Do You Install Baseboards Before or After Flooring?

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baseboards before or after flooring

When doing a DIY project or overseeing the remodel of a room in your home by a team of flooring installers, it’s important that you have all the information so that you can have the peace of mind you deserve for years to come. You want to know that you—or the team you hired—built a safe and secure home that will stand up to the test of time, as well as life’s inevitable messes and scrapes.

Almost every home remodel project involves doing something new to the walls or flooring. When you do this, the existing baseboards have to be considered as well. Do they get put on before or after installing flooring? After reading this article, you will be confident that you know everything there is to know about baseboards, when to install them, and why.

The Reason for Baseboards

When you’re learning about a project, knowing the theory behind why you’re doing something can make all the difference in information retention, as well as allow you to ask the right questions and prevent costly mistakes. So here we’ll tell you what baseboards are and the purpose that they serve.

Baseboards are long, thin pieces made of a variety of materials—wood, plastic, vinyl—that you seal against the joint where the walls and floors meet. Baseboards are not only visually appealing, as they give a seamless presentation (covering up unsightly gaps) and can help give a flow between the color differences of the walls and the floor.

They also help protect against dirt, debris, and water damage, as well as the normal wear and tear of life such as vacuums, feet, and bags getting kicked or thrown against them.

Baseboards can come in simple or detailed designs. Completely flat, solid baseboards of inexpensive material are going to be the most economical choice; however, they can also come with intricate molding or design, which can add to the elegance and style of your home. If you have a room with large square footage or extra high walls or ceilings, tall baseboards can make the room feel more proportioned. Baseboards also may give “flow” to the home, making each room feel connected to the next.

Closing the Gap

When constructing a home, the floor and wall joints should be at an almost perfect 90-degree angle. Most walls will also have a piece of wood or metal framing attached. These parts are secured onto something called the sub-floor (literally: under the floor).

Usually, after you have the framing up, you put drywall in as a light yet sturdy way to fill in the walls, and this leaves a gap (on average about one inch) between the drywall sheet and the floor, allowing all the pieces to be spaced correctly.

Baseboards are then cut to the exact length of the walls. You should have one baseboard for each section of wall, ending at the corners. Corner angles should be cut at 45 degrees. If your walls are quite long and it’s impossible to get one board, make sure they’re cut at 30-degree angles to ensure a cleaner, seamless look.

When you’re ready to install your choice of hardwood, laminate, carpet, or tile, you’ll put it on top of the sub-floor. But there’s still that small—yet significant—expansion gap that needs attention so that dirt and water don’t get trapped inside the drywall and threaten the internal structure of your home. Enter: baseboards.

Before or After

The answer to the question: “When should I install my baseboards?” is actually: “It depends.” Contractors have preferences, and different choices in flooring have specifications that make it easier to install baseboards before or after the new floor, as well.

Although you are installing baseboards to close the gap between the wall and floor, there will always (and should always) be a minuscule gap between the baseboard and the floor to allow for expansion and contraction, especially if you’re installing hardwood floors. This also lets air flow through, decreasing the chance of moisture creeping into the drywall and ruining your walls.

To know how big this space needs to be, you need to measure the depth of the floor to leave enough room. For example, thicker floors need more of a gap between the baseboard and the sub-floor to be able to slide the flooring underneath the base.

However, if you are using carpet, it’s more malleable than wood, so it can just be shoved into the space. For some thicker carpets, such as shag or tall piled carpet, you’ll need a larger opening.

Specifics for Carpet

When you’ve chosen new carpet as your flooring, adding baseboards before the carpet can make for cleaner lines and a more professional-looking finish. You put on the baseboards and then cut and lay the carpet, tucking it into the space left underneath the boards.

Oftentimes, too, you’ll want to paint or stain your baseboards, especially if you’ve chosen wood. Installing the baseboards first allows you to do this step without fear of ruining your brand new (often expensive) carpet. You could put a plastic sheet down, but there’s always the possibility of liquid seeping through, things getting spilled, or spots getting missed. “I want to look at ruined carpet for the next ten years,” said no one ever.

To avoid these unhappy accidents, just put in the baseboards first when you’re using carpet. Remember to paint or stain after baseboard installation, too, so that the finishes will cover the nails that you used to attach them to the wall.

A Note About Contractors and Carpet

If you’re having new carpet and baseboards installed by another crew, and you just want to make sure that you are as educated as possible so that you don’t get taken for a ride, first of all, good on you! Knowledge is power.

Second, know that the installation process for new carpet and baseboards is usually done by two separate teams of flooring installers. Both contractors will probably recommend that their set gets done first because doing the first job is always the easiest.

Feel free to advocate for yourself. Someone has to go second. Ask the carpet installers if their prices will differ based on if they do the work first or not, and try to make it work so that baseboards go in first to prevent further difficulties.

You can prevent being responsible for these potential damages, though, by covering your bases (no pun intended) before the work is set to be done.

If the baseboards go in first, as is typical, it’s okay to clarify that the baseboards shouldn’t be scuffed or nicked, especially if they’re expensive designer boards with delicate molding or detail. If some need to be replaced, you can put in your contract exactly what will need to be covered by the contractor if the damage was their fault.

If the baseboards do go in second, make sure to have it in writing that the contractors will put down sheets and make sure that your new carpeting is not left with any paint on it. If they do, have it expressly stated that they would cover the costs associated with cleaning or replacing the damaged areas.

Specifics for Hardwood or Laminate

Wood is usually affixed (and painted, if you’re going that route) before laying flooring, but there aren’t specific reasons why it has to be done this way, simply that that’s just the way it has been taught and passed down.

Many contractors or experienced DIYers will simply tell you that it’s easier to paint walls and/or trim without having to worry about getting it on the brand-new flooring. You’re actually saving yourself time and money by not needing to put down sheets and tape, paint with more precision, and then take it all up and throw it away.

However, since hardwood flooring isn’t pliable, that last piece can be a bit tricky to set in. If it doesn’t push in perfectly, you can trim it and use a pull bar to secure it in place against the set baseboards. The visible gap can be fixed by using quarter-round molding to make the transition smooth. These are easy to use but often need to be painted to match the baseboards, as well.

When you’ve chosen to install hardwood, you could also choose to put the flooring in first (avoiding the need for quarter rounds) and then install the baseboards. You might have to put down sheets and paint carefully, or paint the baseboards first and then touch up over the nails.

Painting before is not recommended. However, if you’re a perfectionist who will either hate the silver nails in the baseboards or who will notice the “touched up paint” every time you get down on your hands and knees to clean your corners, it can be done.

You’ve got options, so choose what feels best for you, your crew, and/or your home.

Remodeling when Trim is Present

If you’re not building from the ground up, then you probably already have baseboards that were installed prior to you doing the new job. Taking the extra step to remove baseboards first will ensure that your new floor is installed properly.

“Can I reuse the baseboards and save money?” you ask. Well… technically, yes. But who wants to put up a dirty, possibly damaged, and well-worn baseboard up against beautiful, brand new flooring? Talk about a buzzkill.

Undercutting

Replacing existing baseboards is an added cost, though, on top of other remodeling costs, so if you really want to avoid this, you can undercut them. Undercutting is also a good option if, for some reason, it’s impossible to remove baseboards without damaging the entire wall. Ensure you learn all you can about undercutting to avoid breaking them. Removing baseboards for reuse is a tricky business.

To undercut properly, you’ll need a saw or a power tool with a blade to trim the existing baseboards down (or, essentially, trim them “up”) to the correct baseboard height so that the new flooring can fit underneath.

Making the Best Choice for Your Project

Installing your baseboard set before or after flooring depends on the situation.

Carpet usually calls for baseboards to go in first to minimize the risk of paint or stain accidents. For wood floors or laminate, you’ll want to install baseboards last to allow for a cleaner finish and prevent extra steps like quarter rounds.

Assess your entire situation, take in all the educational information you can, and go forward with confidence toward a beautiful, functional home!

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