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Why is tile so expensive?

Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of having a custom tile shower in your master suite. Or maybe, a subway tile backsplash is exactly what you need to tie your kitchen together. The problem you’re finding is that tile work can cost a lot. But why is tile so expensive?

Every year, our team at Lamont Bros. guides dozens of Portland homeowners through the remodeling process. Often, people are surprised by the high cost of a tile job. Whether it’s a floor, backsplash, or shower, the price of tile work rarely qualifies as “cheap.” 

In this article, you can read about what factors affect the cost of tile. The better you understand the cost of tile work, the more confident you can be in whether or not it’s the right thing to spend your money on. Here, you can expect to read about:

How do materials affect the cost of tile?

The price of the tiles themselves has a direct influence on the overall cost of tile work. However, there are other materials involved in the installation process which are often overlooked, including tile backing, mortar, and grout. Excluding the actual tiles, installation can cost anywhere from $4-$9 per square foot in additional materials. You can read more about how each material influences the cost of tile below.

Tiles

The actual tiles eat up a huge chunk of the total material cost. Depending on the type of tile you choose, the exact amount can vary. On the low end, entry-level tiles can cost between $1-4 per square foot. On the high end, you’ll find options at $30-$80 per square foot. 

Two major factors affect the cost of individual tiles: material and size. Porcelain and acrylic tend to be less expensive tile materials because they are cheap to manufacture. On the other hand, natural stone and hand-crafted ceramic tile cost more because they require more effort to produce. 

Additionally, larger tiles are more expensive than smaller ones. Most people are used to seeing 12”x12” tiles, but they can get much bigger. Many tile manufacturers offer 36”x36” and even 48”x48” tiles, but at a higher price.

Tile backer board

Any time you install tile, you’ll need a backer board for the tiles to adhere, which can cost an additional $2-$6 per square foot. The type of backer board you use depends on several factors. If you’re installing tile as part of a shower, that requires a waterproof membrane. Schluter Systems and Hydro-Blok are two of the most well-respected waterproof backers available. 

For tile flooring or backsplash, it’s more common to use a concrete backer board. This rigid board material is first secured to the floor using thin-set mortar on both sides and then screwed into place. It is best suited for installation under tile which won’t be exposed to a lot of water.

Hydro-Blok tile backer is a waterproof shower enclosure, pictured in black. Heated floor tile backer in orange.

Thinset Mortar

Also called thin-set, mortar is the adhesive that holds the tiles in place. Mortar is incredibly important to the tile-setting process, and will cost an additional $1.50-$2 per square foot on top of tiles and backer board. 

Unfortunately, not all mortars are created equal. Some manufacturers put additives in their mortar which essentially waters it down and compromises its structural integrity. This is why it’s important to be selective when choosing mortar for your tile. 

Grout

Many people don’t know the difference between mortar and grout – now you don’t have to be one of them. Mortar is the adhesive that holds the tiles in place, whereas grout is the filler that goes in the gaps between the tiles. It keeps moisture and dirt from getting under the tiles and provides a smooth, uniform surface. 

Grout is typically the final material applied to a tile job once the mortar has dried. The cost of grout depends on the size of tiles you use – larger tiles have fewer grout lines per square foot. A good general rule of thumb is to expect $0.50-$1.00 per square foot on grout. When it comes to grout, it’s often worth paying the extra money to go wit ha higher-quality option. Grout is often difficult to maintain or clean, and budget-level grout requires more of both. 

Oftentimes, we recommend using an epoxy grout for tile in wet areas. Epoxy grout contains an added resin that gives the grout stronger and more waterproof qualities. It requires significantly less maintenance than usual grout, lasts longer, and is nearly impossible to stain. 

Epoxy grout can be expensive – between $3.00-$5.00 per square foot in most cases. However, the added durability and convenience it brings to a tile surface is often well worth the added cost.

Labor

Tile installation costs are also directly influenced by the cost of labor. Labor is usually the most expensive part of tile installation. Why? Because tile setting is an extremely difficult task that takes years to master. 

Think about it – a tiled surface is covered with hundreds of individual tiles. Each one must be the perfect distance from the one next to it. The entire surface must be smooth, with virtually no difference in height from tile to tile. On top of it all, the tiles must be able to handle slight shifts in position, since a house moves little by little over time. To plan and execute an installation like this takes hundreds of hours of practice. 

Tile labor makes up a significant portion of the overall cost of tile.

That’s not to mention, setting is only part of the job. Labor for tile includes preparing the surface, mixing and laying the thinset, setting the tile, grouting the gaps, and cleaning everything at the end. As a result, the tile setter handles each square foot of space no less than 5 times before the job is complete. 

The cost of labor depends largely on the size of the tile being used. The less extreme the tile’s size, the less expensive it will be. Very large or very small tile tend to be much mor expensive. A typical 12”x12” tile floor might cost around $30 per square foot to install. A complex backsplash with very small tiles can be upwards of $100 per square foot in labor alone.

Tile quality

Generally, higher-quality tile is easier to install and less likely to break. As a result, you might end up saving money on labor costs by purchasing higher-quality tile. While the tradeoff isn’t exactly proportional, installing entry-level tile can sometimes cost just as much as high-end tile due to additional labor costs.

Tile size

Extreme tile sizes usually take longer to install than medium-sized ones. This is especially true for small mosaic tiles. When working with larger tiles, a setter can cover more distance using fewer tiles. This usually results in faster work and lower labor costs. On the other hand, small tiles require a lot of attention and fine detail work.

Work complexity

The scope of work and its complexity also determine the cost of labor for a tile job. The more tile you have to lay, the longer it’s going to take, and the more expensive it will be. But there’s also the issue of features and complexity. 

Lay patterns affect labor hours, especially if there is a complicated design that requires a lot of planning. The more corners and edges, the more tile cutting is involved, which also takes time. Shower niches and mitered corners are also other features that add significantly to the labor cost.

What value does tile add to the home?

When considering a tile installation in your home, it helps to understand what value the tile might add. Below is a breakdown of how home improvement projects can increase the value of your home.

The recoup rate is the percentage of a job’s total cost that is immediately added in value back to the home.  For tile work, the recoup rate is about 70%. That means if you spend $25,000 on a tile installation, you’ll immediately recuperate $17,500 in value to your home. But what about the other $7,500? 

As your home increases in value, the value added to your home by the tile job will also increase, with it. Using this principle, it’s possible for tile installation to actually make you money in the long run. At Lamont Bros., we use a proprietary Investment Calculator to show how the value of a remodel grows over time. At 7% annual growth, a $25,000 tile installation would turn a profit after only 6 years. 

Ultimately, the decision on whether or not tile work is worth the money is up to your discretion. Oftentimes, the value it adds isn’t just monetary – it adds comfort and appeal to the home you live in. 

Ready to talk to a designer about your tile job?

Now that you’re an expert on what factors affect how expensive a tile job can be, do you think some new tile is in your future? If so, keep doing your research! Check out this article to gather inspiration on current tile setting trends. Then, head over to our Bathroom Remodel Portfolio, where you can see those trends in action!

Are you ready to start designing your own remodel? If you’re considering a renovation but don’t know where to start, let Lamont Bros. be your guide. We’ll work with you through the entire process of remodeling so you never have to face a challenge alone. Click the button below to schedule a free video consultation with a member of our professional design team.