(This Old House) -- Even a small error in floor, wall, or bath tile can be an eyesore. One minutely mispositioned tile, for example, can throw off the pattern and grout line, making the goof glaring. Worse, fixing a botched tiling job is expensive, disruptive and messy, especially if water has seeped through the grout and ruined framing, ceilings and finished walls.
That's why hiring a seasoned professional and making sure the job gets done right the first time are essential. What's more, certain applications might call for specialty tile, edging, grout, adhesive and backerboard. These are best sorted out by an expert who knows what he's doing.
Trolling for tilers
Instead of getting prospects for contractors from retail tile stores, go where the pros go by checking at a tile-supply store that caters to contractors. These outlets are more likely to know who does premium work.
Also consider hiring a commercial contractor willing to take on residential jobs like yours; because a large percentage of tiling goes into commercial buildings, these are the most experienced pros. And politely decline any offers to do tiling on the cheap from a carpenter, laborer or other non-expert already working on your home.
Once you have a few names, start qualifying them by checking for current insurance as you would with any contractor. Look for tilers in business at least three years -- the minimum needed for them to acquire an arsenal of specialty tools and a verifiable track record of quality work. Then ask tilers for references.
Here's a case where simply looking at photos of past jobs isn't enough -- pictures can lie. Insist on seeing at least one previous installation. This Old House: How to Spot a Crooked Contractor
When viewing a contractor's past work on site, keep in mind that each ceramic or quarry tile is exactly the same size as the next. Look for consistent spacing between joints. And sight down grout lines to be sure they're straight.
Focus on the tile layout next. Is it balanced? A good tiler begins in the center of a room so fractional tiles at opposite ends of the pattern end up the same size. Also check doorways, windows and corners -- especially odd-shaped angles in the baseboard or trim. Because custom-cutting tile is challenging at these trouble spots, they're a good indication of a tiler's skill.
Look for snug-fitting tiles, and be wary of wide gaps with gobs of grout. Also check that tiles are tucked neatly beneath doorjambs, not butted against them, which looks terrible and creates an access point for water.
Finish your inspection by checking the wood and walls to be sure they're free of splashed grout or water stains. Then ask the homeowner if the pro was neat and if sink and tub drains remained clear of washout; cleanup should always be done outside. Also find out whether the tile leaked or the grout cracked and if the tiler responded promptly and courteously -- and without charging -- to any problems.
Another way to qualify tilers: Ask if you can stop by a current job site. Once you're there, get a sense of how organized the project appears. Because tilers have to work quickly to take advantage of mortars and adhesives with short drying times, neatness counts.
A seasoned professional will have tile stacked neatly by type, custom cuts done ahead of time and a pattern map at hand so he isn't stuck running to his truck for tools and materials.
Experienced tilers also do their tile cutting outside to minimize dust and messy backsplash from the wet saw. The contractor should keep the saw on a plastic tarp to protect the driveway or lawn and make sure the path between the cutting and work areas is protected with runners.
While you're there, check that the tiler uses some type of plastic dust containment to seal the work area from the rest of the house. Also see that the contractor protects wood trim, a bathtub or an appliance with tape or a specialty coating if ongoing tile work abuts it.
What am I to bid?
Like what you see so far? Then let the bidding begin. To get a precise estimate, however, you'll need to supply a scale pattern map and tile samples for the design and tile types you have in mind. A draftsman or architect can convert your pattern ideas to a 1/4-in.-scale drawing for a fee of around $75.
The tiler then uses the scale drawing to estimate labor and waste -- and warn you off such pitfalls as specifying four specialty accent tiles that come only in boxes of 50, leaving you with an expensive 46-piece souvenir kit.
When the pro submits the bid, be sure he specifies 1/2-in.-thick cementitious backerboard or a comparable synthetic product, with the seams taped with tiling adhesive. Then establish clear lines of responsibility by getting a written two-year guarantee against leaks.
If you're having the shower tiled, you should have secured the same guarantee from your plumber, especially for the shower pan (the lead, galvanized or rubberized basin that catches any water seeping through shower tile grout). The pan should be thoroughly tested before the tiler arrives.
Getting a good job
Most tilers prefer supplying the materials. Don't worry. With their professional discount, they can often make a profit and charge you the same or less than you would pay for tiles at a home center. And with the many tile types, finishes, edge treatments and porosity ratings out there, it's better for him to be doing the shopping.
Plus, you want any material failure to be his responsibility, not yours. Remember, you have a written guarantee that the tiler will stand behind his work. So it's in his best interest to buy quality materials. Besides, failure of the tiles themselves is rare. This Old House: Art Tile
Once the tiler starts working, you may find that the pattern isn't what you had in mind. It isn't too late to rethink things if you act quickly. But you will end up paying double the installation fee, as well as for the labor to remove whatever tiles have been set. This is all the more reason to think carefully about patterns and colors early on. Don't walk on newly grouted tile for at least 24 hours (wait 48 hours for work done in a shower). Circulate air through the area with an air conditioner or fan to facilitate drying.
If the grout cracks as it dries - a common problem -- call the tiler back promptly for repairs. Once final grouting is done, you can have grout seams sealed with silicone sealer for extra protection. The downside is you'll have to reapply the sealer every six to eight months. An alternative is to leave the seams unsealed. If they get dirty, restore them to their original color with grout stain.
Wrecking costs extra
Most tiling bids include a demolition charge. If you have a strong back and an economical way to dispose of debris, you can save several hundred dollars by doing the demo yourself.
Beware, however: This is a hard, dusty chore that requires effective dust containment, dust masks and safety goggles, along with a mason's chisel, pry bar, hammer and large buckets for hauling out debris.
If you do it, ask the tiler exactly what has to be removed and how clean stud and floor surfaces have to be for him to begin work. This Old House: Choosing and Using Demolition Tools
Owner and president of Lipford Construction in Mobile, Alabama, Danny Lipford has remodeled more than 2,000 homes over the past 20 years. E-mail to a friend
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