To Sand or Not to Sand
I am always amused when I hear the inevitable questions from buyers about “what’s under the carpets?” Any home inspection is for visible components only; your home inspector will not know what is under the wall-to-wall carpeting, or linoleum any more than you do; even more uncertain is the condition of whatever it is. No home inspector is willing to tear up the covering to find out.
What can you hope to find when you peel away the smelly shags or stained kitchen flooring? You’ll never know until you’re finished ripping it all out. If you are purchasing an older home, like a Victorian, chances are that the floors are in poor condition, particularly in the kitchen, where extensive wear can be expected. If you’re purchasing a home built after about 1960, don’t expect much more than plywood or particle board underlayment. Colonials from the thirties through the fifties are most likely to have what most buyers are hoping for, hardwood (oak) flooring.
In Victorians, it was typical to have radial cut southern yellow pine (not fir) on the first floor, though many of the grander homes had oak. On the upper floors, there might be plain cut or radial cut yellow pine, depending on the size of the home. Larger homes are more likely to have had radially cut wood. Plain cut wood is milled by passing a log (the long way) back and forth through a saw, like slicing cold cuts in a deli; all the slices are parallel. In radial cutting, none of the slices are parallel. Radial cutting is along the radii of the log, like slicing up a tall stack of pies into thin, wedge slices.
Quality oak or yellow pine flooring is cut radially because it is much harder and therefore long lasting than plain cut wood. The hardness of radial cut wood is due to the large proportion of dark, summer growth. Plain cut floor boards consist mostly of less dense (rapid) spring growth, and will often be deeply worn in hallways and near thresholds of frequently entered rooms.
If you are lucky enough to discover decent wood flooring, should you refinish? This will depend on the amount of wood that has been removed by previous sandings. Most flooring wood is “tongue and groove”; this means that the edges fit together like a lock and key. The tongue fits into the groove. A harsh sanding of a wood floor might remove up to 1/8 inch of wood from the top of the groove. Two such refinishings and the tongue may be nearly exposed. Floors in which tongues are exposed are not very pleasing to look at, and can even be dangerous, as long splinters of wood can lift off the surface and injure, particularly children.
Check the joints between boards carefully. Count on replacing flooring if there’s only a thin layer of groove-wood left. Also count on some replacement if the previous owners had uncontrolled pets with favorite locations to urinate. The flooring under these spots is deeply stained and can never be lightened or sanded deeply enough to eliminate the discoloration.
In choosing a floor refinisher, be very careful about whom you hire. On a number of inspections of homes that were “fixed-up” for sale, the buyers at the time of their initial offer were dazzled by the gleam of the new floor finish. On the inspection, they discovered that what they thought was a flat surface was really a deeply gouged, rough and undulating one. This type of damage is wrought by refinishers who use machines with small diameter drums, very coarse sandpaper and only two quick passes. On floors in poor condition, a coarse paper should be followed by at least one intermediate paper before the final sanding.
Many refinishers will recommend one coat of lacquer “sealer” and one final coat of polyurethane. Because this procedure can be accomplished in one day, it is often their preferred method, but for you, the buyer, this is the least desirable and durable finish, unless you are in urgent need to move in. Two or three coats of urethane is preferable; if you want to look at your floor finish and see a flat, reflective coat instead of one dappled by depressions and less reflective areas (where more absorbent wood grain has soaked the finish) pay for the three coats.