If you're debating between wood, stone or tile floors, start by examining the characteristics of each.
Wood is a rich, natural product that comes in a wide range of species, from traditional oak to more exotic Brazilian walnut. Depending on whether you like heavy grains or flat grains or yellow tones or red tones, there is a wood to fill the need.
Wood floors have become a "must have" item in many new homes, from $1 million custom houses to small city condominiums. While oak and maple are common throughout many price levels, homes in the upper price brackets often sport darker or more exotic woods.
"Dark floors are pretty hot right now," said John Lessick, president of Apex Wood Floors in Downers Grove.
Woods such as walnut, which has brown tones, and cherry, which has red to brown tones, have been popular in recent years as furniture styles have gravitated toward darker woods. There also are many dark stains that can be added to lighter woods, such as oak and maple.
If you like the warm, traditional look of a classic old home, you are a good candidate for wood floors. One caution, however, is that wood floors require some maintenance. Water should be mopped up quickly, as wood is susceptible to warping if exposed to water for long periods.
Wood also expands and contracts with variations in temperature and humidity. Some people dislike the periodic gaps in their floors, while others shrug it off as the character of the wood.
Woods also can scratch -- particularly softer woods such as cherry and pine.
"You would not want to use an American cherry, which is a beautiful wood, in a kitchen and breakfast area in a home with three kids and two dogs," Lessick said.
In that scenario, some people move toward tile or stone. In the tile category, there are ceramic and porcelain tiles. Both are sold in a wide range of colors and patterns, with many mimicking the look of natural stone.
Ceramic tile is very durable and is made mostly of clay with a glaze on the top surface. Porcelain tile is stronger than ceramic tile and often requires special tools to install. Many people like tile because of the wide selection of patterns.
Tile also is easy to clean and can be mopped with a general detergent and water. Wood floors, however, should be vacuumed regularly instead of being exposed to so much water.
Natural stone floors also are a hot seller in many new home communities, as they add a rich, natural look. The options range from marble, which has its trademark veining throughout the stone, to limestone, which has a more rustic, pockmarked look.
Marble and granite often are used on the bathroom or foyer floor. While both stones come in a polished, shiny look, the honed stones have become the rage in recent years.
Many people are drawn to the honed stones because they add an Old World look that lends a sophisticated flair to a bathroom or kitchen, said John Dalbis, owner of Showcase Kitchens and Design in Geneva.
Natural stones are more commonly found in upper-end housing, as they are about three times the cost of ceramic or porcelain tile.
"If it's $5 in ceramic, it's going to be $12 to $15 in granite or marble," Dalbis said.
Stone and tile floors sometimes are accented with intricate inlays or borders in contrasting colors or patterns. This type of detail adds to the design, as well as the price.
"They'll opt for a diamond at the corner of each tile," Dalbis said. "It becomes more expensive because each tile has to be cut."
Natural stone does have maintenance issues, however. Because the stones are natural, they can vary in pattern and texture. Some homeowners like that look, while others prefer the more uniform appearance of ceramic or porcelain tile.
Many stones are porous and can stain easily. They also need to be sealed periodically.
"If a kid spills grape juice on a limestone floor, it's gone," said Curtis Perlman project manger for Empeco Custom Builders.
The solution for someone with children is to buy porcelain or ceramic tiles with a faux stone pattern. Manufacturers have fined-tuned their designs in recent years so they look more realistic.
Porcelain tiles also are less expensive than stone and are more durable, Perlman said: "It really takes a lot to hurt a porcelain floor."
The same durability that draws people to tile, however, can be a negative factor for some people. Tile can be hard to stand on, prompting some cooks to turn to wood instead.
In the end, the choice often comes down to your design tastes and lifestyle. Which material looks the best to you? Which one fits with the traffic patterns around your house?
Allison E. Beatty is a Chicago-area freelance writer. If you have questions or information to share regarding new home buyers' product and design choices, write to Choices c/o Chicago Tribune, New Homes Section, 435 N. Michigan Ave., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611. Or, e-mail:email@example.com