Question — I am hoping that your answer might resolve a question from which there appears much conflicting advice, from vendors and contractors. Many of those have not had to deal with older, unheated cottages. We want to redo our floors. What do you recommend for flooring for our old seasonal, unheated and un-insulated 70-year-old cottage? It is used only mid May to October long weekend. The cottage is located in Traverse Bay, Albert Beach, Victoria Beach area, which is sandy and marshy. The cottage is on steel beams and so it shifts every spring. We removed the old carpet, and the older sheet vinyl underneath, which fortunately had not been glued down. The floors are now down to the plywood, which is in good shape. What should we be using for new flooring? Sheet vinyl, glued or unglued? Laminate or luxury vinyl planks? Floating or glued? Would you recommend a subfloor? Should there be a buffer strip between rooms to allow for movement in the floor? The bathroom is high humidity, should there be another option for this room? Carpet is not an option. We have grandchildren and often have three dogs staying in the cottage, with sand often being tracked in. I thank you for you time and look forward to an answer.
— Gisèle Champagne
Answer — Choosing the proper flooring for your summer home will require a decision based on the most durable and easily maintained option. While there may be other suitable types, plank vinyl may be the best decision for several reasons.
Installing new flooring in a seasonal building does provide some unusual challenges, mainly due to the temperature extremes it will be subjected to. Also, being in lake country the relative humidity may be very high all year round, adding another factor to your decision. Any floor covering you choose should be very durable to withstand the rigours of foot traffic, which may also track in excessive amounts of dirt, dust, and sand at your cottage. Easy cleaning should be a priority, for this same reason.
In previous decades, you may have had few choices for flooring in a building that was to be closed for our long, harsh winters. The low temperatures could affect many types of flooring and adhesives, due to contraction of these materials when the weather cools. Low cost, low pile carpeting was a good option due to the ability to hide sand and dirt. Unfortunately, this may have required regular cleaning and would not look too good after a few years if not regularly vacuumed and shampooed. Since yours was not secured down, it was likely quite easy to remove and discard.
Likewise, many older places like yours may have had fairly rigid linoleum or early vinyl flooring installed without complete adhesive application. This would allow for some shrinkage and expansion during the different seasons, but may have caused some deterioration if there were some poorly secured sections, or in high traffic areas. Since you have taken yours out, you may have exposed an older plywood surface that could be in fairly good condition, protected by the previous two layers of flooring. The first option to look at would be the least costly. If the floor sheathing is good-one-side plywood, with a smooth surface, a simple paint job could be the answer to your dilemma. Sealing the surface with a good quality primer and then painting with a product designed for floors could yield a suitable result. This will be smooth, not subject to collection of dirt and sand, and easily cleaned with a common mop. It may have a limited life expectancy, but recoating every few years may be similarly easy. The only concern would be if the surface is not smooth, or has deteriorated sections, then that option is off the table.
The next option would be some form of laminate flooring. This low-cost product may be an excellent choice for its durability and ease of installation, but may not be a good idea for your place. Since the core is fibreboard, made from wood fibre and binders, it is subject to swelling and deterioration if it gets wet. Since condensation is highly likely during the warming and cooling trends of the off-season, it may cause damage to the underside of any laminate installed. Some types may be more moisture resistant than others, but I would personally stay away from any laminate flooring.
Wood flooring may also be an option, but will be much more costly than other types, and is much more labour intensive, as it would have to be secured to the subfloor. Several types of hardwood may also not be good choice, due to the possibility of expansion and contraction with changes in moisture levels. Choosing a softwood like pine or fir may be a viable option, but that is only if you desire some amount of weathering and a more rustic look after a few years.
The best option may be some form of vinyl flooring, whether it is in sheet form or planks. Sheet vinyl should work, especially in the bathroom, but will normally have to be glued down and only solid vinyl flooring should be chosen. Alternatively, newer types of plank vinyl flooring may be the best choice overall and may be acceptable even in the bathroom. This material ranges from inexpensive to moderate in price, is easily transportable, and may be the simplest and quickest to install. The individual planks click together, somewhat like laminate, and can easily be cut to fit anywhere required. The material may expand and contract during seasonal changes, but is normally installed without adhesive, so will not buckle when it shrinks or swells. Since it is made from solid vinyl, it is as moisture resistant as any flooring option and is very hard and durable, so will stand up to shoes, pets and sand. In my opinion, it should meet all your criteria.
While several options may work for your seasonal cottage, the need for extreme durability, even in very cold weather, should point you toward plank vinyl flooring which should last for many years, even with your challenging needs.
Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the past president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors — Manitoba (cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.