Q: I live in a 1938 cottage that my father remodeled in the late 1970s. He made the unfortunate choice of slapping carpet down over the existing bathroom tile and subfloor.

The subfloor is exposed because Dad moved the locations of the toilet, tub and sink. I want to get the smelly, moldy, disgusting carpet out of there, but I’m not sure what to replace it with. Here’s why: Dad put the molded sink top onto the body of our old hi-fi cabinet, then caulked the sink top to the wall. He fitted the hi-fi cabinet over what I think is a wooden platform (covered with carpet, of course!), so I can’t get to the flooring underneath it.

I’m not ready to change the sink and cabinet because I’m on a tight budget. I would like a tile floor, and I’m wondering if I should just buy enough extra tile to put it down in that corner when I finally can afford to change the sink cabinet, and tile to the edges of the cabinet for now. Or would it be better and less permanent for me to put down vinyl or something else? I’ve never tiled before, but I enjoy that kind of stuff and I’m game to learn. Am I being too ambitious?

A: Get rid of the rug. We’re surprised that it’s survived since the ’70s. Tastes change and what your dad thought was a luxurious solution to a cold bathroom floor has become a breeding ground for mold, mildew and the odors they cause.

You can – and should – have exactly what you want. A new tile floor in the bath should be well within your reach – especially if you are willing to do it yourself.

Tile is an excellent choice. It lasts almost forever, it’s water repellant, it looks great and – best of all – it’s affordable. As an added bonus for the do-it-yourselfer, the learning curve is not steep and mistakes – yes, you’ll make one or two – are easily fixed.

As far as we’re concerned, vinyl is not an option. Vinyl flooring does not last in bathrooms. Water seeps between the seams, saturates the underlayment and ruins the floor. A case in point is Kevin’s experience. On a tight budget when building his house 10 years ago, he installed vinyl flooring in his upstairs bathrooms. Both have failed. Now he’s looking at remodeling two bathrooms. Tile is his flooring choice.

You can certainly apply tile right up to the base of the existing hi-fi cabinet, although we’d encourage you to find the money to do the whole job at one time. When you change out the hi-fi cabinet for a new sink base or a pedestal sink, you’ll probably need to remove a few pieces. Because tile can vary in color and texture with different batches, make sure you buy enough to do the entire job. It’s always a good idea to have a couple of extra pieces around anyway, in case you need to make repairs.

Although some folks say you can tile right over the existing tile, we’d advise against it in your case. You have voids where your dad moved the fixtures. Filling in the spaces with mortar or another material and tiling over them risks new tile failure at the joints.

Once all the old flooring is up and you have a flat subfloor, apply backer board to the floor. Backer board comes in two types, concrete and composite. Our experience is with concrete backer board sold under the brand names of Wonderboard and Durock.

Installation is with screws every 6 inches to 8 inches at the edges and in the field. Tape the joints of the backer board with fiberglass tape and apply thin-set mortar. After the joints dry for several hours, you’re ready to tile. Set the tile using the same thin-set mortar you used to tape the backer board seams. Choose the color of the thin-set to correspond with the color of the tile grout – gray mortar for darker grout, white mortar for white grout.

You’ll need a notched trowel to apply the mortar, a tile cutter to cut the tile and possibly a tile saw to make intricate cuts. If you miss a cut or make some other kind of mistake, remove the tile and replace it. As the tiles are placed, place a 2-by-4 board on top of the tile and tap it with a rubber mallet to make sure it’s uniform. Not too hard, though. Bill has ruined more than one piece of tile by becoming a little too rambunctious.

After the mortar dries overnight, it’s time to grout. Mix the grout to the consistency of toothpaste with either water or a latex additive. We recommend the additive. Then press the grout into the joints with a rubberized grout trowel, making sure to fill the joints. Scrape off the excess grout and clean the surface of the tile with a wet sponge. You’ll have to go over it several times to get a clean surface. Finally, go over the surface with a dry terrycloth towel to remove any residue. That’s it.

You’ll find it more cost-efficient to rent a tile cutter and a tile saw if you need one. Because you’re a novice, we’d suggest you attend one of the tile-setting classes offered at Lowe’s, Home Depot or some hardware stores and home education centers (sometimes for free). Your job should cost you between $2 and $5 per square foot, depending on the tile you select. A small price, we think, to give your bath a new look.


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