or more of the total purchased floor planks. This includes, but is not limited to finish imperfections, grading discrepancies, milling defects, color differences, and general cutting waste. If flooring is found to be defective or damaged per the specifications of the warranty, and these defects constitute more than the industry’s allowable 5%, the manufacturer typically agrees to replace or repair the defective product or refund the purchase price.

Sounds straightforward, right? Unfortunately, when it comes to hardwood flooring warranty claims, it rarely is. This is because as an installed product, hardwood flooring can be impacted by many factors. For example, improper installation, improper maintenance, or post-installation damage caused by negligence, fire, water, excessive moisture, heat, extreme weather conditions, pets, insects, and even high-heeled shoes can all cause flooring to sustain significant damage. And while these damages may impact the performance of your hardwood flooring, rarely will damages resulting from any of these circumstances be considered a product defect and thus be covered under a manufacturer’s warranty. So, what protections does a manufacturer’s warranty offer the consumer? There are a few different types of warranties offered by hardwood flooring manufacturers, each providing different types of coverage and limitations.

Structural Warranties

The most common warranty offered is a Structural Warranty. These warranties guarantee that the milling, grade, and moisture content of the wood has been manufactured within industry standards and that the resulting planks are stably sound and will not split, crack, or warp when properly installed. Many top-name brands offer a Lifetime Structural Warranty on their products, which can include both unfinished and factory finished flooring.

These structural warranties often detail specific flooring prep and installation guidelines that must be followed to validate the warranty. For example, a manufacturer may not recommend its product for installations below ground level or over a concrete slab. Failure to follow this recommendation would fall under improper installation – and thus render the warranty invalid. Many manufacturers also require the installer to use specific installation accessories (tools, underlayment's, etc.) as part of the warranty conditions. It is also important that the installer follow any specified subfloor prep instructions, as this is often one of the major sticking points that will invalidate a Lifetime Structural Warranty.

Finish Warranties

As the name implies, a Finish Warranty covers the finish on factory-finished hardwoods, guaranteeing that the finish will not wear off under standard use. A Residential Finish Warranty covers standard residential use, and a Commercial Finish Warranty covers use in a commercial setting such as an office, restaurant, hotel, etc. Finish warranties differ from structural warranties in that they will always place a time limit on the number of years for which the warranty is valid. The industry standard for a Residential Finish Warranty is about 25 years. Commercial Finish Warranties cover fewer years due to the product’s exposure to higher traffic. As technologies continue to improve, it is common to find Residential Finish warranties of 35 years, 50 years, or even lifetime finish warranties. But be warned, finish warranties imply a lot more coverage than they may provide. For example, a finish warranty does not cover scratches, dents, gouges, or damage to the finish caused by moisture or from dragging a heavy or sharp object across the floor – the main causes of most finish damage.

What Most Warranties DO NOT Cover In addition to some of the items mentioned, below is a list of exclusions under most manufacturers’ warranties:

  • Natural Wood Characteristics: As wood is a natural material, there will always be infinite variations in color and graining within a given species. Factors such as age, wood grade, and exposure to sunlight, will also impact the visual appearance of wood. Naturally occurring characteristics of a particular species such as color, graining, mineral streaks, and knots are not considered defects if they are appropriate for the grade of wood being purchased.

  • Natural Expansion/Contraction of Installed Planks: As a natural material wood expands and contracts because of temperature changes and varying humidity levels at the installation site. It is thus typical for properly installed flooring to experience some separation or spacing between planks, but this will not warrant a claim. Flooring that becomes damaged because of excessively low or high humidity levels at the installation site is also not considered a manufacturing issue and will not warrant a claim.

  • Moisture-Related Issues: Adhesion breakdown or dimensional changes caused by moisture or water damage are not covered under a manufacturer’s warranty.

  • Exposure to Sunlight: Exposure to sunlight daily will likely cause wood flooring to change shade or color. Floor mats with rubber backings can also cause finish discoloration. These color or finish changes are not considered a manufacturers.

  • Gloss Reduction: Normal surface wear may cause a reduction in the “glossiness” of hardwood flooring. While this may be more noticeable with high-gloss flooring or flooring in darker stain colors, it is not considered a manufacturer’s defect.

  • Structural Support Issues: When walked on, installed hardwood flooring can sometimes produce a squeaking noise. This is often the result of floor planks rubbing together due to improper or weak support from the flooring’s subfloor. This squeaking is especially common with floating installations in site environments with high humidity levels or extreme temperature changes. This and other issues related to the flooring’s structural support are not considered a manufacturing defect and fall under installation issues.

  • Improper Use of Flooring: Hardwood flooring is manufactured for indoor use only. Flooring installed in areas that are directly exposed to the outdoor elements is not protected by the manufacturer’s warranty.

  • Repaired Flooring: Any attempt by the consumer or installer to repair flooring that is determined to be damaged will void most manufacturers’ warranties.

  • Failure to Follow Written Manufacturer’s installation instructions

  • Failure to Maintain Flooring per Manufacturer’s Guidelines

Additional Homeowner and Installer Responsibilities Though manufacturers conduct continuous quality tests to ensure floor planks comply with the established criteria, it is also the responsibility of both the installer and the homeowner to inspect planks prior to installation. At the installation site, the installer should open a few cartons of flooring, lay out the planks in a well-lit area, and, with the homeowner, evaluate the planks. Any planks deemed unacceptable by the installer or homeowner should either: be omitted from installation, placed in less visible areas, or, if possible, cut to remove any visible defect. If more than 5% of the total flooring is found to be defective, floors should not be installed. Remember, under most manufacturer’s warranties, once floor planks are installed, they are “accepted” by the installer and the homeowner.

Enacting a Claim

If a warranty claim is truly a manufacturing defect, and it is within the time allowances of the warranty, the next step for the consumer is to contact the dealer from which the flooring was purchased. A reputable, experienced flooring dealer will know how to enact the warranty claim. Keep in mind that only those planks deemed defective will be covered, and typically not the entire floor.

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