5 Costly Tile Mistakes That Are Ruining Your Reno, According to Contractors

published Oct 23, 2023
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If you’ve ever worked on a kitchen or bathroom renovation, you know that there are a lot of moving parts, including electrical, plumbing, and everything in between. Often, projects in either of those spaces will include at least some amount of tiling, whether that’s on the walls, across a backsplash, on the floors, or in the shower. 

DIYing those tile pieces of course has its challenges, but even if you’re outsourcing this piece to a contractor there are still pitfalls you should avoid. Unfortunately, I’m speaking from experience here. When restoring our kitchen, mudroom, and two bathrooms in my 1886 Victorian home, the tiling process created the most headache out of all the various elements (long story short: It ended in some demo and a redo of new work plus a burst water pipe). One new contractor and many dollars later, I learned so much, and our tile looks amazing. I’m now here to say that arming yourself with a little tile knowledge will keep you from having to learn the hard way. Here are five easily avoidable mistakes that quality tile contractors see happen all too often — plus, how you can avoid them. 

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Mistake #1: Not Vetting Your Contractors

Choosing a qualified contractor from the start is crucial, says Jonny Jeppsen, a general contractor in Springfield, Missouri, with more than three decades of experience and an extensive background in tiling. Previously, he owned a hard surface company where he oversaw the installation of 3 million square feet of tile.

“I would say look for contractors who have been in business for at least three to five years,” Jeppsen says. “And don’t ask for references in the traditional sense — ask to talk to the last three customers they worked for. Because if you ask them for general references, they will only give you the people that liked them.” He recommends calling those references and asking not just whether they like the end product, but also whether or not the tile installer has been showing up every day and if they’ve been leaving the work site tidy. If you want to take it a step further, you can ask to visit an in-progress job site.

Colorado Springs-based tile installer Donovan Freeman, who has been in the industry for 22 years, recommends searching for a tile contractor through the National Tile Contractors Association member database. This trade organization provides its members with continuing education and information on current best practices, so it’s generally a good shortcut for finding contractors with the appropriate expertise.

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Mistake #2: Picking Inappropriate Materials for the Application

Even if you’re working with a top-notch tile installer, you still need to set them up for success with the proper materials. While every contractor follows a different process, Jeppsen often has his clients pick out their own tile, but he always provides feedback on whether the materials will be suitable for the intended application. While his clients select their own grout color, he handles selecting the correct type of grout.

However, you might be tasked with choosing your own grout or your own tile, and picking the right material is crucial for your success. When selecting grout, you need to consider the size of the grout joint before deciding between sanded grout and unsanded grout. Sanded grout is less prone to shrinking and cracking, so it is ideal for tile spacing greater than 1/8 inch. For thinner tile spacing, you should use unsanded grout.

Tile, as well, has a lot of variation. You’ll need to make sure that the tile you choose is specifically recommended for the application in which you’re hoping to use it. In the description, you’ll be able to see manufacturer guidance, like whether a tile is for wall and backsplash use only or if a tile is non-vitreous (absorption of more than 7% water) meaning it is appropriate only for indoor use. Heed these manufacturer guidelines or risk heartbreak when your tile fails.

Additionally, the quality of your tile does have an impact on the end look. For example, choosing a higher-quality tile may ensure you’ll see fewer sheet lines if you use a mesh-backed tile.

If you do need to cut costs on the tile itself, Ethan Randolph, a contractor specializing in tile work in Springfield, Missouri, says a quality tile installer can still succeed with subpar tile by correctly prepping the area.

“An experienced installer will be able to know how to tackle the potential challenges that can arise with a product that’s more on the economic side,” Randolph says. “But what really determines whether a tile job is going to be a pass or a fail is the prep of the area. If you take more time trying to get that area leveled and remove random debris, it’s going to go a long way with whatever tile you select being a success — even if it’s on the cheaper side. It’s better than trying to get really nice tile to make up for some of those differences.”

While there isn’t an official tile grading system in terms of tile quality, the Porcelain Enamel Institute established a 1-5 grading system to help you determine whether a tile is intended for high-traffic flooring areas or for backsplash use only. The higher the number, the more durable the tile.

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Mistake #3: Not Facilitating Communication Between Your Subcontractors

There are a lot of moving parts that contribute to the success of a tile job. That’s why your plumber, electrician, and carpenter all need to communicate during the process. If you’re working with a general contractor, it’s their job to ensure this is happening. But if you notice it’s simply not, or you’re working as your own general contractor, it’s important to open up the lines of communication yourself.

“Subcontractors’ work can overlap each other when they’re working in the same space,” Randolph says. “There needs to be a baseline of communication between the subcontractors and figuring out who is going to do what. If not, you’re highly likely to have a situation in the future where somebody was assuming somebody else was going to do something, and vice versa, and then it doesn’t end up getting done.”

To avoid having to redo work because it was done out of order (speaking from experience, here), make sure to create a timeline of all the projects that notes when each piece of work should be completed before any of that work even begins. Then, schedule each subcontractor accordingly.

Credit: Ana Kamin

Mistake #4: Overlooking Necessary Waterproofing

Jeppsen, Randolph, and Freeman all agree that the shower is an area where they see the most costly issues arise due to problems like water damage and mold. “Some tile materials aren’t as porous as others, but none of them are completely waterproof,” Freeman says. “It’s important to make sure the shower itself is waterproof before you even put tile on the wall.” This involves adding a waterproofing membrane, which is available in a liquid or sheet form.

Freeman and Jeppsen encourage homeowners to request a flood test before a tile install. “To conduct a flood test, you put a plug in the drain and fill the shower base up with water, and then you leave it overnight,” Jeppsen says. “If that water is still at the same level when you come back the next morning, and you don’t have any obvious signs of water getting out of the shower, then more than likely, you’re going to be fine.”

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Mistake #5: Catching Design Errors Late in the Game

Tile and grout choices, as well as layout patterns, carry a lot of weight in the overall visual design of a bathroom or kitchen. Design mistakes happen, but catching them early is key to helping your project stay on schedule and on budget.

Freeman warns that one way to avoid a design mishap is to order tile samples ahead of time and compare them to physical samples of your paint and counter samples. “I often see problems around picking out the type of edging,” Freeman says. “It’s always a running conversation about what color metal edging will look best or whether you even want a metal edge. It can be a lot easier for a tile installer to finish the job with a metal edge.”

Additionally, he also notes that it’s important to clearly communicate your grout color choices and the layout pattern before your installer starts to set the tile. Follow up on any in-person conversations about your choices over text, and even consider leaving notes with photos on-site.

Correction: A previous version of this story swapped the use case for sanded and unsanded grout. The error has been corrected.