So, Where to Buy Tile?

Good question!

One of the first steps to a bathroom or kitchen renovation is picking materials. And getting a tile type and style that you’ll like is pretty important, since it will literally be set in stone once your reno project is done. So, here are some basics for tile buying in Austin, TX, or wherever you may live.

Where to Go? The answer is a definite “it depends”

If your tastes are flexible and/or your budget is tight, then an inexpensive tile store is what you’re wanting. Think “Home Depot,” or “Lowes“, or a similar big-box (for example, “Menards” is a Wisconsin favorite).

These stores won’t have a ton of selection, but that’s why they do a ton of volume for the tile types and styles that they do sell. These stores will almost always have the lowest prices possible for the selections that they carry, and will offer the best return policies.

For more selection but similarly low prices, more focused retail chains like “Floor & Decor” are a good option. Just about all large (or large-ish) retail chains have convenient return policies which makes for near-zero overage costs on tile projects. In other words, being able to return literally any unused tiles (even ones that have been unboxed) will save at least 10% and maybe 20% or more on your total tile cost.

Easy and trouble-free return policies also makes planning simpler. Not sure exactly how much tile you’ll need? Just buy a bunch of extra and then return what wasn’t used. This can especially stretch your budget when you can take advantage of closeout deals from big box suppliers. The one caveat is online ordering. Even big box retail stores like Home Depot count whole boxes of tile as single items when ordered online. So, if you order three boxes with 10 sheets of mosaic tile per box and then try to return nine mosaic tile sheets from the last opened box, you’ll probably not be able to get your money back. But, anything you bought from in-store stock will definitely be returnable even if it’s loose (uncut) tiles or mosaic tile sheets.

If you’re wanting more selection than a big box store can offer and your budget isn’t too limited, then a more upscale regional tile store is what you’re wanting. Think “The Tile Shop” or some other small-ish local or regional tile/flooring supply store chain like “Travis Tile” or “Arizona Tile“.

These stores have more tile selection than large box chain outlets like HD or F&D, but also generally focus on more expensive (and therefore higher margin) materials and usually have few or no closeout specials to offer. They’re specialty designer suppliers, so their volume on any one type or style of tile will be lower than a national big box chain.

Small(er) specialty tile suppliers also generally have more restrictive return policies that include restocking fees, no returns for loose (unboxed) tiles, etc. So, getting tile from these stores requires careful estimation and a standard 15% overage addition.

If you want to see A LOT of tile options and don’t mind paying premium, then a local independent specialty tile distributor or flooring shop is what you’re wanting. For example, there’s a tile shop in North Austin that specializes in sourcing only handmade clay and concrete tiles. There’s another store in North Austin that specializes in sourcing almost 1,000 different tile types.

These specialty stores are middlemen. Their value added (and markup) is based on the fact that they can buy wholesale from dozens of different suppliers. So, they can offer lots of tile options.

The main downside to buying tile from a specialty distributor is returns. Specialty tile shops aren’t warehouses. When you return tile to these folks, they have to then ship it back to the manufacturer. That’s why most specialty tile shops have restrictive return policies with (for example) +20-30% restocking fees and very limited 10 day or so return windows. Practically speaking, returning  unused tile to a specialty distributor is usually not an option.

So, getting tile from specialty stores requires more careful estimation and a standard 15% overage addition.

The bottom line?

Shopping for tile is like shopping for anything else.

If you can make do with limited selection, then pay less (think Costco and Sam’s Club — the equivalent of Home Depot and Lowes when it comes to tile). For example, if you’re fine with regular Campbell’s soup, then there’s no need to buy it at a Whole Foods grocery. Just go to the nearest big box and get a whole pallet of cans.

If, on the other hand, you want a lot more choice or just want more upscale material options, then be prepared to pay a bit more. For example, if you’re maybe wanting a choice of three different organic tomato bisque soup options then you’ll want to be headed to a Whole Foods grocery.

And finally, if you have a very specific design vision or just want to avoid the hassle of visiting multiple tile stores yourself, then be prepared to pay more for convenience. For example, if you want a very specific small-batch hand-canned artisanal tomato soup for your pantry then need to be okay with an added personal shopper fee and shipping charges (and no returns).

Sooo, what about a contractor discount?

Large remodeling contractors sometimes have volume discount accounts with tile suppliers. However, these discounts generally only come with volume. Also, any seeming savings you’d get on materials from a GC “discount” are probably already more than offset by the added overhead charges that are the source of profit for conventional general contractors. Bottom line, if you don’t see actual receipts for all the materials actually used on a project, then it can be easy to simply shift a “discount” on one material to added charges on something else or simply wrap it into the overall overhead profit margin.

Solo renovation specialists like myself (folks who do all the work themselves) have a different business model. By only working on one project at a time, I don’t come close to the kind of ordering volume that’d qualify for a ‘builders discount’ at Daltile or AmericanOlean or any other primary manufacturer. But that’s okay, since a paltry overhead (basically just a pickup truck and quality tile saw) compared to large reno contractors (with offices, site managers, outside investors, etc etc) makes my rates lower in the first place. With my business model, paying retail for tile isn’t a big added cost overall. Also, you actually get all the actual materials cost receipts at the end of a project.

What about online options?

There are some upsides and downsides to ordering tile from an online source.

The most obvious potential upside is selection and price. If there’s a tile available in the world, then it’s almost certainly gettable online nowadays.

If you want to be really mercenary, then you can visit several local specialty tile shops to see tile samples in person and then look online to see if you can source those same exact tiles for less. This is basically the equivalent of browsing at your local bookstore and then actually buying from Amazon.

The most common downsides are scheduling and customer service. If an online tile order gets screwed up, then it can take weeks to straighten things out and get the proper tile on hand. Meanwhile, even a few days of material availability delay can upset a tight reno project timeline.

Also, if an online order arrives with a significant number of cracked or chipped tiles then it can also take weeks to get replacement material (if even still available for closeout specials). Again, this can derail your entire reno project timeline in the meantime.

The bottom line? If you are able to estimate your tile needs very precisely, are fine with not being able to return unused or damaged tiles, are okay with ordering ~25% overage to account for possible cracked/chipped tiles lost to transit, and are able to order your tile a month or more in advance then online tile ordering is an option for your project.

What if you just need a tile match for a small repair job?

This is an easy answer. If you live in Austin and need to replace just one or a few cracked tiles (for a tub surround plumbing repair, replacing a few cracked or chipped floor tiles, a tiled-in dishwasher change-out, etc) then save yourself a lot of time, gas, and aggravation by simply going to one of these two specialty shops with a piece of the tile you’re wanting to match.

If it’s a ceramic, glass, porcelain, or natural stone tile match: Take some pics, pry up a piece (or a piece of a piece), and take those plus the actual tile dimension measurements to “The Tile Guy” specialty shop up on North Anderson Lane. If that particular tile type and pattern and finish still exists, then they will be your best bet for figuring out how to source it.

If it’s a clay, sausalito, or concrete tile match: Take some pics, pry up a piece (or a piece of a piece), and take those plus the actual tile dimension measurements to the “Clay Imports” specialty shop in north Austin on North Lamar Blvd. Again, if that clay or concrete tile still exists in nature then they will be your best bet for finding it.