Begin at the Beginning!
One of the first steps to a bathroom or kitchen renovation is picking materials. Getting a tile type and style that you’ll like is very important. The tile will literally be set in stone once your reno project is done. Tile is also one of the most expensive finishing materials for a bathroom or kitchen remodel. So, here are some specific tips for where to buy tile in Austin, TX (and some general advice for buying tile anywhere).
Most of the where to buy tile decisionmaking boils down to two questions. How flexible is your design, and how big is your budget?
Where to buy tile for a tight budget
If you want to minimize tile cost with low prices and low overage, then you need to shop at an inexpensive tile store. This includes Home Depot and Lowes and other similar big-box general home improvement stores.
These stores won’t have a ton of selection. However, that’s exactly why they do a ton of volume for the tile types and styles that they do sell. These stores will always have the lowest prices possible for the selections that they carry. Big box home improvement stores also have the best return policies. They’ll take back even individual unboxed and chipped or cracked tiles. This can really minimize the overage cost for a tile project.
Where to get more choice at not much more cost
A more focused tile and flooring budget retail chain like Floor & Decor can be a good option for more selection. Stores like Floor&Decor also have very liberal return policies which makes for near-zero overage costs on tile projects.
NOTE: Floor&Decor might be in the process of tightening their tile return policy as of Nov 2023 to accept only full unopened box returns rather than also accepting returns for individual loose tiles (or individual tiles that turned out to be cracked, chipped, or otherwise unusable after unboxing). Just fyi!
Easy and trouble-free return policies will also simplify planning. 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.
Where to get a lot more choice at added cost
Consider an upscale regional tile store if you’re wanting a lot of selection and have some money to burn. This includes specialty regional tile store franchises like The Tile Shop or Travis Tile or Arizona Tile. These stores have more tile selection than large box chain outlets like HD or F&D. However, these designer tile stores also generally focus on more expensive (and therefore higher margin) materials.
Designer tile suppliers will also usually have restrictive return policies. You will need to preplan carefully to minimize overage costs when getting tile from stores with a limited return time or added restocking fees.
Designer tile suppliers like The Tile Shop also use salespeople who work on commission. Unlike a big box retail store, these sales employees only get paid for a percentage of what they sell. It’s like walking into a car dealership. The folks in the store will be very motivated to upsell you on the most expensive options for your project. The upside is you’ll get a lot of salesperson attention. The downside is you might end up in a trucoat situation.
Where to buy tile if price doesn’t matter
Sometimes you might just want to see A LOT of tile options. Or maybe it makes sense to splurge for a specific project or design element.
If you don’t mind paying premium, then look for a local independent specialty tile shop. For example, there’s a store in Austin that specializes in sourcing only handmade tile from Mexico. There’s another family-run store in Austin that specializes in sourcing almost a thousand different tile types.
These independent specialty boutique tile stores are middlemen. Their value added (and markup) is based on the fact that they can source tile from hundreds of different suppliers ranging from global manufacturers to individual artisans. So, these stores can offer a huge variety of tile options.
The main downside to buying tile from an independent local specialty store (aside from price) is returns. It is generally difficult, expensive, or impossible to return tile to a specialty tile shop the same way that it’s practically impossible to return a box of free-range eggs to a local farmer’s market.
So, getting tile from specialty stores requires very careful estimation and a full 15% overage addition.
The bottom line on where to buy tile?
Shopping for tile is like shopping for any fashion material. You will end up paying extra for designer selections, and you will pay the most for bespoke boutique selections.
If you can make do with limited selection, then you can save the most by going to a big box retailer. For example, there’s no need to buy soup at Whole Foods if you’re happy with plain everyday tomato soup. You can just shop at Costco instead and save a bunch of money.
If you want a designer selections and a more upscale shopping experience, then be prepared to pay more than Costco prices. For example, you’ll get a choice of several different organic tomato bisque soup options at a Whole Foods grocery along with a much fancier cafeteria.
And if you have a very specific bespoke design vision, then be prepared to pay a premium for it. For example, maybe you want a very specific small-batch hand-canned artisanal tomato soup sourced from Italy. In that case you’ll need to be okay with an added personal shopper fee and shipping charges (and no returns).
What about a contractor or designer discount?
This doesn’t actually exist in the world of residential single-home remodeling. Unless you are building a high-rise hotel, you’ll never buy enough tile to earn a volume discount from a tile manufacturer. There are, however, these things called kickbacks.
Here is how kickbacks work in residential remodeling. Most designer stores like The Tile Shop have reward programs that give tile installation contractors and designers perks or outright direct payments for tile orders. However, these programs are designed to work like multilevel marketing schemes. It helps to avoid competing with other tile suppliers on price alone by getting contractors to steer clients to their store. Even if your contractor is incredibly transparent and passes the kickback money on to you, it still won’t make up for the artificially inflated original price.
What about buying tile online?
There are some upsides and downsides to ordering tile from an online source.
The main potential upside is selection. If you want to be really mercenary, then you can even 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 like browsing at your local bookstore and then buying from Amazon.
The downsides are scheduling, customer service, and returns. If an online tile order gets screwed up, then it can take weeks to straighten things out to get the proper tile on hand. This can create chaos for a tight renovation 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). This can also derail your entire reno project timeline in the meantime.
The bottom line? Shopping for tile online can be a great way to get designer options that simply aren’t available from any local brick and mortar store. You do though need to be careful to ensure that shipping delays or damaged tiles won’t mess up your project.
You can minimize these potential problems by very carefully estimating the required overage amount, ordering the tile well in advance, and paying close attention to customer service. For example, try calling someone on the phone to get help with ordering samples or estimating overage. If you can’t get someone helpful on the phone to help you order their tile in the first place, then don’t buy from them.
And finally, it’s the installation that counts!
A professionally done installation job can make even the most inexpensive tile look classy with precise lines and creative layouts. Always keep this in mind.
NEVER buy expensive tile if you don’t also have the budget to have it installed by a pro. That would be like tossing Ferrari keys to a teenager and hoping for the best.