Finding and Fixing That Squeak in the Floor

Go at it from below to avoid having to replace or resecure boards and risk snagging the carpet.

What should you do if a customer innocently asks you to eliminate a squeak in an old floorboard while you're working in another part of the house? You can agree to do the work, but you'd better make sure he knows that there aren't any guarantees that it will work and that it may take more time and effort than he may think is worth it.

Squeaks occur primarily in older homes due to three problems: The "sleeper" boards, small pine blocks on which tongue-and-groove flooring was supported, have worn down or cracked, creating some give in the floor; the plywood connected to the floor joists has loosened; or heating or air vents may be rubbing against part of the substructure.

Fixing squeaks from above requires resecuring the board to the subsystem, explains John DeCiantis, CGR, president of DeCiantis Construction in Stonington, Conn. You can try screwing the floorboard into the joists if you can find them, but you might have to pull up the carpeting. If you screw through the carpeting, be sure not to snag a carpet thread or it will create a "run" across the room. With hardwood flooring, a screw can be secured into the wood and the screw hole plugged.

Michael Wolke, owner of Michael Wolke Flooring in Des Plaines, Ill., suggests taking up the floorboards, providing new support and then reinstalling new boards. With a finished hardwood floor, however, matching new and old can be a problem. Wolke says he sometimes takes original boards from a closet, replaces those with new wood and uses the old wood to help match where the cut was made. It may work best to pull up several lines of wood and mix the two kinds to ensure a more uniform look.

Both men prefer attacking the problem from below, which can be done more easily in a basement or a crawl space. Even for second-floor situations, DeCiantis stresses that the best approach is to cut open the drywall ceiling below the squeaky floor rather than try to fix it from above.

If the problem is the subfloor itself, it can be shimmed to support the boards, using exterior wood-siding shingles. They offer a more gradual slope than premade shims. Or you can install a small square block of 3/4-inch plywood to create a bridge between two pieces of subfloor. DeCiantis uses a 2-by-2-inch block that's glued to both the floor and the joists to support the loose board. During any fix, it's wise to have someone stand on the squeaky spot to ensure that the pieces are secured as tightly as possible.

The good news is that squeaks are becoming a thing of the past, DeCiantis says. "A reputable builder today glues the subfloor down, so fasteners can't loosen." Using engineered lumber and I-joists, which use layers of thin wood for more strength, also helps eliminate squeaks.

In older homes, though, squeaks can be tough to fix for good, even if you can reach them. "Tell your customer that squeaks give a home character," Wolke suggests. "At least no one will be able to sneak up on you."

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