Make a splash with new tile

By Nancy E. Oates, CorrespondentAugust 8, 2012 

Childress master bath, remodel

RAY STRAWBRIDGE

When summer doldrums threaten to overtake you, don’t change your life —change your tile.

New textures and technology in the tile industry make tile style possible for less than you might think. Angela Sutton, showroom manager at Byrd Tile in Raleigh, keeps tabs on tile options, from the functional to the fabulous, and knows how to work within a budget while still creating the look her customers want.

“People see things on HGTV, and they don’t have a clue how expensive it is,” Sutton said. “People see a finished product in those 30-minute shows, then they come to the showrooms for cabinetry and lighting, and they get a dose of reality of what they can afford.

“One way the tile industry can give consumers what they see on remodeling TV shows is through digital imaging. It comes closer to what folks can actually afford.”

Digital imaging can duplicate images of natural stone on porcelain tile. Although the price of porcelain or ceramic tile has not decreased over the years, digital imaging can reduce the cost of the look. Consumers who don’t want to pay $30 a square foot for Calacatta gold marble or $12 a square foot for lapis lazuli can get an identical look on porcelain tile for about $4 to $8 a square foot.

The price of tile can vary widely, not only depending on the material — ceramic, porcelain, glass or natural stone — but the shape, size and finish as well. The new technology of water-jet stone cutters can cut stones into beautiful circles and swirls for medallions and damask patterns that can range from $60 to $160 a square foot.

To stay within budget, Sutton recommends spending less on less visible areas. Using a minimalistic subway tile at about $10 a square foot for the shower walls leaves room in the budget for lavish tile — Marquina black marble or Carrera marble in gray or white — for the floor, where it’s more visible.

In the kitchen, a recent trend of smokestack-style range hoods means tile backsplashes go all the way up to the crown molding. New designs embed glass accent tiles with natural stone. Linear finger-jointed stones, traditionally laid in horizontal patterns, can be upended to run vertically.

Large-format squares of 18 or 24 inches per side or rectangles as large as 24x36 inches remain popular for flooring in the laundry room, mudroom, foyer and kitchen. Gray, silver and white have supplanted beige tones, and clean, straight lines have replaced tumbled-edge tiles.

Do your homework before you shop, Sutton recommends. “Look in design magazines to get an idea of what you like and what you don’t like,” she said. “We sell styles from over 150 vendors. It can be overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re attracted to, because there are endless possibilities.”

Bring paint chips and cabinetry material samples with you, if you have them. Most tile stores will let shoppers “check out” samples to take home with them to see how the tile looks with the décor of adjoining rooms.

Homework includes knowing your budget. Measure the height and width (in feet) of the surface you want to tile, and multiply the two dimensions to get the number of square feet to cover. Then multiply that by the cost per square foot you’re willing to spend. Don’t forget to factor in installation, which can run $8 to $15 per square foot by a contractor who warranties his work.

Dave and Peggy Mackowski, owners of Quality Design and Construction in Raleigh, know what it takes to get to that final scene of a remodeling TV show. They go beyond the design and décor aspects to the technical details of keeping tile looking new for years.

The Mackowskis use an epoxy grout, more expensive than traditional Portland grout, but it requires less maintenance over the years. Portland grout must be resealed every few years to resist mold and mildew stains. (Sealing does not make grout waterproof – in fact, tile in showers is supposed to absorb moisture and wick it down to the drain pan.) Epoxy grout has the same texture as Portland grout but doesn’t allow mold and mildew to grow into it.

Dave Mackowski knows to take extra care with glass tiles, which are easily scratched by sand in the grout. He also knows that glazed tile should never be sealed. “The surface of the glazed tile is much harder than the substrate it is on,” he said. “If the sealer gets into the clay tile, it may cause the glaze to pop free.” Floor tiles must be attached to a cement-board backing that is screwed into the wood subflooring. Tile adhered directly to wood will likely crack or pop out because wood shrinks and expands at a faster rate than the tile or bonding agent.

Tiling can be a do-it-yourself project, but it is exacting work that must be done quickly when using epoxy grout, which begins to harden in about 45 minutes. You’ll need a wet saw to cut the tiles. And make sure you have all the accessory tiles — bullnose edging and corner wraps — before you begin.

“Sometimes you find a great price on tile, and then you find out the bullnose and other edging isn’t available. But you’ve already bought the tile, and you’re out of luck,” Peggy Mackowski said.

Some projects are best left to the pros: installing a curbless shower stall or radiant heat under floor tiles.

Once the tile is installed, keep it looking nice by using pH-balanced cleaning products. Abrasive cleaners can scratch or dull the finish of tiles, and bleach will turn Portland grout gray and cause it to crumble over time.

Sutton, who offers a free one-hour design consult to her tile customers, encourages homeowners to work with a remodeler. She has seen the excitement of do-it-yourselfers turn to frustration because they have full-time jobs and realize partway through that they’re in over their heads.

“Hiring a remodeler saves consumers from wasting time,” Sutton said. “Remodelers know where to buy good quality products at good prices, and that will save homeowners from the headache of trying to do everything themselves.”

Nancy E. Oates is a business and real estate writer in Chapel Hill. Reach her at neoates@earthlink.net.

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