How to Hire Great Contractors! Plus: Free Printable Questions You Need to AskHow to Hire Great Contractors and Questions You Need to Ask

Hiring a great contractor can be a tough task. The actual experience can be so paralyzing that some people ultimately give up on their dreams of a renovated space. I have a good friend who felt completely overwhelmed by the challenge of hiring a contractor to renovate her master bathroom. With media stories of people getting ripped off by bad contractors, I could understand her trepidation. Today I want to give you some tips on How to Hire Great Contractors. Plus, you can download the printable with the Questions You Need to Ask both the contractor and their references.

Recently I’ve been vetting contractors to work on the Saving Etta project. I know first hand how difficult and scary it is to hire a stranger to work inside your home. When you factor in the amount of money you will be paying this person, it’s enough to lose sleep over the decision. Let me break down the steps to hiring a reputable contractor so you can finally have that renovation or addition you’ve always dreamed of.

How to Find a Contractors:

I am of the belief that you should start with recommendations from people you know or at least people in your circle (neighbors, social groups, or friends.)  I love using to look for referrals for contractors. (Especially if there are multiple neighbors who used the same contractor and were all pleased with the work.) Another reason I like finding contractors through neighbors is because I know the contractor is familiar with renovations on homes that were built around the same time frame as our house. This is important, especially if you have an old home.

If you can’t get any recommendations from neighbors, ask your friends who just had a renovation completed.

If you’re still striking out, go visit a local kitchen and bath showroom and ask if they have any contractor recommendations. Oftentimes, the designer can tell you who they work with.

As a last resort, search for contractors on Google, Facebook, Yelp, Angie’s List, Craig’s List, or the Yellow Pages. It may be daunting to find contractors through this route, but hopefully the rest of this article will help weed out the dishonest and disqualified contractors.

How to Use the Web to Look for Reviews:

After acquiring a list of names, I like to perform some online sleuthing. Search for the company name in the Better Business Bureau database and read all the complaints. If they’ve had one or two, you don’t need to completely eliminate that business. But, if the contractor has numerous complaints, it’s probably best to remove them from the list of contractors to consider.

Next, perform a google search for the business name (be sure to include the city and state they are located in) and or the business owner to see what pops up.

Contacting Contractors:

When you call the contractors you have selected, be upfront and honest about your project, the time frame, and your budget. Oftentimes good contractors may not be able to take your job right away or may charge more than you can afford.

Ask for References:

Get at least three recent references. (Ask for references within the last 3-6 mos. And ask for recommendations from clients that had similar projects to your’s.)

Questions to Ask Contractor’s References:

This is probably the most valuable resource for you. Many people will call a reference and simple ask “were you happy with XYZ contractor?” But, you can get a lot more information about the contractor if you know the right questions to ask.

    1. Were you happy with the job the contractor did? Was the work performed to your standards?
    2. Did the contractor hire any tradespeople to help complete the job?
      • If so, what was the quality of the tradesperson’s work?
    3. Did you have to manage the tradespeople or did the contractor oversee their work?
    4. Were there any errors or mistakes that happened during the process?
      • If so, how did he or she handle them?
    5. What was the condition of your home (or job site) after the work was complete?
      • Was it cleaned up or was anything left behind?
    6. Anything you wish the contractor had done better?
    7. Was the contractor upfront with any cost changes?
    8. How accurate was the contractor’s timeframe?
    9. Did he/she show up on time or let you know of any delays?
    10. How were the inspections? Did he/she pass the inspections easily or were there any issues?
      • If there were issues, how were they handled?
    11. Did the contractor need to pull a permit and if so what for?
    12. Have you needed him/her to come back and fix or finish anything?
      • If so, how timely was that accomplished?
    13. Was the contractor open to your design preferences?
    14. Anything you want to add or any suggestions you have for me moving forward with this contractor?

Feel free to download this printable questionnaire to use when contacting references. (For personal use only.)

Update on Backyard Landscaping | Pretty Handy Girl

What to Get from the Contractor BEFORE Work Begins:

Always get quote before you hire a contractor (this can be a ballpark quote, but be sure to ask the contractor to alert you if they need to go over the quoted amount.)

If the contractor is a general contractor, electrician, plumber or a tradesperson that requires licensure, ask for their license number. Call the licensing board to verify that their license is up to date and the information matches their records.

Ask for a general liability insurance certificate (have your name and address included in the certificate holder’s field)

Ask for their workman’s comp insurance if they have anyone working for them. And call the insurance company to verify that the policy is still active. 

Ask for a lien waiver release. This will protect you should the contractor fail to pay his or her subcontractors. If you don’t have a lien waiver and the subcontractors are not paid, a lien can be placed on your house until they receive payment.

Have a contract signed by yourself and the contractor that details the work you are expecting them to accomplish and the amount they quoted.

Red Flags to Look Out For:

  • Was the contractor forthcoming with the above information?
  • Ask the contractor if you need a permit. If they say no, be sure to ask more than one person if a permit is needed. And maybe even call your city permit office to verify that information.
  • Regarding the quotes, you will undoubtedly receive a range of quotes for your project. Be very wary if one contractor’s quote is significantly lower than the others. There is truth in the old adage, you get what you pay for.

During the project, occasionally ask your contractor if you are still on target and within budget. It’s better for everyone involved to keep the lines of communication open. Always allow 15 – 20% over the budget for surprises or incidentals. You never know what you might find in your walls when they are opened up.

Never Pay in Full:

If I have one important takeaway from this article, it’s to never pay in full until the job is completed to your satisfaction. Never fall victim to the claim, “I have to pay my guys.” If the job isn’t 100% complete, retain at least 10-15% of the total until the work is done. Once the contractor has all your money, you’ve lost all your bargaining chips.

More Information about Hiring Great Contractors (Video Chat):

A few weeks ago, I hosted a Facebook Live to talk more about how to hire great contractors and avoid getting burned. Here’s the Facebook Live video:

Good luck and remember, you can do this!

Now that you are one step closer to getting started with your project, you need to read this article: Are you Sure You’re Ready to Take on a Home Renovation?

Are You Sure You're Ready to Take on a Home Renovation? | Pretty Handy Girl

If you are thinking about renovating your kitchen, I have some great tips for Surviving without a Kitchen during Renovation:

Ever want to surprise your spouse with a budget-friendly master bathroom makeover for under $500? You won’t believe this before and after transformation my friend Beth and I pulled off over a weekend.

Surprise Bathroom Makeover Under $500A Surprise Bathroom Makeover Under $500

My friends at GREAT STUFF™ sponsored this project, and I can’t wait to share a new product they recently released. Be sure to read to the end to find out what it is!

My good friend Beth, who I’ve known for over a decade, is my frequent walking buddy. Which means we pretty much discuss anything and everything on our walks. During one of our neighborhood strolls, we were discussing projects we wanted to work on next. Beth told me her husband, John, was so fed up with their bathroom, he’d been shaving in the kids’ bathroom. Upon further questioning, I learned the light over the mirror in their bathroom had stopped working a while ago. The light remained broken as Beth was plunged into some challenging family issues. Now that things had resolved with her family, she was ready to fix the bathroom light and maybe give the room a little makeover.

The next words out of Beth’s mouth were like a match igniting my desire to plunge headfirst into a new DIY project.

“John and the kids are going away this weekend and I’m staying here,” she said.

Instantly I volunteered to help her surprise her husband with a bathroom makeover. Little did I know, we’d have a lot of work to cram into one weekend.  But, hey, what’s more exciting than a surprise makeover? Am I right?

Challenges in the Small Bathroom:

Before the big work weekend, I stopped by Beth’s house to assess the situation. Their bathroom had some issues, the first being the lack of lighting over the sink. The second was a dimly lit ceiling fixture that could only take one lightbulb. The exhaust fan worked, but it was loud and had a discolored cover.

By far, the worst feature in the bathroom was the English ivy wallpaper. It was too busy, too dreary, and I don’t even think an English noblewoman would want it in her home! Luckily, Beth was on board with stripping it. With the wallpaper gone, we could give the bathroom an impactful makeover with paint, new lighting, and some new hardware. Beth was on a tight budget (she didn’t want to alert her husband to our surprise makeover), so she kept her purchases to just under $500.

A Surprise Bathroom Makeover for under $500

It’s time to get busy on Beth’s bathroom. Just remember it’s a surprise, so don’t tell her hubby. You can come join us by watching the video (but be prepared to help us strip wallpaper.)

The Makeover Weekend Arrives:

On Friday morning I arrived at Beth’s ready to work and we got straight to stripping! Wallpaper, that is!

Did you know there are really only two types of wallpaper when it comes to removal?

  1. The Easy to Remove Kind
  2. The Pain in the A$$ (what idiot didn’t prime the drywall—oh screw it let’s just replace the drywall) Kind

I was incredibly relieved that someone primed under Beth’s bathroom wallpaper. Lucky for us, it came off fairly easily in big strips. I wish I could say the same about my house, we had wallpaper glued to the drywall (no primer between the two.) But, this means I’ve had lots of experience and a proven way to prepare the wallpaper to paint over (so you don’t see the seams and you never have to worry about it peeling).

Learn how to get rid of both kinds of wallpaper here!

A Solution for the Electrical Problem:

Now that the wallpaper is gone, it’s time to address that light (or lack thereof) over the sink. Although Beth had dutifully called my favorite electrician to fix it, they hit a wall (or more accurately, a pipe.) Upon removing the broken light fixture he discovered an unsafe wiring situation.

Some idiot had moved the wire out of the junction box and punched it through the wall in an attempt to center the light. (This a code violation because it’s a fire hazard when wiring connections are outside a junction box.) It was obvious they weren’t able to relocate the electrical box because the plumbing vent pipe was centered on the wall. Not wanting to hang the light off-center, Beth told the electrician she had to think about what she wanted to do with the light. Luckily, I had an idea that would be twice as nice. Why try to deal with one light that can’t be centered, when you can double the lighting with wall sconces? I showed Beth this photo and she instantly loved the idea.

We were grateful when my electrician was able to swing back by and install the junction boxes on either side of the mirror area before we started painting the walls. Then I patched the holes he made and we were back in business (painting business that is.)

It’s hard to see the paint color in the photos, but we chose One Horn White by Magnolia Home. It’s white with a hint of green and it looks great in this bathroom.

The off-white molding looked dingy with the new wall color, so we gave the baseboards and the crown molding a fresh coat of white paint.

New Lighting and a New Skill:

Part of the makeover involved teaching Beth how to install the new stunning crystal ceiling light she picked out! Although she was nervous at first, I taught her how easy it is to replace a light fixture. With her new electrical skills, I encouraged her to install the sconce lights as well.

Unfortunately, the sconces didn’t arrive in time for the surprise. But, we taped up a picture of the new sconces for the big reveal.

Later, Beth used her new skills to install the wall sconces when they arrived!

Budget Vanity Update:

Instead of replacing the vanity, Beth painted it a beautiful dark teal color. The color is Weekend by Magnolia Home and I love the dark elegance and also a punch of color needed in this otherwise neutral bathroom.

Before we knew it, Sunday afternoon had arrived and although we weren’t able to completely finish the makeover in one weekend, it was still a big surprise for Beth’s husband. Even the kids were surprised. You have to watch the video to see their reactions. It’s priceless!

Finishing Up the Bathroom Makeover:

After our weekend of work, life got in the way of finishing their bathroom. Then a pandemic hit and we all dutifully stayed at home for several months.

A few weeks ago, I helped Beth finish up the final touches like painting the exhaust fan, adding a finish coating to the vanity, and adding a floating shelf over the toilet.

The shelf is a simple touch but adds some extra storage and style to this small bathroom.

Protecting the Bathroom from Drafts and Bugs:

While the bathroom vanity was empty, I took the opportunity to fill in the gaps around the water lines and drain pipe under the vanity using GREAT STUFF™. It’s a simple fix that takes no time at all, but makes a huge difference in controlling bugs and pests.

Those of us that live in the south know we have some Jurassic-size bugs that like to pop out of nowhere, making us scream like a little girl being spooked. (Pretty Handsome Guy is definitely guilty of being able to hit those higher octaves when he finds a roach in the house.) Some people call them water bugs or palmetto bugs, but they are big fat wood cockroaches! For this reason alone, it’s a great idea to seal those gaps around your pipes.

Sealing around the pipes with GREAT STUFF™ is super easy and it just got easier with the new Smart Dispenser which has fewer drips and can be re-used for up to 30 days! This was definitely one of my pet peeves about the original can. Previously, the GREAT STUFF™ material would harden in the dispensing straw making it unusable for future projects. (Click here to learn more about the GREAT STUFF™ with the Smart Dispenser and where you can purchase it.)

Lucky for us, GREAT STUFF™ cared enough to come up with an innovative solution to this issue—the smart dispenser!

The Reveal:

I’m thrilled to be able to show you the final reveal.

Beth and John are loving their new lighter and brighter bathroom.

It’s amazing how choosing a cooler paint color downplays the creamy tiles. This is a great trick I use when giving dated bathrooms an inexpensive facelift.

Speaking of facelift, what do you think about the painted vanity? We loved the dark teal color and how it plays nicely with the old countertop.

Beth reused the same knobs to stay under budget.

I love the elegant lighting Beth picked out for the room. The ceiling fixture is much brighter with two bulbs and reflective crystals!

And, adding two sconces, dramatically improved the lighting in this bathroom!

But, I have to say my favorite element is the simple modern floating shelf.

It adds a little storage and some style to an otherwise empty wall over the toilet.

Of course, we can’t forget the old exhaust fan. With a little spray paint, it looks brand new.

Cost Breakdown & Sources:

Grand Total: $462

What do you think? Isn’t this an amazing makeover for under $500? Do you have a room that could use a makeover for less than $500? Do tell!

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post for GREAT STUFF™. I was honored to work with them on this project and was compensated for my efforts. All words and opinions are my own. I have not been told what to say. As always I am very particular about the sponsors I work with and you will be told if you are reading a post that has been sponsored or in which materials were provided.

Whether you have pre-primed walls or the wallpaper is glued directly to the wallboard, I have the easiest and best-looking ways to get rid of wallpaper! Save yourself time and a headache with my tips to get rid of wallpaper.

2 Ways to Get Rid of WallpaperHow to Get Rid of Wallpaper (Remove It or Paint It)

Having owned two houses built in the 70’s, I’ve dealt with my fair share of wallpaper!

Did you know there are really only two types of wallpaper when it comes to getting rid of it?

  1. The Easy to Remove Kind
  2. The Pain in the A$$ (what idiot didn’t prime the drywall—oh screw it let’s just replace the drywall) Kind

I’ve dealt with both kinds and am happy to share with you the easiest way to get rid of both! Yes, even if the wallpaper is glued to the drywall (no primer between the two). Grrrr!

In a perfect world, we’d all be dealing with removable wallpaper. Unfortunately, removable paper is a relatively new invention. Back in the day, it was either pre-pasted wallpaper or unpasted wallpaper where you had to apply the glue first.

Today I’ll go over two easy proven techniques for getting rid of wallpaper permanently!

How to Strip Wallpaper:

You don’t need a steamer to strip wallpaper. And you don’t have to buy chemical strippers. All you need are a few things, most of them you can find in your house.


(I’ve included affiliate links for your convenience. I earn a small percentage from a purchase using these links. There is no additional cost to you. You can read more about affiliate links here.)

Let’s go over the easiest way to remove wallpaper. Always test this removal process in an inconspicuous corner first. If the wallpaper doesn’t come off easily, skip down to How to Paint Over Wallpaper tips below.

How to Remove Wallpaper:

This is the easiest way to remove wallpaper and it won’t cost you a lot of money buying a steamer or other tools. You’ll definitely need a scorer though.

  1. Use a scoring tool to perforate the wallpaper with lots of tiny holes.
  2. Fill a spray bottle halfway with cheap liquid fabric softener. Fill the other half with warm water.
  3. Spray the wallpaper with the fabric softener mixture until it’s saturated.
  4. Let it sit for 15 minutes.
  5. Saturate the wallpaper again with the fabric softener mixture.
  6. Let it sit another 10-15 minutes.
  7. Use a flat drywall knife or scraper to gently pull up a corner or seam.
  8. Pull the wallpaper off the wall.

You can watch how exactly I remove wallpaper in this video:

Preparing Previously Wallpapered Wall for Painting:

It is imperative that you remove all the wallpaper pieces and any glue residue from the wall before painting. Here are the steps to properly prep your wall for painting:

How to Install a Tile Backsplash (Tile setting) | Pretty Handy Girl

  1. Fill your spray bottle with 1 part warm water and 1 part liquid fabric softener.
  2. Spray the mixture on the walls.
  3. Use a sponge saturated in the mixture to wash the walls and scrub off any pieces of wallpaper remaining.
  4. Fill a bucket with clean water. Dip your sponge in the water.
  5. Scrub the wall to remove any remaining fabric softener or residue with a clean sponge dipped in water. Refill the bucket with clean water often.
  6. Allow the walls to dry. Fill in any holes or dings with joint compound or (my favorite) Patch Plus Primer. Allow to dry.
  7. Then lightly sand with a fine-grit sandpaper. This will smooth any imperfections and leave you with a smooth and clean wall.
  8. Prime the walls before painting.

How to Paint Over Wallpaper Effectively:

If you’re reading this section, first let me say, I’m sorry you have the pain-in-the-a$$ kind of wallpaper. Rest assured, there is a solution and it’s not as bad as you think. You can paint over your wallpaper after you prep it properly.

How to Patch a Hole in Drywall | Pretty Handy Girl

  1. Make sure to glue down any seams or areas that are peeling up (you can use any thin glue, even school glue if you like.)
  2. Use joint compound to cover all the seams (don’t use drywall tape).
  3. Let the joint compound dry, then sand smooth to eliminate any appearance of the seams.
  4. Prime the wallpaper and the joint compound before painting.
  5. Paint to your heart’s content and no one will ever know you had wallpaper underneath.

I know some people are horrified at the idea of painting over wallpaper, but I assure you we’ve painted over wallpaper in several rooms in our house because the wallpaper was glued directly to the drywall. We have had no issues and you can’t see any seams. It’s been almost 15 years and they are still holding up fine.

So, let this be the day where you finally decide to get rid of that wallpaper once and for all! Whether you are successful at stripping wallpaper, or you have to seal the seams and paint it, you can say goodbye to that old, garish wallpaper once and for all!

Let’s hear from you, what’s the ugliest wallpaper you have or had to remove? I’m all ears (thankfully not eyes).

I know you’ve all been patiently awaiting another Millie’s Remodel update and today I have just that for you! Come see the drywall installation (one of my favorite phases in construction) and find out how I’m dealing with critters in the attic.

Millie's Remodel: Drywall Update and Critters

Millie’s Remodel: Drywall & Critters

I’m excited to share the next Millie’s Remodel update. If you can’t wait to see inside, scroll to the bottom of this article and take the video tour. In the last update, I shared progress in the framing, plumbing, and electrical department. Luckily, the inspection passed after one minor change. I got very lucky on this project and had one multi-trade inspector who was willing to let me send him a picture of the one item he asked for once it was complete. Because we were able to do that, he passed us that same day.

Like most permitted home construction projects, it’s important to pass inspections for your rough-ins (plumbing, electrical, and HVAC) while the walls are open. You also need to have insulation installed as long as it allows the inspector to be able to see the plumbing and electrical.

angled view of new electrical sub panel and view down hallway

My electrician ran into a snag requiring a little more demolition. But it was no big deal. I grabbed my favorite demo tool, a flat shovel, and removed the section of the wall he needed to get into. Of all the tools I’ve tried, I love how the flat shovel slides into the side of the drywall and can press on the opposite wall for leverage without worrying about ripping a hole in the other wall. Once the wall was opened, my electrician was able to remove the old wiring and add a new box for the switches.

Pocket Door Installation:

While my electrician worked on wiring the switches, I installed the pocket door hardware in the laundry room/powder room. The instructions for this thing are horrible, so it took me a little longer than expected. Maybe I should offer to re-write the instructions for them, what do you think?

Pretty Handy Girl installing pocket door kit

Before the drywall stage, I take pictures and/or videos to refer back to when I’m trying to find the studs. In the kitchen, I made the smart decision to write measurements from the wall on the studs and blocking. Then I could refer back to these notes in the video when it comes time to hang the open shelving.

Once the drywall installers arrived, the house started to feel a bit crowded, so I headed up into the attic to take care of the critter problem we had.

During the inspection, we found a lot of animal feces in the attic. I’m not talking about little mouse droppings (although I’m sure there were plenty of those in the insulation), I’m talking large animal feces like a raccoon or possum would leave behind. I found many holes in the attic and in the crawlspace. I think the interior wall between the bathroom and the kitchen was a rodent highway. The chimney also didn’t have a cap on it, so I added one in case the animals were getting inside there.

The last spot where animals could get into the attic was along the gable ends through the attic louvered vents. To keep birds and bats from flying into the attic, I installed hard cloth mesh inside the vents.

Here are some spots to look for critter entrances:

  • Rotted siding or trim boards
  • Gaps around plumbing pipes
  • No cap on your chimney
  • Louver vents without hard cloth mesh
  • Attic vents without hard cloth mesh
  • Gaps in the crawlspace or attic framing

Purple Drywall:

In the bathroom and kitchens, I had my drywall contractor install Purple drywall to avoid mold issues in the future if there ever is a water leak. Click here to learn more about how purple drywall works to prevent mold.

Speaking of preventing mold and water intrusion, the area around the tub will receive Kerdi waterproof boards in the future. I can’t wait to show you how this product works. I love working with it.

Closet to Pantry conversion:

In the narrow hallway across from the kitchen was a coat closet, but I felt it would work better as a pantry. You can watch in the video to see how I added melamine shelving in the closet to make it function as a pantry.

Goodbye Popcorn Ceilings:

I knew I wanted to get rid of the popcorn texture on the ceilings, so I tested it for asbestos. The popcorn came back negative, but the joint compound did have a small percentage of asbestos. Rather than risk disturbing the joint compound, we decided to cover it with a layer of drywall. This was such a quick and easy solution I will definitely do this again to cover popcorn. Once the drywall was up and primed, it was remarkable how much brighter the rooms were. Did you know popcorn ceilings make rooms a little darker because the light can’t reflect as easily off a textured ceiling? The new drywall and priming all the walls took care of most of the funky odors in the house.

Improved Floorplan:

The biggest change in the look of the house is the open concept kitchen. During demolition, I removed the corner walls in the kitchen to open the floor plan. With the drywall installed, I can really get a feel for how the kitchen and living spaces will function.


Speaking about function, the new laundry/powder room will be a much more functional room. You may remember the house only had one bathroom, and the laundry room was only accessible from outside the house. The exterior door was removed and a transom window installed to allow some light into the room. I installed the pocket door to maintain enough space for a toilet and a sink creating a much needed second bathroom. Unfortunately, neither bathroom is useable right now. Instead, I have a port-a-potty in front of the house that is used by my subcontractors and several passersby (including the mailman who uses it everyday.) I will be so happy to get rid of it and have a toilet inside the house to use!

Exterior Updates:

Outside the house has changed considerably now that my siding contractor has removed the vinyl siding to reveal the original wood siding. I have plans to paint the entire house, but for now, let’s keep going.

removed-old-siding to reveal wood siding white and brick front house

In the backyard, I have plans to try to move the ugly shed to the back of the lot, but honestly, I’m not sure it will survive the move. It’s really not built well.

Ready to take the video tour?

That’s it for the update. I’ll be back soon with another progress update. Have a great week!

A special thank you to the Millie’s Remodel Sponsors:

The Millie’s Remodel project sponsors have donated materials for the Millie’s Remodel project. As you know I am very particular about the brands I work with and recommend. As a general contractor, I choose the products used on my projects wisely to make sure they last a lifetime. Therefore, I have no reservations putting my name behind each and every one of these sponsors.

millies remodel sponsors logos

If you want professional-looking tile floors (regardless if you want to do it yourself or hire someone), you must read this article to find out what tiles to buy, how to avoid cracked tiles, and risk a finished tile floor that is less than professional-looking.

11 Must See Tips for DIY Professional Looking Tile Floors11 Must-See Tips for Professional Looking Tile Floors

I’m here to tell you, YES, you can lay your own floor tile and achieve professional-looking results if you learn a few tips and tricks. First, can I share a secret with you? Seven years ago I thought I had to hire a tile installer when we had our mudroom tiled. I wish I knew then what I know now because I would have kicked that installer out of my house immediately. I still have to look at some of the issues he left behind pointing to a less than professional looking tile job. (Insert Angry Face Emoji!)

But, I completely understand if you still want to hire a professional tile installer for any number of reasons:

  • No time
  • Don’t have the tools
  • Physical disabilities (tile-setting is tough on the back and body)
  • No desire to install tile

Did I miss any reasons? If I did, leave me a comment below letting me know why someone wouldn’t want to embark on a DIY tile flooring project.

Before we get to my tips, I want to give you a little education on tiles. Especially if you had problems previously and thought it was your fault the tile job didn’t look professional. Believe it or not, your issues may have been caused by cheap or poor quality tiles. Say what?!

How to Spot Poor Quality (Cheap) Tiles:

Did you know those tiles you are saving a boatload on may not be quality tiles? Did you even know there were inferior quality tiles? Yes, it’s true. A few years ago I hired a tile installer to help me tile some of the bathrooms in the Saving Etta project. (Yes, I could have done it myself, but I’d still be tiling if I did everything myself.) When I first met the installer, he asked me about the tiles I had purchased. I showed him the boxes and he opened several to inspect them. This is what he was looking for to determine if they were cheap tiles:

  • Color – Pull tiles from several boxes (if possible) and check to see that the color is consistent for one color tiles. (Obviously, if they are supposed to vary in color and pattern that’s okay.) Regardless, you should always pull tiles randomly from several boxes when laying tile.
  • Size – Pull random tiles from several boxes and stack them together. They should be identical. Poor quality tiles can vary up to 1/8″ in size. This will cause issues especially if you are using a small grout joint.
  • Printing – Many ceramic or porcelain tiles are printed to look like real stone today. Take a close look at the surface. Is the printing evident? Do you see small dots like a printed newspaper photo? If you can’t see them easily, the printing was well done.
  • Thickness – In addition to the overall dimension of the tiles, you should check the consistency of thickness.
  • Warping – Are your tiles perfectly flat or do they bend? See below for a picture of two 4″ x 12″ tiles that show some bowing in the center of the tiles.

(To eliminate accentuating this defect, you wouldn’t want to install these tiles with a 50% offset (shown below). Instead, a 25 or 33% would be a better staggered joint pattern.)

bowed tiles at 50% offset shows shadows and lippage

  • Wedging – Square and rectangular tiles should be cut square. Out of square tiles could would impact your tile job and show up especially in the grout joints.

Typically you can expect good quality from tiles that are labeled as Standard or First Grade. Second grade tiles will have more variations in appearance. Independent tile shops are the best place to purchase good quality tiles. They typically sell to designers and tile installers, but also sell to the general public. Granted, you will likely pay more. But, you know the old saying, you get what you pay for.

Picking Tiles:

Tiles are tiles, right? Wrong, there are many tiles that would not be suitable for a floor. And some tiles are not good for high traffic areas. Finally, some tiles are not a good fit for showers. How can you tell which tiles are best for use in specific areas?

Floor Tiles vs. Wall Tiles:

Floor tiles must be strong enough to handle walking on and an occasional dropped item. Did you know there’s a rating for tile strength? It’s called a PEI rating.

A PEI of 1 is ideal for walls. PEI of 2 is best for bathrooms and kitchens. And a PEI of 3 is appropriate for all residential applications. Meanwhile, PEIs of 4 and 5 are applicable for commercial and heavy commercial applications. When shopping for tiles, they may not have the PEI rating displayed, but there should be a notation if they are acceptable for floors and walls. If you don’t see a notation, ask a salesperson or check with the manufacturer.

Avington Black & White Cement Tiles from

How Slippery Are Your Tiles?

Floor tiles must meet certain criteria for COF or coefficient of friction (basically how slippery the tile is.) But, different areas need different COF values. Let’s talk strictly for residential purposes (because commercial and business sites are a whole other beast). Floor tiles in a bathroom with a shower or tub must meet a greater than .42 DCOF test.  Tiles that score less than .42 would only be appropriate for areas that will be kept dry or walls.

Polished tiles tend to be more slippery. Tiles that have texture usually score better on the DCOF test, but depending on how textured, they can be harder to clean.

Are marble and natural stone tiles good for floors?

Oh the beauty of real marble! I know, I know, I love marble too, but would it be a good choice for your floor? This depends on several factors. The first being the use of the room. If using in a kitchen or room with a lot of traffic and opportunities for spills, you’ll want to steer clear of marble and stone products that can wear or stain easily. Of course, you can seal your tiles, but the upkeep will be a lot more than porcelain or ceramic tile. But, if you are okay with your floors showing off natural wear and patina, go for it.

Porcelain vs. Ceramic – What’s the Difference?

Porcelain tiles are stronger and more dense than ceramic tiles. They don’t absorb as much moisture as ceramic tiles (Porcelain tiles must be tested and absorb at 0.5% or less to be certified porcelain.) Because they absorb less, porcelain tiles are more ideal for shower floors or areas that stay damp or humid. While porcelain tiles will usually be stronger, thicker, and less porous, they can be tougher to cut and more expensive. Ultimately you can use ceramic tiles on your floor, as long as they meet a 3 or higher PEI rating (as discussed above).

How Many Tiles Should I Order?

Typically most tilers would suggest you order anywhere from 15% -20% extra for your job. If you are using small tiles, you can order as little as 10% overage. Usually, I order 15% because it’s better to have a few left over to keep on hand should you ever have to replace a tile. Besides, it’s a real pain if you run out of tiles mid tile job.

Know Your Finished Height:

If you are picking out tiles, be sure you know the difference in height of adjoining rooms. Choosing your floor tile can mean the difference between perfectly matched floor levels or the need for a transition strip (or worse, a step up or down!) Luckily there is a transition strip for most floor differences.


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I’m a big advocate of having good tools. Having a good tile cutter means the difference between flying through a tile job or having it drag on for an eternity. A good tile cutter also reduces waste because they cut tiles cleanly.

When possible, I prefer cutting the majority of tiles with a scoring tile cutter. It’s quicker, a lot less messy, and clean up is as simple as brushing off the platform.

Occasionally I’ve run into tile that resisted cutting on my scoring cutter (thick porcelain tiles usually fall into this category). For those tiles, I use my wet saw. A wet saw can also cut angled and corner cuts into the tiles. I’ve used the same inexpensive wet saw for years, but when it dies I’ll upgrade to a bigger wet saw.

Recently I started using an angle grinder with a diamond blade for more precise intricate cuts or to knock off a small amount. It works faster and is less clean up than the wet saw for those intricate cuts.

Finally, if you are tiling a shower, you’ll inevitably need to cut a hole in your tiles around a pipe. For that task, I use a drill with a diamond hole saw.

My Tile Cutting Tools:

Now it’s time to learn my top tips for a professional-looking tile floor. If you are a newbie and want to learn the basics of tiling, you’ll find these two lessons helpful: Learn How to Set Tile

and Learn How to Grout.

Okay, let’s learn how to get those professional tile results that will even fool the pros!

11 Must See Tips for Professional Looking Tile Floors:

Over the years I’ve taken several courses on tile setting and worked directly with several professional tile setters. From each experience, I’ve learned a lot and now I want to share the things I’ve learned with you so your next tile job comes out beautifully.

In my video you’ll get to see the progress at the Millie’s Remodel project as I tiled the kitchen floor. I decided to incorporate the tiling tips I’ve learned into the video for you.

Watch the video for the tips and how I install floor tiles:

You can also watch the video on YouTube if you prefer (especially if you want to click on the links to the other videos I mention).

1. Flat and Sturdy Subfloor:

Like building a sturdy house, your foundation is super important. When you walk on your floor does it flex, bounce, or squeak? If so, you need to solve these issues now. Use a level and rest it in several different areas (and directions on your subfloor). Are there low spots, high spots, or a slope? If you have dips or valleys in your subfloor, you can’t get a good tile job that will last. If your floor isn’t sturdy and flexes, you will have cracked grout, or worse cracked tiles.

As specified by the TCNA (Tile Council of North America), you want no more than 1/4″ difference in 10′ and no more than 1/16″ within 12 inches. If your subfloor isn’t flat, you can learn how to level your floor here.

If you have a wood subfloor, make sure your wood substrates have the manufacturer’s recommended spacing (typically 1/8″ gap between plywood sheets.) Backer board or uncoupling membranes should be laid onto the subfloor before tiling.

Never tile directly onto new concrete. In fact, keep reading to learn why I use uncoupling membranes and how to prevent your tile job from being ruined by expanding or contracting concrete.

2. Consider Using an Uncoupling Membrane

In another previous post, I shared how to apply the orange Schluter Ditra waterproof membrane before tiling. The Schluter Ditra material also acts as an uncoupling membrane which prevents cracks in your tiles and/or grout.

After taking the Schluter workshops, I will never tile a room without an uncoupling membrane again. As a bonus, their membranes are waterproof. No more need to worry about water soaking into your subfloor and causing mold to build up.

3. Use a Good Tile Cutter

Using good tools will help your tile job go smoothly and it will keep your tile cuts from looking like a jagged mess. If you can’t afford to buy good tools, look into renting some, or ask a fellow DIYer if you can borrow theirs. (Always clean their tools before returning them. Nothing irks me more than dirty tools.)

4. Layout Tiles Ahead of Time

If you’ve heard that spending time doing the prep work will save you time in the long run, nothing could be more true than when tiling. Before I start any tile job, I always lay out my tiles first. I dry lay them out to see what I’m dealing with. First I layout a run of tiles along the length of the room and position the tiles to avoid having to cut a small sliver of a tile at either end. Then I layout a run along the width of the room making adjustments to avoid the same situation.

If I have printed tiles, I separate them into piles by their individual print design. Then when I pull tiles later I pull from different stacks. I also step back to make sure two of the same tiles aren’t next to each other (like in the example below thanks to that so-called professional I hired).

Nothing screams rookie tiler louder than two printed tiles being installed next to each other. And in the same orientation!

5. Leave an Expansion (or Movement) Joint

Despite what you might think (especially if you have perfectionist tendencies), you do not want to cut and install your tiles tight against the wall (or other objects in your room like columns, pipes, or walls.) You must leave at least 1/4 inch around the perimeter of your room or around immovable objects. Not adhering to this rule can lead to your tile floor popping up or tenting (See this article for a photo of tenting tile.) Additionally, you need to install a movement joint in any interior room at every 25 feet in each direction. However, if this room is exposed to direct sunlight or heat, you’ll need an expansion joint at every 12 feet in each direction.

6. Use Recommended Trowel Size

Tiles come in all shapes and sizes and therefore they require a variety of trowels. Be sure to check with the specifications on your tile to find out the trowel size. Or ask your tile shop representative for their recommendation. Using a too-small trowel with large tiles would cause the tiles not to adhere to the surface. And too big a trowel with smaller tiles will make it difficult to level the tiles.

7. Back Butter Large Tiles

When tiling a floor with large tiles, back buttering is a must. Typically I’ll spread the thinset mortar onto the floor and trowel through it. I’ll use the excess to scrape a thin layer over the back of the floor tile. This accomplishes two things:

  1. It keys mortar into any voids on the back of the tile.
  2. It ensures full coverage on the back of the tile.

If you don’t back butter large tile, you run the risk of having air pockets behind your tile which can sound hollow when walked on or cause the tile to pop up.

8. Use Leveling Spacers

Leveling spacers are a relatively new product, but I will never tile a floor without them again. I’ve tried several brands but prefer the wedge-shaped leveling spacers. The wedges are inserted into the tile spacer and ratcheted tight to bring tiles to the same height as the adjacent tiles. You can see how they work and how to remove the spacers in my video above. (It’s a lot of fun removing them as you’ll see!) Using leveling spacers virtually eliminates lippage on tiles.

wedge shaped tile spacer leveling two tiles

9. Clean Thinset Off Tiles

Anyone who has had to clean dried thinset mortar off tiles will never make the mistake of letting it dry on tiles. When tiling, keep your area clean. Be sure to clean off any mortar on surrounding tiles. In addition, make sure to clean thinset that squeezes up between the tiles. You want to make sure you have enough room for grout to set on top of the mortar.

10. Use Grout with Sealant

Grouting is the final step for any tile job, but if you didn’t add a sealant additive to your grout, you will need to seal the grout after the fact. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do after tiling a floor is hand paint sealant on all the grout lines. And if you skip sealing all together you’re going to hate keeping the grout clean.

11. Plan Your Transition Pieces Ahead of Time

One thing that will truly set your tile floor job a notch above is using sleek transitions. Personally, I prefer using Schluter profiles strips for my floor transitions. There are a variety of finishes, sizes, and styles. Some of the profile strips are laid under the tiles for a stronger bond. Others are installed after the grout has cured. In the Millie’s Remodel kitchen, we had a big change in height between floors. I ended up using the the Schluter Reno-V profile which has an L shaped piece that slides under the tile edge during installation. (You can see the way it works in my video.)

However, in the Saving Etta house, I used simple Schluter Schiene profile strips between tile and wood flooring.

How to Speed Up Your Tile Job:

It helps to have a helper when tiling. Once you mix thinset or grout, you’re on the clock. Both will harden within a set time. If you have a helper, you can give your helper the task of cutting tiles or changing out your dirty water buckets, or mixing more thinset mortar. Speaking of mortar, never mix more than you can spread before hardening. As an experienced tiler I try not to mix more than 1/3 of a 50 pound bag of mortar. Otherwise, you’ll be left with a big boulder of thin set when it hardens.

If you can’t get a helper, make sure to fill multiple buckets with clean water before you begin. It also helps to cut some of your perimeter tiles ahead of time.

Tip for Working with Grout: You can slow the curing time of your grout if you set your mixed grout into a second bucket filled with ice water to slow the curing process. I show this in more detail in my grouting tutorial.

Best of luck tiling your floor.  I know you can do this.