If You Hate Your Floors, Why Don't You Paint Them?

If You Hate Your Floors, Why Don't You Paint Them?

This divisive design decision isn’t for everyone, but it could be a quick (and cheap) update that’ll transform your space.

Let’s say you don’t like your floors. Maybe they’re wood with a stain that fights with your furniture and annoys you every time you see it—not enough to be a deal breaker in a hot real estate market, but you can’t stand them. Or they’re just wrecked from the ravages of young children or elderly pets, and it’s time to refinish them anyway. Perhaps you’re living with somebody’s quirky choice of whimsical tile from the ’80s—or worse, builder-grade stuff in tobacco-stained brown.

You could spend your days canvassing home stores and rug dealers and antique emporiums for the perfect carpets to cover it all up. But here’s a thought: What if you considered painted floors, instead?

"I think it’s hands down one of the most transformative things you can do to immediately and inexpensively update your space," says Melanie Raver with Rave Interior Design. "I’m honestly surprised more people aren’t doing this."

While the technique is seeing a resurgence at the moment—it pops nicely on Instagram, though it’s divisive and people who hate it really hate it—it’s not new. It was a popular trick in America from the 17th to 19th centuries. It’s also surprisingly versatile: painted floors are a staple of cottage style, for instance, but they can also take on an industrial look depending on their surroundings. They can also just blend into the background and let your other choices shine; Deborah Lynn McDonald of B Style Vintage likes them because they provide a beautiful blank canvas for the vintage and antique furniture she collects: "When you paint your floors, they’re not the loudest part of the room anymore."

If that appeals, here’s what you need to know and where to start—plus a couple of alternatives if the prospect of painting your entire downstairs scares the living daylights out of you.

Painting wooden floors

To be clear, painting your wood floors won’t get you out of the prep work involved in refinishing your floors—they have to be sanded and prepped first, just like any other refinishing. "Then you have to vacuum and mop and vacuum again," says McDonald, who has painted the upstairs and bathroom of her 1903 Victorian, as well as the floors of a tiny-home cabin. "You need to make sure there’s nothing on those floors." Also, she suggests wearing a hairnet, or somehow containing your hair, because you don’t want to find stray hairs embedded in the paint three months later, when it’s too late to fix it.

The important thing about your choice of paint, McDonald says, is using something tough. She used a cabinet paint with hardener from the brand C2 in a custom shade of gray, purchased at her local hardware store. "I have them put in the highest amount of hardener that they can possibly put in without altering the color of the paint," she explains. "I sort of have a really hard lacquer finish when I’m done, and the floors have held up." She used that for all of her floors, because you want to go with the toughest possible paint on a floor, regardless of where. She put down a Zinsser shellac primer first, and doesn’t employ a topcoat—"that works the best for touch ups down the road, because when you use the polyurethane on the top, you’re never going to be able to color match your floors."

Painted wooden floors do require occasional maintenance, she admits, particularly in the bathroom: "We do our due diligence of making sure we wipe any water off the floor after the shower." (Though, to be clear, you shouldn’t let water sit on any floor.)

"Would I paint the back entrance where there is the highest traffic coming in and out of our house? Probably not," she admits, adding that if she did, she’d probably put down a big area rug. That said, for McDonald, painting her floors a light color is for practicality as well as aesthetics—and in fact, the light floors upstairs make her life easier, because of her white dogs.

"Like painting wood furniture, vintage furniture, you get a lot of people who are like, you’re ruining it," McDonald says. "But one of the things that’s interesting, in the house that we’re in that’s 120 years old, the floors in the kitchen, under the one cabinet that we’ve removed, there’s literally layers and layers of paint. You can sand it off. It’s just paint!"

What about tile?

It’s not just wood you can paint, either—it is possible to paint tile, though people have very, very strong opinions about whether it’s a good idea. Raver painted the floor of her daughters’ bathroom—"Three young girls, tons of traffic," she explains. It was a dingy brown, she says, and the grout wasn’t looking great. "I cannot believe how well this tile painted and stayed. Never once chipped." An Instagram video shows her scrubbing furiously away at the detritus of life with tween and teen daughters, with the paint staying put.

In fact, the project was so successful that she managed to convince her skeptical husband they should paint the entire downstairs floor of their house, to cover up a yellow travertine tile that wasn’t to her taste. For both projects, she used a two-part Rust-oleum Home floor paint system; "It’s VERY important to do the two parts," she adds. She opted for semi-gloss in the bathroom and downstairs; in retrospect, she’d recommend matte for larger areas that aren’t a bathroom or utility space. "The semigloss just looks a little funky and is really tricky to roll in a large area."

Nor is tile the only surface you can paint—concrete and linoleum work, as well. Raver’s word of warning is that, unlike wood, you can’t just sand tile back down and start over: "There’s not really much going back," she says. "I think it’s pretty hard to take off once you put it down."


Maybe you’re still a little scared of the prospect of painting your floors. "I’ve done some research on people’s feelings on painted floors and know it can be pretty controversial," admits Raver.

Luckily, there are other options. You could, for one, simply refinish them and opt for a different stain. McDonald plans to redo her floors downstairs, and because she can’t bear to cover the original historic wood floors, she’s going to attempt a two-step bleaching product that purports to tone down the redness in the wood.

A potentially renter friendly alternative, as well, would be vinyl stickers. These might not have the staying power of painted floors, but it’s a way to test the waters on a new look without fully committing to the painting approach. Plus, you’ll find a wider array of design options. Rave points to the Instagram of her friend Amanda Poe aka @bohofrisco, who is in the process of un-decorating her apartment before moving out, including tile stickers on her bathroom floor. They’d held up well, but they also removed easily.

If you’re looking for an area rug alternative, you might consider a floorcloth. These offer some of the functionality of linoleum or vinyl flooring and come in an array of interesting patterns.


If you’re a maximalist, the next step beyond simply painting your floors would be opting for a pattern. That’s what Raver did in her bathroom project. (She used the same Rustoleum product, but asked them to tint a small container for her accent color, then put the sealant on top.) She used a stencil with a star pattern; "I made sure to order a stencil that was the same size as the tile. That way I didn’t go into the grout lines." Always test your stencil on a piece of scrap wood first.

Bigger spaces allow you to go for bigger patterns, too. Take the project by Leah Koch of The Ripped Bodice, in which she stenciled enormous geometric black-and-white flowers on the floor of her Brooklyn romance bookstore. Checkerboard is a staple of historic homes; essentially, you can do whatever you want.

"It’s really not a hard DIY to do," says McDonald. "I think really people get more scared of it than they need to be. It’s just paint, what’s the worst that can happen? If you don’t like the color, you paint over them. If you absolutely hate it, you sand it back down. It’s not anything but work."

Top image by Ulf Huett Nilsson/Getty Images

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