When it comes to durability, you can't beat the factory finish that comes on most prefinished hardwood flooring. It consists of several layers of baked-on polyurethane followed by an aluminum-oxide coating, which is one of the hardest finishes there is. The advantages of such a durable finish are obvious, but a factory finish does also have some drawbacks:
It often has a high gloss that makes it look like plastic, and it can be reflective enough to mask the wood grain in a well-lit location.
It's scratch resistant but not scratchproof, and when a scratch does occur, it can be difficult to repair.
It can be ultra slippery to the point that pets with long nails might have a hard time getting a footing.
It's difficult to remove, so when the time comes for refinishing — and it will come — you'll find sanding difficult, and you may need to hire a pro. If so, there go the refinishing costs you saved by choosing prefinished flooring in the first place.
Prefinished flooring often costs more than unfinished flooring — about $2 per square foot more for the same wood species — but you generally save that by not having to sand and finish the floor during installation. However, one more characteristic of prefinished flooring can be a deal breaker, and that's the beveled edges. Prefinished boards tend to have bevels that create triangular troughs in the floor that trap dirt and may even be a different color than the main part of the floor.
Unfinished Hardwood Flooring: Pros and Cons
If you choose unfinished flooring, you will have to sand it no matter what type of finish you decide to apply. Sanding is necessary to flatten the floor and cut down the raised edges, which can reach heights of 1/16 inch, and it's a messy process even if you use a dustless sanding system. Unless you've done it before, you should leave sanding to the installer — and that drives up the installation cost.
Other disadvantages of unfinished flooring include the following:
Budget raw-wood flooring often includes warped boards that can be challenging to install. You may end up having to discard some of them. Offsetting this problem is the fact that unfinished flooring is more likely to be available in random lengths, which makes it easier to create a random stagger pattern.
The room in which the floor is being installed is off limits during the finishing process, which can take days.
Some finishes have a strong odor that lingers until the finish material has completely cured. You can avoid this by using a low-VOC coating, but if you want a finish that rivals the durability of prefinished floors, you'll need a noxious, solvent-based material that could drive you out of the house until it sets.
On the plus side, unfinished flooring gives you the flexibility to have a more natural-looking wood floor. The rich appearance and warmth that wood offers is probably one reason you chose it in the first place. Be as minimalist as you want or go the other way and apply several finish coats for maximum protection.