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What About Flooring?

April 2015

Ask anyone in the apartment management industry and they'll tell you a "worst carpet stain ever" story.

Likewise, talk to apartment residents and they will tell stories about the upstairs neighbor whose loud footsteps were both distracting and annoying.

Still others will boast impressively about how their new apartment's floors look just like hardwood, even though they are simulated wood vinyl planking.

Apartment developers consider appealing to these scenarios when building new apartments or renovating existing ones. Whether choosing to use carpet or not, developers must weave together resident satisfaction, maintenance and price when deciding on flooring.

Fortunately, today's manufacturers and technology have enabled a great, attractive variety from which to choose, leaving apartment management with the decision of what type for what room and at what price.

"I have struggled with the issue of flooring my entire career," says Zachary Maggart, Senior Vice President, Construction Services, Bell Partners. "Hardwood floors, or comparable, are easier to maintain, but noise can be an issue. Carpet can be viable, but convincing residents to care for it even a little bit is a challenge."

As a direct result, Maggart says, "We focus on what our residents want and are willing to pay for as our flooring solution. The key is to clearly understand the market-driven demands through careful competitive set attribute assessment and to not waste money on any solution that doesn't fit that result."

Bell Partners, for those reasons, "does not issue a broad, company-wide, platform-wide mandate to install only FHA-grade carpet or vinyl plank flooring, or to use genuine wood flooring for that matter, in our living spaces across its portfolio," Maggart says.

Flaherty & Collins Properties also listens to its residents and aims to exceed the expectations of many. Jason Schoettle, Vice President of Construction, Flaherty & Collins Properties, says his company pays close attention to the flooring selections and their assembly to ensure that residents have the best living experience possible. "When doing so, we often exceed the building code requirements by the local jurisdiction," he says.

The Habitat Company's Vice President of Market Rate Management Gary Lundemo says his company's guidelines vary widely based on the investment criteria, type of building construction and the desirability in the market, among other factors. 

"Product options are almost limitless, so it's usually best to involve an interior designer, engineer or architect and flooring contractor to help determine the most suitable flooring, underlayment and installation specifications," Lundemo says.

Vinyl planking became prevalent in multifamily housing about five or six years ago, says Tim Skufca, National Sales Director-Multi-Family, Sherwin Williams. Its emergence has also limited the use for laminates, which had come under criticism in some uses for noise- the "clicky" sound they make when walked on with high-heels, for example, Skufca says. He says there still is some demand for tile, but often it's regional. Florida is one place where tile sells well.

Vinyl planking is priced from $1.20 to $1.50 per foot for basic planking and as much as $4 per foot for the highest quality-and that doesn't include labor costs.

"You wish it was a situation where you only had to choose between good, better and best, but it can be hard because there are so many choices in appearance and quality-not to mention color," Skufca says. "And when it comes to carpet, there are even more choices and price ranges."

Carpet is classified by the ounce, with 13-ounce carpet considered the lowest grade. The higher the ounce, the better the carpet, with other rolls 18 ounces to 20 ounces and higher, up to 25 ounces to 28 ounces and more. The decisions are sometimes made easier for developers who operate government-subsidized housing, which demand Federal Housing Administration (FHA) guidelines that is 25 ounces or greater in face weight for low-traffic use and 40 ounces in high-traffic areas.

Hardwood

Schoettle says Flaherty & Collins Properties is installing vinyl plank flooring in the kitchens and living and dining areas, carpeting in the bedrooms and ceramic tile in the bathrooms for the majority of its projects.

"We have used other wood flooring products in the past, but have found vinyl plank to be the most maintenance-friendly while also providing a similar look to the alternatives," Schoettle says.

Maggart says that although he finds hardwood flooring to be a "much easier component to take care of and turn, and therefore less expensive to maintain compared to carpet," the expense to install it may wipe out any hopes for a return on the investment if the hardwood floors are not something wanted within the market.

Generally speaking, Maggart says that "A" or high-end assets in California markets promote hardwood, engineered, stained concrete and vinyl flooring solutions in rental properties because those products are in demand by their consumers.

Brent Sobol, Legacy Community Housing Corp., Atlanta, says that true hardwoods are a thing of the past. They can be found in older apartments, "but once you get a bad leak in one that causes warping, that usually brings a big repair bill," he says. "You then realize that it's not worth going that route again."

When it comes to noise dampening measures, these are typically engineered into the flooring substrate to mitigate sound projection issues. This same solution is not one that is adopted by all Midwestern and Southeastern markets, Maggart says.

Schoettle says that sound transmission is mitigated in hard surface areas of a wood frame structure by installing products such as Acoustic-Mat beneath the Gyp-Crete and filling the cavity space with insulation.

Skufca says that because the thickness of the vinyl planking varies based on product type, recommendations for the amount of underfloor-typically a cork-based material that absorbs and deadens sound-vary depending on the product being installed. 

He says it is measured in millimeters and typically developers choose 1.5 mm to 2 mm if they choose to use it. Not installing it is a viable option in some cases, he says.

Vinyl Planking

Dan Lieberman, President, Milestone Properties, San Francisco, says he uses vinyl plank floors when he can afford it-especially for smaller units. He says eliminating the transition from vinyl surface to carpet surface makes the smaller units appear larger. "And it also feels more upscale because of the continuous wood-floor look," he says.

Lieberman says that vinyl plank is two or three times the cost of a typical carpet to install, but it only has to be done once. "The planks look like wood," he says. "I only use it on the first floor because of potential noise issues. If I can get a good price on quiet core as an underlay, I will consider it for upper floors. Otherwise, I'm going with carpet on upper units."

Lieberman says if an owner can afford vinyl planking, and plans to hold the property for at least several years: "Vinyl planking is the way to go. You get higher rent and, if the planks should somehow become scratched, you can pop out a damaged plank and replace it with another."

Chip Bay, Executive Managing Director, National Practice Leader for Construction and Development at Mill Creek Residential, says, "Hard-surface flooring has become more popular because our residents like it and will pay a rent premium for it despite the potential for increased noise."

Bay says that noise is a challenge because it can "depend on so many factors outside of our control, such as the lifestyle of the resident or their sensitivity to noise. We continue to follow best practices regarding acoustics and work with acoustical engineers and product providers to ensure the best living environment possible."

Sobol says he occasionally installs vinyl on ground-floor apartments and has been pleased with the result, but never lays it on upper floors because of the sound concern.

"We use a commercial-grade vinyl (compared to the base grade that is often sold) because we find the commercial grade is thicker, has a more 'cushioned feel' and won't tear as easily," Sobol says.

"The wood grain patterns available in vinyl today almost look like real wood. It's yet another example of the 'virtual reality' of building materials that we're seeing in so many products."

Carpet

The price range and expected lifespan of carpet varies greatly, including whether the carpet is made of nylon (more resilient) or polyester (more stain resistant). And some will say that the decision about what carpet pad to use might outweigh that of the carpet's texture-both literally and figuratively.

Maggart says that residents won't take care of carpet in a way they should because, "basically, it's not their carpet. Even high-grade carpets with good quality stain resistors are ruined quickly by an uncaring resident," he says.

Lieberman says one main reason apartment carpeting is destroyed is because owners do not provide vacuums to residents to help them maintain the carpet in their own units."Most people want to live in a nice place. But most residents will not buy a vacuum for their apartment," he says.

At one management company Lieberman owned (Horizon Management), "We set aside secondary 'loaner' vacuums for residents to use," he says. "These were not the same vacuums that our staff used to maintain turned apartments or to tidy the common areas."

Residents would leave their driver's license and borrow the vacuum at no charge.

"Regular vacuuming keeps carpets looking good and helps prevent the destruction that typically happens over time when the residents don't care for their carpet," Lieberman says.

Typically, though, Sobol uses carpet. He adds that he almost always installs a large square of vinyl inside the apartment home's entrance "to serve as a 'landing pad' for dirty feet," he says. "We find this better preserves the carpet in the living rooms."

He uses an 18-ounce carpet weight because "we found that higher pile fiber doesn't hold up much better," Sobol says. 

"But, we'll use a thick pad and we always replace the pad when we replace a carpet-strangely to me, not everyone replaces pad when they replace carpet."

Sobol also recommends taking the time to vacuum the floor when the pad is off because many people have allergies and often the "dust" that is under the pad harbors smelly allergens.

Sobol says he avoids Berber carpet "because certain looped pile carpets will 'unravel' in a vacuum in some situations and patches don't look good with Berber," Sobol says. 

"And, most Berbers are made of synthetic material that doesn't allow it to accept a carpet dye. A nylon pile will accept dye."

Mohawk last year developed what it calls a breakthrough in carpet manufacturing with its SmartStrand Nanoloc brand, which offers unprecedented performance against stains, says David Holt, Senior Vice President, Mohawk.

"In terms of maintenance, SmartStrand Nanoloc has an advanced spill-resistant shield made from nanoparticles that seamlessly lock together, preventing dirt and spills from settling into the carpet," Holt says. "This protective barrier is designed to work together with SmartStrand's inherent stain and soil protection. This dual protection makes SmartStrand Nanoloc the longest-lasting, easiest-to-clean carpet for residents and property managers alike. It can be cleaned with just water or a mild detergent, which removes the expense of purchasing toxic cleaners for spills or stains."

Layne Dugger, National Manager, Shaw Industries, says carpet in the multifamily environment continues to be an excellent investment. Shaw provides a variety of fiber and construction options, however, "We believe that no other fiber provides the resiliency/durability/fiber strength than nylon, which is why such a high percentage of commercial high-traffic carpet is nylon," he says. "When these carpets are combined with Shaw's R2x Stain & Soil Resistant process, owners and managers have experienced extended yields from those flooring investments."

There is a longstanding misconception that carpet exacerbates asthma and allergy symptoms, reports The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI).CRI goes on to report that studies have shown that properly cleaned and maintained carpet not only reduces asthma and allergy problems, it's actually the best flooring for people who suffer from them.

There is no scientific study linking the rise of allergies and asthma to the use of carpet. Indeed, several studies actually disprove any correlation, says CRI. Also, an 18-nation study of nearly 20,000 people found a statistical relationship between carpeted bedrooms and reduced asthma symptoms and bronchial responsiveness.

A 2003 study of more than 4,600 school children in New Jersey found that having carpet in a child's bedroom was associated with fewer missed school days and less need for asthma medication.

If carpet helped the children, it can certainly help adults in the same home as well, says CRI. A possible explanation: Carpet acts like a filter, trapping allergens away from the breathing zone so they can be removed through proper vacuuming and deep cleaning extraction.

Chip Bay, Mill Creek, says, "In our experience, regardless of quality, carpet is easily damaged or stained by residents-whether they are careless or not-and is costly to replace. This is especially true if the resident has pets."

Bay says in the markets it builds in, its residents continue to show a preference for hard-surface flooring over carpet other than in the bedroom.

Schoettle says Flaherty & Collins Properties uses an 8-pound pad under carpeting it lays in bedrooms.

"With cushion, carpet is four times less expensive to install than hard-surface flooring," says Holt. "Assuming the average life of a SmartStrand carpet is four turns, this would mean that a hard-surface floor would need to last about 16 years before it breaks even with the cost associated with carpet replacement."

Repair It or Replace It 

David Jolley, National Maintenance Director, Pinnacle, says most believe that maintaining hardwood floors is easy. Not so fast.

"There are too many different quality types of wood floor, and this makes it difficult to repair, or to match-up new planks with damaged planks," Jolley says. "Big damage can come from a small water-flow issue, such as in a bathroom, and could lead to complete floor replacement.

"The maintenance team does not always seem to want to take the time required to properly replace a single plank," he says. "Some do, but then matching the same quality and color become tougher issues."

Jolley says, "Unfortunately, apartment unit floors seem to 'ugly out' before they 'wear out.' We started to go more with a vinyl sheet because it was supposed to be easier to repair and look better. But it might take a couple of hours to make a good, unnoticeable repair and many maintenance staff just do not have the time, so the flooring is replaced. Time is money. Trying to get units turned, doing the repairs in the units and keeping residents happy by not disturbing them much has led to a replace it, not repair it philosophy." 

Paul R. Bergeron III is Director of Publications for NAA.