Whether you’re considering a flight of stairs in new construction or are planning on renovating the stairs in an existing home, deciding whether to go with carpet or wood stairs can be a difficult process.
Whereas hardwood offers unparalleled elegance and appeal along with excellent durability and a solid return on investment, carpeting offers better functionality, is safer for some family members, and comes with a much lower price tag. Should you spring for hardwood or go with the more conservative carpeting?
Hardwood flooring is the best option and a great investment for homes with an open staircase that is visible from a main living area. At the same time, carpeting is the best choice for homes with less visible staircases and households with young children or elderly occupants.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at these two options and what advantages and disadvantages each has over the other.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- Carpet or Wood Stairs: Which is the Best Option?
- Carpet or Wood Stairs: Major Differences
- Care and Cleaning
- Cost & Installation
- Resale Value
Carpet or Wood Stairs: Which is the Best Option?
When considering all of the above factors, if you can afford it, hardwood stairs are almost always the best choice. They add elegance to your home, are more durable, and offer the best return on investment. That said, hardwood floors are expensive.
If you are on a budget, have young children or elderly family members, or are renovating a set of stairs in an inconspicuous part of the home, then carpeting makes more sense.
Side-by-Side Comparison Chart
|Can be noisy
|Can be hard on joints
|Padding easier on joints
|Easy w/ mop and broom
|Difficult with vacuum
|Cost (12 steps)
|Return on Investment
Carpet or Wood Stairs: Major Differences
Both carpeted and wood stairs are an effective means of finishing that part of your home that will take you from one floor to another.
While aesthetics may be the most obvious factor to consider when deciding on which to choose, there are many other factors to take into account, including safety, aesthetics, durability, and cost. We’ll review each factor to help you determine what the best choice is for your home.
Carpeting covers both the tread and risers. Carpeting is attached to stairs by measuring the width of the stairs, then working your way from one floor to the next. This is typically done from top to bottom. The carpet is stretched and molded over each tread and against each riser, tacking it in along the way so it conforms to the stairs’ shape.
Wall-to-wall style carpeting stretches from each edge of the stair, covering the steps entirely. Stair runners are similarly attached; however, they cover the central part of the stairs, which sees the most traffic, leaving the sides open to expose the wood of the stairs.
This style is typically used when you want the traction and noise dampening quality of carpeting but still want to expose some of the beauty of a hardwood tread. Carpeting on stairs usually goes with a low pile of 3/4-inch to reduce tripping hazards and for optimum resilience to foot traffic.
Wood stairs consist of steps made of either hardwood or pine. Hardwood is often used for the treads because it is tougher and more visually appealing than soft pine. Risers may feature hardwood to match the treads or may consist of painted pine wood.
Stairs are finished with a stain that matches the home’s decor then treated with a thick coat of polyurethane to protect the stairs. Some stairs feature risers that are painted. Stair treads are thicker than hardwood flooring at between 1 and 1.5 inches to hold up to foot traffic.
Common wood species used for stair treads include red oak, hard maple, white oak, walnut, hickory, and ash.
Depending on the design of your home, stairs can have a significant impact on the aesthetic appeal of your living area. Since we’re talking about appearance here, it’s logical that the more visible the stairs are, the more aesthetics count.
An open stairwell viewable from your living room will have a greater impact on the aesthetics of the overall space than, say, a stairwell at the back of the house or shielded by two walls.
You also need to keep in mind the flooring at both ends of the staircase. A staircase that leads from hardwood flooring to hardwood flooring may appear odd with carpeting. Likewise, a hardwood staircase connecting two carpeted floors may also look out of place.
There are limitless options for carpeting that covers stairs. Carpeting can take stairs that are purely practical and improve the look. With carpeting available in numerous color options, it’s relatively easy to match carpeting to virtually any interior design style. That said, carpeted stairs create a more casual look regardless of which style of carpeting you use.
Most wood stairs consist of pine risers that are painted and treads made of red oak, white oak, or American cherry. These woods offer an aesthetic quality that creates a sophisticated look. This makes them sought after materials for open stairs that are viewable from living areas as well as sweeping staircases.
Varying the look of stairs by using a dark stain on the treads and white paint on the risers adds interest that catches the eye.
Best for Appearance: Wood Stairs
There’s not much of a contest here. The rich look of stained hardwood trumps even the highest grade of carpeting. Given the ability of a set of stairs to attract the eye, hardwood can go a long way toward adding a rich look and feel to a home that is tough to match.
Considering that more than a million Americans injure themselves on stairs each year, including an estimated 12,000 deaths, it’s important to consider safety when determining what type of stairs you want in your home.
When making this decision, consider who will be using the stairs. Young children and adults with mobility or balance issues will have a harder time navigating stairs than the average adult. Pets can also have a difficult time going up and downstairs.
Carpeted stairs offer a way of adding safety to a staircase. Carpeting is by its nature soft, creating a level of padding on stairs that reduces the severity of injuries should someone fall while going up or down the stairs.
Carpeting also offers a degree of traction, minimizing the chance that someone might slip while using the stairs. While this may not be much of an issue with an adult, a child in stocking feet will have a much easier time navigating a set of carpeted stairs.
It is important to note that carpeting should be no thicker than a 3/4-inch pile; otherwise it may create a tripping hazard. With that in mind, avoid using loop-style carpeting such as Berber that can catch toes or a dog’s claw.
Wood stairs are slippery. Most wood stairs are finished with a thick layer of polyurethane, which does an excellent job of protecting the wood but also can be slick.
While this surface may be just fine for those wearing rubber-soled shoes, it creates a surface that is slippery for those navigating the steps in a pair of socks. This can lead to slips and falls, resulting in injury.
There are products on the market that make stairs less slippery, including adhesive transparent anti-slip strips, which are completely translucent and won’t take away from the look of hardwood.
If you don’t care about aesthetics, you can also install carpet strips that add a carpeted texture to each tread. Similarly, anti-slip tape, which has the texture of coarse sandpaper is also an option. There are also various sprays that will make your stairs less slippery without negatively impacting the aesthetics. For these ideas and more, check out my recent post on how to make wooden stairs less slippery.
Wood stairs are also made of hardwood, which is, well, hard, which makes falling on them more painful or potentially more damaging to your body.
Best for Safety: Carpeted Stairs
Carpeted stairs offer a higher degree of safety, especially if you have young children or elderly family members who will be using the stairs often. They offer better traction and also include padding that softens your landing if you fall while going up or down the stairs.
Given that they serve as the sole link between two separate floors, stairs will see a lot of traffic. And even though a set of stairs may be 30 inches wide, people tend to travel up and down the center of the stairs.
This means that the narrow strips on the center of your staircase will see more feet than perhaps any other place in the house.
You also need to consider that going from tread to tread also puts more force on each step than a flat floor in your home. This all adds up to durability being a significant factor in choosing the type of stairs for your home.
Carpeted stairs face considerable abuse from foot traffic. The forces described above can cause the center of the stairs to wear much more quickly than the rarely used sides, creating an uneven look. This is especially true for higher pile carpets that may eventually become flattened in the middle.
Stairs also tend to collect dirt since they are more difficult to clean than say, a carpeted room, which increases wear. You can counter these effects by using high-traffic stain resistant carpet for stairs.
When carpeting on the stairs does wear out, you have no choice but to replace it.
When treated with several layers of quality polyurethane, hardwood stairs can withstand a great deal of abuse. A thick finish will resist the effects of shoes.
Plus, sealed hardwood stairs won’t stain, making cleaning up spills or muddy footprints relatively easy.
That said, hardwood is susceptible to dents and scratches from items dropped on the stairs or abrasive material that may get ground into them. If stairs treads begin to show their age, you can sand and refinish them as you would a hardwood floor.
Best for Durability: Wood Stairs
Although wood may be susceptible to dents and scratches, it is far more durable than carpet. This is especially the case with stairs that use hardwood treads that better resist damage than softer pine.
Several coats of polyurethane provide additional protection in the form of a hard shell. Carpeting, in comparison, will eventually wear out, requiring replacement. It’s also harder to remove stains that may arise from extended use.
Stairs are first and foremost a functional aspect of your home. Without them, you’d have a heck of a time going from the first floor to the second floor. With that in mind, it’s important to consider how well they’ll work as either carpeted stairs or wood stairs.
As we discussed above in our section regarding safety, carpeted stairs are generally easier for children and the elderly to navigate. Fido and fluffy will also have an easier time gripping a set of carpeted stairs with their claws.
Carpeted stairs also create a padded surface that makes climbing them easier on the knees.
Carpeting also functions as a natural sound absorber. A stairwell acts as a natural funnel for sound. Carpeted stairs muffle noise, hindering it from traveling up or down the stairs.
You are also less likely to hear someone climbing or descending a set of carpeted stairs, which can be an important factor early in the morning or late at night when some occupants may be sleeping.
In addition to the safety issues described above, wood stairs can be tough on those with knee and hip issues, given the fact they are hard. Wood stairs are also potentially noisy if someone is climbing the stairs in hard-soled shoes.
Hard surfaces also cause sound waves to bounce off them, which means sounds from one floor will more easily travel to the next floor.
Best for Functionality: Carpeted Stairs
Besides offering better traction for climbing and descending the stairs, carpeted stairs are quieter than hardwood stairs and do a better job of absorbing sound, preventing it from traveling from one floor to another. Since carpeting is soft, it’s also easier on knees and hips than hardwood.
Care and Cleaning
Stairs are high traffic areas, making them prone to collecting dirt. And, unless you enforce a strict “no shoes” policy in your home, that dirt can quickly build up as occupants move from floor to floor and back again.
Due to the nature of stairs, they’re more challenging to clean than, say, a living room floor.
Everyone knows that the best way to clean a set of stairs is with a vacuum cleaner. While that’s fine for cleaning carpeted floors, carpeted stairs are a different animal.
A vacuum cleaner can weigh upwards of 20 pounds. This makes it awkward, to say the least, to clean stairs. This requires you to purchase a smaller, lightweight handheld vacuum cleaner. Even then, it’s difficult to thoroughly clean carpeted stair treads.
Carpeting is also susceptible to stains, which must be treated and cleaned, which can also be a challenging process on a flight of stairs.
While cleaning wood stairs presents a challenge, it can be accomplished with a simple broom and a lightweight Swiffer style mop. Wood stairs, with their thick polyurethane shell, also won’t stain. Muddy footprints or spills can be wiped up with cleaner and paper towels.
Best for Care and Cleaning: Wood Stairs
Wood stairs can be cleaned with a broom, eliminating the need to risk life and limb by vacuuming the stairs with a heavy vacuum cleaner. It’s also easier to clean up spills or dirt from wood stairs than it is for carpeted stairs. This makes wood stairs the clear winner when it comes to caring and cleaning.
Cost & Installation
Installation and cost are significant factors for choosing your stair type, especially if you’re planning on installing the stair flooring yourself to save on costs.
Given the hazard that stairs present, proper installation is crucial to prevent tripping hazards or structural problems that can cause injury. Cost is also a significant factor for most homeowners. The material you choose to serve as the surface of your stairs can vary significantly in cost.
When it comes to cost, carpeting is an affordable material. However, keep in mind that the cost of carpeting can vary significantly depending on quality and type. Carpeting costs about $3.50 to $11 per square foot.
While installing carpeting on your stairs yourself is certainly doable, it’s not an easy process.
Carpeting stairs requires a significant amount of awkward measuring and cutting to perfectly fit the stairs. You also need to install padding on each tread and a significant number of tack strips to hold the carpeting secure to the steps.
And, given the amount of traffic steps get, your installation will be thoroughly tested. For this reason, leaving carpeted stair installation to the pros is highly recommended.
Installers typically charge about $10 to $18 per yard of carpeting and $3 to $15 per stair on installation, depending on if you have spindles or not. Expect to pay about $750 to carpet a flight of 12 stairs including labor, carpeting, and pad.
The cost of wood stairs can vary depending on the species of wood you’re using. Hardwood stairs featuring wood such as oak, maple, or cherry will come at a premium cost. A single 3-foot-wide oak stair tread from Home Depot will cost you about $25.
Extrapolate that across 12 stairs and you’re looking at spending about $300 on the unfinished treads alone. If you plan on using hardwood for the risers, expect that cost to double.
While installing a set of wood stairs yourself is certainly possible, it can be challenging to do well. Professional installers have access to tools that allow them to attach stair treads that hide the fasteners (which is a must if you’re going to splurge for real hardwood).
The finishing and sealing process can also be laborious and messy. If you plan on hiring an installer, expect to pay between $100 to $200 per step for labor and installation, depending on the wood species you choose.
A flight of 12 stairs generally ranges between $1,000 to $2,400 for hardwood.
Best for Cost and Installation: Carpeted stairs
There is a significant difference between the cost of carpeted stairs and hardwood stairs. If you’re on a tight budget, carpeting is the way to go. Expect to pay two to three times more for the beauty of hardwood compared to carpeting.
While installing carpeting or hardwood stairs yourself is certainly possible in both situations, it’s a complicated task with either material.
Given the stairs are a feature of your home that can’t be out of commission for long without disrupting your household, speed is also a factor for installation. This is a project that needs to move quickly from start to finish, which may be a valid reason for hiring the pros to do it.
Whether you’re renovating a bathroom, upgrading kitchen cabinets, or renovating a set of stairs, how your planned project will impact the value of your home should always be high on your list of considerations.
If you can afford it, it’s always best to go with the most popular option among homeowners. This will bring you the highest return on your investment.
A quality grade of carpeting can certainly be an attractive feature to home buyers, especially if the carpet is fresh and new. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for carpeting to wear.
With that in mind, the money you put into new carpeting will not see much of a return on investment as the carpet wears in.
There’s a reason people advertise hardwood floors high on the list of features when selling a home. Hardwood floors are sought after features and hardwood stairs are as well.
Though wood stairs might be a much bigger upfront investment, you’ll get a solid return on that investment even if you don’t sell your home for years.
This is especially the case if your staircase is in a prominent place in your home. An open set of stairs that serves as a backdrop to a main living area is a much better place for a set of stairs versus a staircase hidden behind a door or located at the rear of the house.
Best for Resale Value: Wood stairs
Not much of a contest here. Wood stairs are much more sought after than carpeted stairs, especially those with hardwood treads. Still, you should keep in mind that the return you get is dependent on the stairs themselves.
Stairs in prominent parts of the home that have a significant impact on the home’s aesthetics are much better candidates for hardwood than stairs that play a less important role.
Not all homes are the same. When making the decision to carpet stairs or use hardwood, it’s always important to consider what’s best for your home. What’s best for one home is not always what’s best for another.
I hope this article has helped you decide what works for the stairs in your house. If you have any additional questions or would like to add your two cents, please feel free to comment in the space below.