Cover up an old floor
Whether you’re replacing an old shabby floor or installing a new one, you can’t beat ceramic or stone tile for durability and appearance. When laid properly, it’s virtually a forever floor that requires almost no care and maintenance. And you can select materials from a vast array of colors and textures. We’ll cover how to lay tile in a few steps.
What’s equally attractive is that you can lay a first-class tile floor yourself, often in one weekend, and save the $500 to $1,500 cost of hiring a pro.
The key to keeping the job simple is to cover the old vinyl or other flooring with a new thin underlayment that gives you a fresh, clean start. No messy tear-out and repair. In this article, we’ll demonstrate how to install a thin “backer board” over the old floor. Then we’ll cover tile-setting techniques, from layout and cutting to grout and cleanup.
This is a two-day project for most bathrooms, even if you don’t have any previous tile experience. If you’re comfortable using basic hand tools and have the patience to align tiles just right, you can handle this job. The entire cost of this project for a typical bath ranges from $300 to $600.
Estimating the Cost of a Tile Project
The tile itself will be your biggest cost, so start by measuring the square footage of the floor. Then add 10 percent for cutting waste. If you choose a more complex layout than the simple grid pattern we used, your waste will be greater. Most tile sells for $5 to $15 per square foot, but you can spend as little as $3 or more than $50. If you have to install backer board, add $2 per square foot to the cost of the tile. Other materials will cost about $90, regardless of bathroom size. The tile tools you’ll need (including a tile cutter) will total $60 to $80.
Assess your floor
The success of any tile job depends on a solid base, that is, a floor that flexes very little as you walk across it. If you have a concrete subfloor, this isn’t an issue. You can lay tile directly over the existing vinyl as long as it’s well adhered.
If possible, avoid tearing out vinyl flooring. Leaving it in place saves time, of course, but it also reduces asbestos hazard concerns. Asbestos was used in sheet vinyl and vinyl tile until the mid-1980s. By leaving the vinyl undisturbed, you won’t risk sending asbestos fibers into the air.
If you have a wood subfloor, there’s a good chance that you’ll have to install backer board over your vinyl to make the floor thicker and stiff enough for tile. The easiest way to see flooring thickness is to pull off a floor register. Otherwise look for plumbing passageways through the floor. As a last resort, drill through the floor with a 1-in. or larger spade bit (your new floor will cover the hole later). To prevent asbestos dust from becoming airborne, mist the bit with a spray bottle as you drill. In addition to floor thickness, you’ll need to determine joist spacing. If there’s an unfinished basement or crawlspace below the floor, simply measure the spacing. If there’s a ceiling, probe for joists with a drill bit.
If the joists are spaced 16 in. apart, the layers of structural flooring beneath the vinyl should add up to at least 1-1/8 in. With joists every 24 in., you need 1-1/2 in. If your floor is too thin for tile, add a thicker layer of tile backer board. Our floor required 1/4-in.-thick backer. Yours might need 1/2-in. backer to reach the minimum thickness. If your floor is already thick enough, you can simply prep the vinyl floor (Photos 1 – 4) and skip the backer installation (Photos 5 – 8). Then tile directly over the vinyl, following the same steps we used over backer board.
Regardless of the type of subfloor, there are two situations where you can’t leave vinyl in place: First, if large areas of the vinyl are loose, don’t set tile or backer over it. Small loose spots are acceptable and easy to deal with (Photo 4).
Second, “cushioned” sheet vinyl must be removed before you can set tile. Cushioned vinyl has a foam backing that makes it noticeably thicker and softer than standard vinyl flooring. It’s too spongy to support tile or backer board. Before removing it, call your local health department for instructions on how to check for asbestos and proper procedures if asbestos is present.
Gather Advice While You Shop
Home centers carry everything you need for this project, but begin shopping at a tile store, where you’re more likely to get expert advice on how to lay tile. Make a quick sketch of your floor plan and jot down all the dimensions. Also take a photo of the floor at the doorway. This will help the tile store staff recommend a “transition” to neatly join the tile to the hallway flooring. Transitions come in different styles to suit any situation.
When you choose the tile itself, ask if it requires any special installation steps. Some tile, for example, should be coated with grout release before grouting. Also ask about cutting techniques for the tile. You’ll use sanded grout for the floor. Ask if sanded caulk is available in a color that matches your grout for the floor/tub and floor/wall tile joints.
Prepare the room
First, get the toilet out of your way. Stuff a rag in the hole to block sewer gases. If your home only has one toilet, you can leave it in place until you install the backer board. Keep a supply of wax rings on hand if you plan to reinstall the toilet at the end of each day.
If you expect to keep your vanity for many years to come, leave it in place and tile around it. But if you think you might replace it, remove it now. When the job’s done, you can reinstall the old vanity or put in a new one. Having the vanity out of the way gives you more workspace, and you won’t have to cut backer board and tiles to fit around it. This also eliminates the floor repair problem if you install a smaller vanity or pedestal sink in the future.
Pull off the baseboard or plan to add base shoe molding. This leads to a neater-looking job because the edges of the tile will be covered later—jagged cuts and slight measuring mistakes are hidden. If your baseboard has base shoe molding, remove only the base shoe. Backer board and tile will raise your floor 3/4 in. or more. So you’ll have to remove and undercut the door. To mark the door for cutting, stack backer board, tile and two layers of cardboard on the floor (see Photo 3). Mark the door 1/2 in. above the stack, remove the door and cut off the bottom.
Scrub, screw and patch the floor
Photo 1: Scrub the floor with stripper
Remove the baseboard and toilet. Using an abrasive pad, scrub the floor hard with water mixed with vinyl floor stripper.