What's the Catch?
March 3, 2012 12:17 PM   Subscribe

What is the difference in quality between Home Depot/Lowe's porcelain tile and that from a specialty tile store?

We are redoing a large kitchen (approximately 250 sq. ft) and are looking for tiling options that are durable and pretty. We visited a tile store this afternoon and saw tiles that ranged from $5 (very basic) to $11 per square foot. We then looked at home depot and saw what we thought as equally nice tile for less than $2 per square foot.

What causes such a difference in price? Is there a significant difference in quality? Has anyone had experience with Home Depot tile? Will we regret getting the cheaper tile?
posted by amicamentis to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, the difference is mainly aesthetic. Big-box stores tend to have limited selections of not very ahead-of-the-trends tile. You may also see it in other people's houses, because it's cheap and common. People who follow home design may be able to tell that you big-boxed it. There are solid reasons not to care about any of that at all.

There is an artisan tile movement in the US (see Fireclay Tile and Heath Ceramics in the SF Bay Area). A person might spend MUCH more on tile from those companies because their products are US-made and environmentally responsible (tile manufacturing can be somewhat problematic from an environmental perspective). Expect to spend, like, $30 and up (way up--$60, $80/sq ft) for that level of artisan and not crap for the environment.

At the price differential you're talking about, it's all made in China. The more expensive stuff is just more designery.

If you like the cheaper tile, go for it!
posted by purpleclover at 12:31 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't think is answerable in a general sense. I've gotten very nice tile at Lowes, but also seen some there that's pretty low-rent. There are a lot of reasons that specialty store tile might be more expensive, but they vary from product to product and you won't necessarily care; it might be more durable, but it's more likely to simply be unusual. If you're not infatuated with a very specific color or texture, the big box store may serve you just fine.
posted by jon1270 at 12:36 PM on March 3, 2012

Oh, and in terms of how it wears? Generally, there's no difference. Most of your tile needs in a kitchen (backsplashes and decorative stuff) receive zero wear anyway, and hardcore stuff like floor tile is amazingly sturdy, even at HD quality. You'll want to replace it because you tire of the look before it wears out.

On preview: jon1270 has a good point about consistency. Some may be great, other kinds may look or feel chintzy. But trust your senses: If it looks and feels good to you, it's probably fine. It's not like something mechanical that will invisibly break six months down the line.
posted by purpleclover at 12:41 PM on March 3, 2012

Response by poster: Note: this is for floor tile rather than backsplash or decorative tile.
posted by amicamentis at 12:48 PM on March 3, 2012

I would have zero quality-related concerns with using big-box floor tile. And because it's so cheap, I would buy a stash of extras in case of disaster (cast-iron pot meets tile, for example. Not that big-box tile would have any greater chance of cracking, because I don't think it would.) I am a home and garden writer and I've heard a lot of spiels about tile.

Ok, I'll let other people answer now.
posted by purpleclover at 1:05 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Quality is equivalent. You're paying to have something in your kitchen that you won't see in every subdivision coast to coast. That's certainly worth something; how much is up to you.
posted by kjs3 at 1:23 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The specialty tile store would also have much better customer service and all-encompassing tile knowledge thy would be more than willing to help you with your project - and that knowledge/help is worth something. Have you ever tried to find someone in a big box store? Who knows what they're talking about? It's sketchy.
posted by rhapsodie at 1:55 PM on March 3, 2012

Oooh, I can answer this! I work for a specialty tile importer that sells to big home improvement stores.

There are four ways you're likely to get tile:
1. Buy in-stock tile from big box store
2. Buy tile from specialty store
3. Buy tile online from variety of retailers
4. Buy special-order tile in big-box store

The in-stock stuff at big box stores isn't generally any better or worse than other tile, but there are certain tiles that are pretty popular and you're likely to see in a lot of homes. This may or may not matter to you.

The specialty store tile is again, no better or worse than other tile, but is often priced higher because of higher overheads. You may or may not get better customer service. Returns can be difficult. Sometimes lead time is long.

Buying tile online is an okay option, after you've researched the tile in store or have gotten a sample of it. I wouldn't buy before you've seen it in person, but the shipping is pretty fast.

I think your best option is the special-order flooring. Basically, the flooring departments at stores like Home Depot have in-stock tile and special-order tile. In-stock you can pick up and walk out with, special order means you can look through a catalog or a sample board in store and then have the store order it through whichever individual company's it is. There's a much greater variety of tile available this way.

For floor tile, you'll want to pay attention to a few things:

PEI rating: This refers to the scratch resistance and general durability of the tile. The higher the PEI, the more abuse it can take. For a kitchen, which is fairly high traffic and gets cleaned often, a tile with a PEI of 4 or 5 would be ideal. A 3 is doable if you don't expect it to take as much of a beating.

COF (coefficient of friction): This refers to the slipperiness of the tile when wet or dry. Glossy tiles will have lower COFs (slippery) and matte or satin finish tiles have higher COFs (less slippery).

Break strength: the weight a tile can withstand before breaking. Most ceramic and porcelains, if rated for the floor, will be acceptable. In general, for walking on, you want 300-350+.

Feel free to MeMail me and I'll give you a hand!
posted by rachaelfaith at 2:12 PM on March 3, 2012 [30 favorites]

When I had my kitchen floor tiled a few months back, the contractor told me that big box tiles were sometimes sourced differently, even when the brand was also available from a stand-alone tile store; for example, the supplier would package up tiles that were...fine, but with minor imperfections (not quite squared, for example), and schlep them off to the big box stores. (Ergo, lower prices.) So, depending on the maker, the tile could either be good quality or just slightly off. FWIW, I used porcelain Daltile from Home Depot, which the contractor recommended as one of the better budget lines.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:12 PM on March 3, 2012

To expand on an earlier point about cheaper mass-produced tiles being printed rather than painted: if you buy multiple boxes they may be from different print runs. The patterns will be the same but the colors will be offset from one another. Make sure to open boxes and compare before purchasing, if possible, and definitely inspect before installing.
posted by kitarra at 10:29 PM on March 3, 2012

Home Depot usually beats everyone else's prices, in my experience so some portion of that lower cost is probably attributable to that.
posted by slidell at 9:48 PM on March 6, 2012

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