Understanding and pursuing your legal claims for a defective hardwood floor installation
Our law firm, LvBC, often represents homeowners and other building owners in Washington whose recently installed hardwood floors or engineered wood floors do not live up to their expectations. Very often, these unsightly and sometimes even noisy wood flooring problems are the result of installation errors. But given seasonal variations in humidity and temperature, the severity of the problem may be most apparent only at certain times of year. For this reason, it is important that you consult with legal counsel, and counsel’s recommended flooring expert, to ensure that your floor and your claims are fully understood before you agree to, or pursue, a resolution with your flooring contractor and/or general contractor.
Let’s look at a few of the more common conditions that can result from failure to properly prepare the subfloor or failure to properly install the flooring.
- “Cupping” is probably the most common issue with hardwood flooring. A cupped floor can be easily seen when sunlight or other light is broadcast across the floor perpendicularly to the boards, such as in this photo:
This is typically caused by excessive moisture in the subfloor during installation, whether from a wet crawlspace or wet subflooring (such as from a leveling compound that has not been allowed to dry, or wet concrete or subfloor sheathing). This moisture is then absorbed through the back of the new flooring. The wetter bottom of the flooring expands while the drier top of the flooring does not. The edges of the flooring boards curl upward so that the edges are higher than the center of the boards, creating a “cupped” appearance. If the cupping is severe even after elimination of the moisture (such as by applying heat), severe damage can occur to the floor and even the baseboard, so that both may require replacement.
- “Crowning” of a hardwood floor occurs when the center of the boards is higher than the edges. The most common cause is when the floors are sanded while they are cupped (i.e. edges are higher than the center of the boards) immediately after installation. As a result, the high edges of the boards are flattened by the sanding machine. Then, when after sanding and finishing the cupped boards dry and lie flat, the over-sanded edges will be lower than the center of the boards, resulting in a permanent crown. Like cupping, crowning can be observed when light is shined across the floor perpendicular to the boards.
Crowning also occasionally results from misapplication of fasteners, but most often it is caused by the sanding of cupped floors followed by normal drying of the newly installed and sanded floors. Again, your contractor and the flooring installer are likely liable for correcting or replacing a newly installed, crowned hardwood floor. Note that hardwood floors can often only be sanded just a few times, so sanding down the crowning may fix the problem but it will reduce the life of the flooring because it leaves one less sanding possible at later date to refinish the floors.
- “Popping” or “Crackling” is when the new flooring makes noises when you step on or off it. This can be caused by inadequate fastening or, in the case of a “floating floor” (such as when an engineered wood product is placed without fasteners on the subfloor), because the installer left inadequate room between the border of the floor and the surrounding wall. If, for example, the floor is “constricted” at the border, then any movement of the flooring (such as when a new home undergoes normal settlement after construction) may cause the floating floor to lift in some areas. As a result, when you step in that area, you hear noise as the floor “sits down on” the subfloor below. Likewise, when you step off, the flooring may pop back up and again make noise.
- “Compression set” can result from expansion of the flooring due to excessive moisture, which forces boards too tightly together. This can lead to a crushing of the grain at the edges, so when the flooring dries you end up with gaps between the board edges. Here is a photo of gapping due to compression set on a recently installed floor:
“Face checking” of engineered wood flooring appears as cracks in the veneer that run along the length of the board. This can result from the product being manufactured with a moisture content incompatible with the environment where it is being installed:
The company that installed your defective floor is the last place you should go for answers
Industry groups such as the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) and Certified Flooring Installers (CFI) have created guidelines for quality installation of hardwood and engineered wood flooring. These guidelines include such things as properly acclimating the new wood before installing it (often by leaving it in the home over some period of time, including with the heat on) and ensuring that the subfloor is suitable, including in moisture level and overall levelness.
There are many possible causes of the problems we see with hardwood floors and engineered wood floors. (With engineered floors, we sometimes find that an error in the manufacturing process plays a role in causing the problem.) And the cost of tearing out and replacing a hardwood floor is always significant – particularly because it may require moving out of your home during repairs.
So, whenever the company that installed the problematic floor is telling you that they know what caused the problem – blaming your house’s humidity, or your heating system, or the season – don’t rush to accept their proposed fix. Hire competent legal counsel first, so that you can make sure you understand the nature and scope of the problem and your legal claims before proceeding.