I recently moved into a house that my husband’s father bought as a “flipper.” Somewhere along the way, the flip idea turned into our buying the house because it’s directly across the street from the high school where he teaches and directly next door to the elementary school where our younger children attend.
The house is purported to have been built in the mid 80’s, but it is packed with layout “features” from the 70’s, like a master bathroom so small that there’s barely room for a shower and absolutely no linen storage. But it also has the disproportionately humongo living/dining combination area that was a feature of so many homes built in the late seventies, as well as wall to wall dark wood paneling.
What We Started With
The seller floored this entire 480 sq ft area, including the kitchen and hallways with a laminate wood flooring, which looked really nice as a first impression, but the installation was not completed correctly, plus at some point there was a plumbing mishap that ruined about 40 sq ft of flooring that they never replaced. I wish I’d thought to take photos of the trim-out on this floor before we ripped it up - installing a laminate floor is probably the second-easiest flooring job one could ever have to to, but someone didn’t read the trim-out directions at all, nor did they apply any common sense. When it came time to tack the floor down, someone simply nailed quarter-round trim in various places in the most haphazard manner I’ve ever seen. They also didn’t use the under-cut saw that allows you to put the floor under the door trim, so the flooring did not fit correctly.
These trim-out issues combined with the fact that a quarter of the floor in the dining room shrank up after being soaked with water, meant that the entire floor was subject to shifting. As people came in and out of the house, dirt tracked in and got in between the grooves and under the boards. It was noisy, unsightly, and actually tripped people when some of the warped boards shifted in just the right direction.
For a little back story, let me tell you that I recently married into a family with five kids, whose father is a high school physics teacher. It’s not like we have a hidden stash of remodeling money hidden anywhere. We needed to replace a good chunk of flooring ourselves, as inexpensively as we could, three weeks before school started. Who knew that would end up being considered a high-end upgrade? Well, I did, to be honest, but I wasn’t sure if we could pull it off.
For The Budget Conscious
If you’re not afraid of a little hard work, staining a concrete floor is easily the least expensive, high-return upgrade you can perform. A gallon of stain costs between $50-60 and used undiluted, will cover about 200 sq ft - more if you either dilute it with water (a common practice) or go for a more mottled look like natural stone. Then figure in the cost of a suitable sealer - you don’t have to buy the sealer made by the stain company. You can use any sealer that provides the type of finish you want. You can even just wax it down without a sealer if you prefer that look. Then throw in the $17 it costs to buy a plastic garden sprayer, $25 for a contractor’s scraper, and few bucks for sandpaper and short nap paint rollers and that’s pretty much it.
For our 483 sq ft area, we spent about $290 because we went for a three-color blend on the stain, so we spent more on stain that some folks would need to, and the particular brand of stain we used didn’t come in any container smaller than a gallon. We also used two gallons of sealer but could have easily used three. Basically we came home with five cans and spent $250, then added in the incidentals required for prep (scraper, sander, sandpaper) and application (sprayer for stain, roller for sealer). If you already have the necessary tools like a plastic garden sprayer, a good sander, something to scrape the cement with, and paint supplies, you won’t have those expenses.
Before you dive into to a stained living area, experiment on a porch or patio - most concrete stain manufacturers sell sample kits. We stained our front porch and an office using color combos from the sampler box, in order to decide what color combination we liked best before putting it in the living room. I’ll use two of the remaining sample colors in the tiny master bathroom when we finally get around to revamping that thing…
Some additional accessories that might help a DIY concrete staining project go smoother include plastic sheeting, so you can mask off the other rooms in the house because once the sanding starts, dust gets everywhere. You might want to rent a floor sander/buffer - we did our floor with a Ryobi orbital hand sander and I must say, it was like working with the Brave Little Toaster - that little sander was totally up to the task.
You might also want to bring out a large cloth-type floor cleaner, like a terry cloth covered dust mop, to use as a wet-mop when it’s time to clean the floor. It is essential that you get all the acid wash residue off the concrete before you seal the floor. Washing the floor is great, but wiping it is better. A regular old sponge mop just won’t cut it. We finally resorted to dropping beach towels on the floor and “walking” them around the floor to wipe up the leftover haze from the acid treatment. You will also need some sort of small paint brush to cut in if you’re going to be rolling on sealer when you’re done. Depending on the expanse of floor you need to work on, you might want to invest in some plastic “booties” to cover your shoes too. All acid stain manufacturers recommend chemical protection as well, in the form of gloves and breathing filters (painter’s masks).
Make sure you bring a lot of patience, especially if you’re unsure what’s under your current floor. Your final and permanent result for a stained concrete floor depends on properly preparing the surface. This isn’t like every other project that says “surface must be clean and free of grease.” This is an absolute must if you want a floor you can be proud of. Builders don’t normally take care of the cement when they’re building - be prepared to find chips in the cement, along with cabinet stain, drywall mud and paint all over the surface. If there was ever any linoleum or tile applied to the concrete, you’ll also have a layer of mastic to dig up - you can either use elbow grease (and some sandpaper) or get some chemical assistance in the form of mastic remover to help with that. In our case, the cement in the kitchen was also treated differently when the house was built because of the original flooring options. Aside from literal grooves in the cement, the concrete in there is actually of a different composition, so the same stain came out a slightly different color.
If you want to get fancy with your staining project, you can use a standard circular saw set to 1/8″ depth to create a “tiled” look by scoring the floor. Depending on how far apart you put the grooves, you can simulate any look from small terra cotta tiles to huge slabs of marble. You can also give your plain ol’ cement the look of inlaid stone but etching geometric designs. You can apply the stain with a sponge or other cloth to keep it “inside the lines” and make it look like someone inset a design using another type of stone.
In the long run, staining a concrete floor gives you a practically maintenance-free floor - all you have to do is sweep (or swiffer) it. It’s not paint so it won’t wear down or chip off. You don’t have to play gestapo when kids are drinking Koolaid - heck, aside from the obvious safety issues, you don’t even have to wipe up your spills! Contrary to what you might think, it’s not “cold” or “hot” - cement is more conductive of temperature than other flooring so it’s more easily going to adjust to match the temperature at which you keep your house. It’s also not “loud” like you might expect - all that echoing on your “new house” as it’s being built is from the empty walls, not the cement floor. We have far less noise pollution in our house now than we had with the laminate and we’ve eliminated the area rug that we used before. It’s also amazingly “soft” on your bare feet after it’s been sealed… go figger.
It’s also considered a “high end” upgrade when it’s done properly, which means for resale, you get way more bang for your buck then you would if you installed some other flooring. Considering how cheap it is to do, I expect everyone reading this to at least experiment on the patio!