Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
Whether building from the ground up or just remodeling, chances are, you will find yourself trying to decide if you should install baseboards and wondering when is the best time to do so – before or after flooring?
Baseboards are often installed before flooring, although it depends on the type of flooring being used. It is necessary for carpeting to have the trim in place, allowing the edges to be tucked under and out of sight. However, for hardwood or laminate, it is easier to install the trim after.
This article will explore why baseboards are necessary and when they should be installed and in which situations. We will also look at issues you may come across and how to handle a remodel.
What Are Baseboards?
Typically made from vinyl, plastic, or wood, baseboards are long boards used to hide the gap where the wall meets the floor. They are more aesthetically pleasing and used to protect the wall from damage caused by shoes or vacuum cleaners.
Simple baseboards are straight planks attached to the wall at its base. They are flat and are often painted a muted white or to match the wall. These have no design and can be made from relatively cheap materials.
However, most baseboards have some kind of molding or design. Depending on the size of the room, a tall ornate baseboard would be visually pleasing. Though in a small room with low ceilings, it would look out of place. The baseboard should match not only the room but also the rest of the house.
Why Is There a Gap on the Wall?
During construction, most walls will have either a piece of lumber or metal frame on the floor. These are secured with nails to the sub-floor (the base floor onto which you will install carpet, hardwood, or laminate). In most cases, drywall is then fixed to the framing from the top, leaving at least a one-inch (2.5 cm) gap between the bottom of the sheet and the floor.
The gap, in this case, is to prevent damage to the drywall caused by moisture. Even the smallest spill onto drywall can seep in and compromise the wall’s integrity. In the event of larger spills or floods, the gap will help to prevent too much damage.
This gap is the reason most homes use baseboards. They cover the hole and act as a barrier between moisture in the room and the exposed drywall beneath. Not only is it required by building codes to have elevated trim, but you also run the risk of serious expansion in the drywall if it gets wet.
When to Install Baseboards
Baseboards can be installed before or after flooring, and it often depends on the contractor and their preference, along with the type of floor to be laid. In most cases, wooden trim is attached and painted before installing the floor, but there are no definitive reasons why it has to be done this way.
Regardless of when they are installed, there should always be a gap left between the floor and the baseboard. This gap allows for any expansion of the materials over time. It also allows for airflow to decrease the chances of moisture seeping into the drywall.
The space should be measured to the depth of the floor being installed. For example, with a specific kind of hardwood, you would need to know the depth in order to leave enough room to slot the flooring under the trim.
In contrast, carpet is more forgiving. Carpet can be pushed under the gap left, though the gap should still be measured. A thin carpet would need a much smaller space than a plush shag carpet, for example.
In addition to protecting drywall from moisture damage, the reason to install a baseboard before the carpet is so that the end result will look neater. Once the carpet is laid and cut, the edges are tucked under the trim for a clean finish.
Another key reason to install the trim first is to be painted or stained without worrying about the carpet. Although it is possible to put plastic down, there is always the possibility of the plastic tearing or stain seeping through. This would lead to expensive repairs or cleaning of the new floor, so most contractors avoid it.
Instead, install the baseboards and add the desired finish first. You want to finish when the baseboard is in place so that the paint or stain will help cover up any nails used to secure it in place.
In the video below, you can see how to install a simple wooden trim and also tuck the carpet flush underneath:
The elevated trim’s average height is ¼ inch (6.35 mm), though this may need to be bigger if using a thicker carpet.
After Hardwood or Laminate Flooring
As mentioned above, it is a matter of preference whether to install the baseboards before or after installing hardwood or laminate flooring. The argument for installing baseboards first is primarily due to how much easier it is to paint the walls and trim without worrying about the new floor. By installing and finishing the baseboards first, there is no need to tape down plastic sheeting to protect new floors.
However, having the trim in place can make it more complicated to install flooring. When starting at one end of the room, the last piece can be challenging to set into place once the other side is reached.
In the video below, you will see how the last row of flooring may need to be trimmed and how a pull bar is used to secure it in place:
With this method, there is a visible gap between the floor and the baseboard. In this case, a quarter round would need to be installed to smooth out the transition. This is easy to install but often will need to be painted to match the baseboard. The video below demonstrates how to install a quarter round properly:
Instead of using a quarter round, it would be easier to install the flooring first and add the baseboard after. This way, the joint will be far neater, and any small gaps can be hidden with caulking.
In the event of a remodel, where the trim is already in place, it is better to remove the baseboard to install the flooring properly. In many cases, the baseboard can be dirty, damaged, or worn out and should be replaced.
On the other hand, it can become costly to replace the trim, and removing it could potentially cause unwanted damage. If the boards are cracked, they will not fit back in place correctly.
If it is not viable to remove the trim, or if you don’t want to risk damage, it is possible to undercut the existing baseboards, as can be seen in the video below:
This will require the use of a saw or power cutting tool to trim the baseboard to allow for the new floor to fit underneath.
When replacing or adding carpeting to your home, it is better to have the baseboards installed first. This is because they can be installed and finished, with either paint or a stain, without worrying about spilling on the new carpet. Once dried and secure, the carpet can be sized, cut, and tucked under the gap to make clean edges around the room.
For hardwood or laminate flooring, installing the baseboards after will be easier and will leave a cleaner finish. It can also prevent the need for less attractive quarter rounds.
- Remodelista: Remodeling 101: Consider the Baseboard (and, What You Need to Know)
- Home Repair Ninja: Do You Install Carpet or Trim First?
- SFGate: How Far Up Do You Put a Baseboard Before Carpet Is Laid?
- YouTube: How to Install Pergo Flooring: Chapter 6 – Last Row for Pergo Click Joint
- Wikipedia: Quarter Round
- YouTube: How to undercut baseboard when installing a hardwood floor.
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