Regular readers here know that we have a duplex that we rent out. But for us it’s not really a passive investment. Rather than handing off the investment to a property management company, we’re in there actively ourselves finding new tenants, and DIY-ing as much of the maintenance and repairs as we can.
Our latest DIY project took us a few tries to get right, so we want to share the “how to” here for others to avoid the trial and error that we had to fight through.
The Project – Refinishing Linoleum Flooring
One of our units has linoleum floors. You might remember them from staring at the floor in your second grade classroom. Or third grade. Or fourth. Or tenth. They’re the classy 12” square tiles that scream, “Pass your homework to the front of your row.”
The good thing about linoleum tiles like these is that they are durable. Heck, if years of students can run, jump, and spit all over them, what harm can a few members of the college orchestra really do to them?
The bad news is that cleaning them properly (a task that we unsuccessfully attempted in 2010 when we first rented this unit) is not easy, and the “how to” aspect of it seems to be a secret as well-guarded by elementary school janitorial staff as magic tricks are by magicians. But we’re going to break that secret here today.
He Said / She Said: Did It Really Need To Be Done?
Mrs PoP – Honestly, the floors looked like they were in a school where the janitors had been laid off years ago. But, I thought it was a hopeless cause and just wanted to give them a good mopping for the new tenants and convince Mr. PoP to lay 900 sqft of relatively inexpensive ceramic tile in a few years. After all, it’d be great practice for when we finally address the tile problem in our own house.
Mr PoP – They looked awful. Whenever prospective tenants came to check out the place, they’d love the high ceilings that made the little unit feel bigger, the new cabinetry and dishwasher. But they’d always ask if that was as good as the floors got. People noticed more than Mrs PoP thought they should. Plus, I don’t want to put down 900sqft of tile if I can avoid it.
So Mrs. PoP caved and I got free rein with the credit card to see if there wasn’t a way to salvage these tiles and bring them back to their former glory by removing years and layers of yellowish discolored wax not to mention paint droppings, dirt, grease, and scratches in between the wax layers from tiles that were otherwise fine.
An Aside on Linoleum vs Vinyl
First off, let’s clear up the difference between vinyl and linoleum tile. Check out this article for more info, but basically linoleum is a type of flooring that is made of linseed oil (making it fairly “green”), lasts for 30-40 years in commercial environments, and is made in such a way that the colors go all the way through the tile. Naked linoleum is porous, so you have to maintain it with a sealer and wax. Vinyl tile is made from oil, has a printed pattern tends to wear off after a while, but is slightly easier to install in sheet form (in tile form it’s a wash for installation), and only lasts about half as long as linoleum.
Part of the problem is that nobody knows the damn difference between linoleum and vinyl. To see how bad this is: Google actually uses the terms interchangeably. When Google doesn’t get it right, you know it’s confusing. Even though linoleum is mostly seen in commercial settings in the US nowadays, for some reason we wound up with about 900 sqft in our duplex. These directions are for linoleum floors, so if you try it on vinyl and you screw something up, don’t come to me.
- Time: About 1 day solid of hard work for 2 people stripping, and a few more hours after that spread out for applying sealers and wax. (Preferably the better part of a week when you’ll have the floors all completely cleared.)
- Stripping Chemicals (~$45 for 2 gallons): We used BetCo Extreme Stripper (what a name!) that we picked up from a janitorial supply company. It’s a concentrate that you’ll dilute – you can try the “light strength” first, but ours needed “full strength”. Zep Floor Stripper (sold in Lowes and Home Depot) was useless, and a combination of ammonia and vinegar was also pretty useless. Don’t waste your money.
- Sealer/Wax Chemicals: For these, we’re using Zep Floor Sealer and Zep Floor Finish and since we’re not in a commercial environment we figure these should be okay.
- Mops/Buckets ($5-$15): Sponge mop for applying chemicals (this will be basically dead at the end of this process), and rope mops for applying the sealer and wax. You’ll also want a couple 2 gallon buckets for holding the chemical solutions.
- Commercial Buffer (Rental $60 includes a couple scouring pads): We recommend renting one of these from a janitorial supply company. We only learned later, but it is much cheaper than renting from Lowes or Home Depot. We used the scouring pad attachment and had two of them. Get lessons before turning this on – they are NOT intuitive to control!
- Wet Dry Vac ($97): This is key. And don’t cheap out. Get one with a powerful motor (we went with a 5Hp), a long handle so you don’t have to hunch over, and pay the extra $8 to get a squeegee-like attachment that you’ll use to be sucking all the used stripping chemicals off the floor. Luckily this part is reusable and we will be keeping it.
- Safety equipment: Ok, so we didn’t actually use goggle and respirators, but you might want to consider it. Mrs. PoP said her throat was scratchy the day after, but I felt ok.
Once you’ve got all the right supplies, it’s pretty straightforward.
- Have one person use the sponge mop to apply your stripping chemicals to an area that’s about 3’ x 10’. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and keep an eye on that area, keeping that area wet and applying more stripping chemicals as needed for 5 minutes.
- When your timer dings after 5 minutes, you should be able to use your fingernail to scrape off some of the wax on the floor. Now the other person can start buffing on one end of the area. You want even pressure, and the scouring pad will be stripping up all those layers of wax and sealant.
- As the person with the buffer moves along the area, the second person should grab the wet dry vac and follow behind sucking up all the excess wax and used stripping chemicals that are being left behind. (Note, some instructions will tell you to mop this slurry up. The authors of those instructions are either masochists or morons. Perhaps both.)
- Repeat Steps 1-3 until the entire house is stripped. Every few repeats, you’ll need to rinse out the scouring pad on your buffer set it aside to dry and swap it out with the clean one. You’ll also need to empty out your wet-dry vac, too. This gets a good 98% of the wax off the floors. You may want to use hand applications and a hand-held scrub brush to get in the corners where the circular buffer surface can’t reach.
- After it’s stripped, let it dry overnight. Then…
- Apply the sealer using the rope mop following the directions on the bottle. Wash, but don’t dry the mop heads. (They shrink if you dry them – a LOT!)
- Apply the wax using the rope mop following the directions on the bottle. Mr. PoP went back and did this several evenings in a row letting it dry 24 hours in between each coat. Again, wash but don’t dry the mop heads between each nightly application.
And that’s it. Now you’re all ready to admire your shiny redone floors. And by admire, I mean really lay the praise on thick. This was a crap-load of manual labor and you need to pat yourself on the back.
We’re aiming to repeat this complete process every few years, though we will probably mop and then put an additional layer of wax on every year or so when tenants move out. And now instead of tiling, we’re expecting to get a lot more life out of the existing floors.
Any questions? Anyone have more sympathy for their elementary school janitors after reading what they went through for you?