Investment properties perform best when you keep expenses down over the long term. Keeping expenses down in this old house (well, apartment) has proven to be a challenge. The point of the work I’m doing (and this post) is to change that.
In the past our property managers have always put in an inexpensive vinyl in the bath and kitchen (and a hall that connects them) and apartment-grade carpeting through the living areas and bedrooms. Apartment-grade means the lowest cost carpet they can find.
The vinyl flooring holds up OK, but looks pretty scruffy pretty quickly. Moving refrigerators, dropping pans, and happy children take their toll. The carpet, on the other hand, seems to need to be replaced every time a tenant moves out, which has been a very expensive proposition.
When I remodeled my last apartment I was talked into using a floating, tabbed vinyl product from Konecto that looks like hardwood flooring. It’s very durable (15-year warranty) and looks pretty good. It is not available through retail channels, however, and had to be installed by a “professional.” Notice the quotes.
For that apartment I chose to install the floor throughout the apartment except for the bedrooms. In terms of preparing the floor, the installer did the basics. I mean, really he just swept the old floor. Maybe. What he didn’t do was remove the old 3 layers of vinyl flooring in the kitchen and bath, or smooth out the rough areas where the subfloor has grown bumps over the years. He didn’t even float out the uneven areas to make it less noticeable. Very nice. I have this great-looking flooring that looks like it might have been installed over an unpaved road.
So for this apartment I knew I wanted a better result. First, I started with looking for a product that was available through retail channels, so I would have more control over the installation. I found a very similar product at one of my favorite stores, Lumber Liquidators. (Yes, I know they’ve gotten some bad press lately for Chinese products that off-gas toxic fumes, but they handled that event well.)
The product I found is made by Tranquility Flooring. I chose the Brazilian Koa model because it looked good and it was on sale. This is even available on Amazon (although Lumber Liquidators’ price was better) and there’s a good review on it on Consumer Reports. It’s even slightly thicker than Konecto, and has a 50-year warranty. Yes, 50 years. If I am still alive in 50 years I’ll be senile, so I won’t care if the floor wears out.
You may be thinking “Vinyl?” I would not have chosen this flooring for the main living area in my 1926 Craftsman bungalow, I admit. But for an apartment it is a serious upgrade from the apartment-grade carpet that we were installing before. Before I left Albuquerque I had two potential tenants literally fighting over the unit, even with a 10% bump in the rent for the remodeling.
I searched for installers, but decided in the end that the only way I would truly understand the challenges of installing the flooring was to do it myself. My handyman and I decided to tackle the job.
First we had to get rid of the old vinyl flooring to avoid the same issues as the other apartment. That very quickly became a daunting task. I went to Home Depot to find a tool for this – there must be a tool for it, right? It turns out they rent a vinyl flooring remover. Imagine a jack-hammer, but lighter weight and with a 5-inch blade on the end. We rented it for half a day, and the old flooring came up like butter. We were literally laughing about how easy it was.
We also had to chip out some tile in the entryway, fill in some concrete cracks and float out a couple of small areas, but they were minor. In the end, we had a clean, level surface to lay the new floor on.
The floor pieces have tabs on all four sides and simply click into place. Each piece is 6 inches by 48 inches, and can be cut with a utility knife when you need only a partial piece. It’s pretty easy, really. We completed over 500 square feet of flooring with about 5 man-days of labor. Well, that’s with two men who knew absolutely nothing about installing this type of flooring, so presumably someone that knew what they were doing would finish it in less time.
I’m very pleased with the finished product. The hardest part was cutting out complex pieces around door frames and cabinets, and each one of those pieces took us a long time. There is a tool to make that easier, but it’s expensive. Unless I am going to lay more of this flooring (I’m not!) then it doesn’t make sense to buy the custom machine. But next time I might ask the installer I hire if he or she has the machine. That right there could be an important clue as to whether they have the expertise to do a good job.
I learned several important lessons from this exercise:
- Buy flooring that you can get regardless of whether you are working with a contractor or not. This way you have control over the process, and can shop for the contractor you want.
- Prep work is important. If you have someone else install the floor, make sure you spec out that the floor substrate (whatever the material) is totally level, and clean.
- Picking your starting point is crucial. We were not perfect on this point. OK, not even good. OK, we were terrible. But in the end it came out OK with a little tweaking.
- Flooring, like revolution, is a young man’s game. Do not try this with old knees, even with kneepads.
Finally, I chose to use carpeting in the bedrooms because most folks want that. Again, we’ve been using the cheapest carpeting available in the past. I wasn’t anxious to spend extra, but we have had to replace it every two to three years, so the low-grade carpet seems to be a false economy.
Our preferred flooring guy came out with samples, including a new product that was twice the thickness of the low-grade carpet and had multiple colors in the weave (so stains would not show up as easily.) It was more expensive, of course – $1.00 more per square yard, he told me.
I did some quick calculations in my head. “Wait, isn’t that only about $25 more than the cheapest stuff?” For about 5% more – installed – I would have a carpet that should last twice as long.
Please note I am not a fan of spending more than I have to. In fact, the whole reason I spent a month out in Albuquerque was to keep my costs down and still get a good product. But if it saves me money over time, spending a little more now makes sense to me. I went with the higher-grade carpet.
The apartment now has new flooring throughout, and fresh paint, and new kitchen cabinets. (More on that next time.) It wasn’t finished when I had to leave for home, but there’s only routine tasks left and we already have a tenant itching to move in. I’m happy with the flooring choices I made.
Next time – the cabinets go in!