Wood Floor Water Damage – Save, Repair or Replace?

What Causes Hardwood Water Damage?

Water damage to hardwood flooring results from moisture penetrating beyond the seal, or coming in contact with an unsealed part, of the wood (called raw wood) between or beneath the plank flooring. Hardwood floor water damage occurs when the wood is wet enough for long enough to cause common types of water damage: Staining, cupping, crowning, buckling, or separation from the planks around it.

Last Updated: September 25, 2023, by: Rob Parsell

Our Home Flooring Pros know only too well the heartbreak of hardwood flooring affected by water damage. Often there’s nothing to do but rip it out and replace the affected flooring.

Further Reading: Water Damaged Floor Repair Costs

Of course that’s the worst case scenario and before we look at that situation let’s see what other options there are. Read on for our expert opinion on how to diagnose wood floor water damage, what do do in the first instance, and how to diagnose whether your flooring can be saved or repaired without the need for complete replacement.

Water droplets pooled on damaged hardwood

I Have Water On My Hardwood Floors Right Now! What Do I Do?

If it wasn’t a one-time event like a spill, flood or torrential rain through an open window, your first step should always be to stop the source of the water leak. Find and fix the burst pipes, leaking plumbing or a leak in the roof, wall or an appliance like a dishwasher, a notorious source of leaked water.

Wet wood flooring should be allowed to dry or be dried via mechanical means like a fans, dehumidifiers or space heaters. Once the flooring is dry, you can assess whether the flooring can be repaired or replaced. Stained hardwood can often be repaired. Once water damaged hardwood flooring is warped or split, then replacing the water damaged flooring planks becomes the most likely option.

Signs of Hardwood Floor Water Damage?

If your hardwood flooring is water damaged you will see a change in the flooring’s color or shape caused by absorbed water. One of the most common signs of water damage is cupping. Hardwood floor cupping happens when water soaks the raw or underside part of the plank. The lower part of the board swells with moisture and widens while the top retains its original width. This causes cupping with the sides rising above the middle of the boards.

If when the floor can be dried it returns to its original color or shape, then the damage is minimal. If the discoloration or warping remains once the floor is dry, you have serious hardwood water damage. Repair might still be possible, but replacement becomes a more likely solution. The options are explored below.

Properly installed and maintained wood floors have a water-resistant or waterproof seal on the top surface which likely penetrates down the sides of the floorboards too. But the sides aren’t always coated, and the undersides of the planks are rarely sealed. This means that raw wood is exposed, and the cellulose material is prone to absorbing water.

An older hardwood floor with the sealer larger worn away is even more susceptible to water damage than a floor with a fresh seal. That’s a word to the wise about future hardwood flooring maintenance once the water damaged hardwood flooring has been repaired or replaced.

Water damage to hardwood flooring results from one of three water types: Clean, gray or black. The type of water you’re dealing with impacts the cleanup process and the potential for repairing vs replacing damaged hardwood floors. The dirtier the water, the more likely mold, mildew and odors will occur that require replacement rather than repair.

  • Clean: Fresh water from a supply line to a fixture or appliance.
  • Gray: Dirty sink, bathtub or shower water. Rainwater fits into this category too since on the way into your home, through a screen or over a windowsill, it likely collects dirt or mud and debris that fosters mold growth.
  • Black: Yeah, you guessed it. Toilet or sewer water containing bacteria you definitely want to kill.

Saving Hardwood Floors To Prevent Expensive Repair Or Replacement

Can water damaged hardwood floors be saved? Yes, water damage restoration without costly repairs is possible by quickly taking these steps. Once they’re done, the water damage can be assessed to determine whether it needs to be repaired or replaced.

1). Stop the source of the water.

2). Remove surface water ASAP using a water-safe shop vacuum aka water vacuum. It can suck water out from between boards. If you don’t have one, use towels to get up the visible water, but make a trip to Home Depot or Lowes to buy a shop vac, and go over the affected area again. Then put a fan or space heater or both to work for further drying power.

  • Clean water: No further work is required.
  • Gray or black water: Clean the flooring to kill contaminants with a disinfectant like a mix of water and Lysol or a small amount of bleach.

3). Clean mold: If mold has begun to appear, use TSP (trisodium phosphate) or other strong detergents and water to scrub it away with a stiff brush.

4). Dry the floor again.

OK, you’ve done what you can to this point. If the flooring is cupped or otherwise out of shape, give it another 5-10 days to dry out based on room humidity before evaluating its condition – or calling a hardwood flooring contractor to assess it for repairing it or floor replacement.

How To Repair Damaged Hardwood Floor

There are two damage types that you can repair: Staining and light cupping.

How To Repair Light Cupping

Use a power sander like an orbital sander to sand down the cupped edges until they are even with the surrounding planks. Vacuum up the dust. How do they look? If the flooring is even, your repair might be successful. Now, reseal the floor.

How To Repair Stained Hardwood

Use the sander to sand out the stains. If the stains are shallow, this might be enough. If you have to remove flooring to a significant depth to reach the deepest stains, and those areas are visibly lower than the surrounding floor, then plank replacement is going to be necessary.

Pro tip: When fixing stains or cupping, you will get the best-looking results if you refinish the flooring throughout the room. This is especially important if you’re staining the floor too. It’s nearly impossible to get a section of newly stained flooring to match the surrounding floor with older stain.

Deciding To Repair Or Replace Hardwood Flooring With Water Damage

Repairing hardwood flooring means fixing damaged planks and replacing a limited number of them that can’t be made right.

Replacing hardwood flooring means tearing out the flooring in the entire room and installing new flooring.

First, if obvious damage remains after DIY repairs, contact professionals for their expertise. They may have additional tips, tricks and techniques you’re not aware of to repair water damage in hardwood flooring. And they will likely measure moisture content to determine whether additional drying is needed before a decision is made.

But the question remains – even if hardwood flooring can be repaired, should it be repaired or is replacement a better option?

Here is guidance provided by our flooring experts.

Repair water damaged hardwood flooring if:

  • Sanding down cupped edges or removing stains can be done without essentially ruining the affected floorboards.
  • The damaged area is small and in a location that isn’t conspicuous.
  • Mold growth isn’t a serious problem.
  • A limited number of boards need to be replaced – less than 20% of the floor.
  • You have or can find a few replacement planks that match the existing flooring. This enables you to repair the worst of the damage without having to replace the entire floor.

Replace water damaged hardwood flooring if:

  • The damage is severe and/or widespread.
  • The cost of making repairs approaches the cost of replacing the entire floor.

Consider the last point. Floor repair cost is $20-$50 or more per square foot for most jobs depending on what’s done in the process. HomeGuide says cost is up to $80, and Home Advisor puts the top cost at $100/square foot.

The cost of new hardwood flooring is $10-$30 per square foot depending on the flooring you choose and the complexity of the installation.

If enough flooring is damaged, a tipping point is passed when paying for new flooring is the cost-effective choice vs the cost of repairing water damage to hardwood floors. And you’ll have new flooring that you won’t have to refinish for a decade or two.

Get estimates on both repair and replacement from several ethical hardwood flooring professionals in your area. Ask about their repair techniques and the likelihood that repaired flooring will blend well with the rest of the flooring – especially if a few planks are replaced as part of the repair.

Getting estimates, input and advice from flooring contractors should give you a clear picture of whether to repair or replace a damaged wood floor.

About the Author:

Rob Parsell

Rob joined the Home Flooring Pros team in 2014 and is a freelance writer, specializing in flooring, remodeling and HVAC systems (read more).

“I’m the son of an interior designer and picked up an eye for design as a result. I started hanging wallpaper and painting at 14 and learned enough on the job to be the general contractor on two homes we built for our family and did much of the finish plumbing, electrical, painting, and trim work myself.”

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