NYC Renovation Q's

NYC Renovation Qs: Should I junk my bathroom tiles or tile over the old ones?

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Q. My bathroom floor tiles are cracked and old. What's the difference between replacing tiles completely versus tiling over existing tiles, in terms of aesthetics, functionality, price, length of the job, etc.? Also, while we're at it, can wall tiles be replaced?

A. Great question. First off, the two options--replacing tiles or tiling over old ones--may not seem all that different, but when you get into the details, they’re two very different projects. Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about each method.

Option A: Pulling the old tiles off and laying new tiles

The pros: You’re able not only to remove the broken tile, but you can also correct both the surface beneath it (the substrate) and the material that makes it impervious to water (the waterproofing). If you’ve been living for a while with cracked tiles, it’s pretty likely that water has already started making its way in. New waterproofing is crucial to making sure that your wall is watertight to avoid further water damage as well as mold and mildew--otherwise water can easily go behind the new tile.

Another advantage of removing the tile is it's an opportunity to correct any past mistakes or problems in the floor or the wall (bumps, cracks) and to make the space more beautiful. The end result will look much cleaner. If you've removed the old tile, your tile-setter can really prepare the new surface and do a job that accepts the new tile more effectively.

The cons: This process involves a lot more demolition, since you have to rip off the existing tile, and in all likelihood, the substrate itself. Once the old tile is off, the wall needs to be as plumb (vertical) as possible to accept the new tile installation. The same goes for floor tile--the floor will need to be even. All this extra labor will be about twice the cost, and will take significantly longer--around twice as long as tiling over the existing tile.

Expect the overall bill to be around 20% more expensive than tiling over tile. As far as timing, if a tile-over-tile job takes three weeks, expect this option to take at least four.

You’ll also need landlord or co-op board permission, and you’ll likely need to shut down the plumbing, which would affect other tenants/residents. 

 If  you live in a rental, the landlord should foot the bill, but you have no control over which method he chooses to replace the broken tiles--and he may only replace broken ones. 

If you own the unit and find damage of any kind once you’ve opened the wall, it’s your responsibility to fix it. If you live in a rental, the landlord will probably be doing the work, so it falls to him to correct any damage.

Option B: Tiling over existing tile

The pros: It’s considerably faster and less expensive than replacing tile--there's far less demolition, meaning less time and mess. But note that you’ll still need landlord or co-op board permission.

The cons: Your space will be smaller once it’s done, since you're bringing your walls out by adding a new layer of tile. If you're tiling over tile on the floor, it’ll raise the level of your floor, meaning you may have to raise the toilet and the plumbing roughly accordingly. However, raising the roughing is a basic part of the cost for a project like this, so it doesn't make it any more complex or costly.

Also your tile choices are slightly restricted to thinner tile that can easily be placed on top of existing tile. Granted, tiles come in a wide assortment of thicknesses, so your choices are not so limited that it would represent a hardship. However, the thinner tiles rule out very large tiles, since the bigger sizes must be thicker. 

Ultimately, you're creating a smaller room, meaning you may lose critical space on the side of bathtubs and other surfaces.

At the same time, says Mary A. Burke, FAIA Principal, Burke Design and Architecture, if your wall is already crooked or not a proper square, you could have too much variation in the surface to correct imperfections from the previous installation. 

"For the new tile, it's not a great surface to work with," says Burke. "If your new tiles are very large, you're going to have difficulty installing them plumb and true. This is why you frequently see mosaics on old walls--they're much more forgiving and it’s easier to make them look good."

No matter which option you choose, be sure to find a skilled tile-setter who comes highly recommended and whose work you’ve seen.


Fraser Patterson is a former general contractor and the founder of Bolster, a NYC-based company that guarantees the price and outcome of home improvement projects with a first-of-its-kind Home Improvement Project Bond. For more information, visit http://www.getbolster.com.  To ask a renovation question, click here. 

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