$1, $5, and $10 Tiles: What's the Difference?


Brown and beige porcelain tiles on a patio

We are often asked, “Why do some tiles cost more than others?” Is a more expensive tile more durable, or is there more to price variations than that?

 

The truth is that many factors affect the price of man-made tile products. Durability, appearance, production costs, and availability are the main causes for price variation. In this post, we will discuss all of the elements that can increase or decrease your price per square foot.

 

NOTE: This post addresses the cost variation of porcelain and ceramic tiles; not natural stone, glass, mosaics, or metallic tiles. Those are separate but equally complicated issues for another blog post.

 

Check out this Seattle Times article on the same topic!

Durability


PEI Rating

Blue and dark brown ceramic wall tiles in a shower
These ceramic wall tiles are great for consistent, bright colors... but they aren't durable enough for a horizontal surface.

A tile’s PEI rating is based upon the number of abrasions the tile’s glaze can go through before it’s worn off. A rating of 5 is given to the most durable tile glazes (commercial-grade porcelains), and 1 is given to the weakest tile glazes (suitable only for wall applications).

 

Tiles with higher PEI ratings are suitable for many more applications, and as such tend to be more expensive. There are exceptions, however: decorative tiles (such as artisan glazed ceramics) tend to be more expensive than most floor tiles, despite being far less scratch-resistant.

Structure, Clay and Additives

A tile will be less expensive if its clay body is more brittle or not colored to match its glaze. Through-body and color-body porcelains are usually more expensive than glazed porcelains.

 

Many tile manufacturers include additives that decrease the brittleness of a tile (less likely to break, chip, or snap when installed) and will color the clay to match the glaze (easier to create bullnoses, edging, and less likely to show wear). These modifications make the tiles easier to cut and install, but they also increase the cost.

Porosity, Absorption, and Freeze/Thaw

Broken red clay saltillo tiles
These porous ceramic tiles couldn't hold up to a the freeze/thaw of a cold, wet winter.

Denser, stronger tiles tend to cost more because they are fired in very high temperatures (which are more expensive and time-consuming to achieve).

 

The less dense the clay body of a tile, the more porous it is, and the more moisture it can absorb. These low-density tiles are fine for walls and low-traffic floors, but cannot be used elsewhere.

 

Stronger tiles can be used in far more applications. A denser tile will hold up better in an outside space where, in winter, water can get into the tile's pores and freeze and expand, causing the tile to crack.


Learn more about the difference between porcelain and ceramic tiles.

Appearance


Because the tile industry falls under the umbrella of the interior design industry, a tile’s appearance and the technology behind its appearance play a large role in how much it costs.

Variation

Almost every tile comes with a variation rating (from V1 to V4) that indicates how much variation there is from tile to tile.

  • V1 - No variation, every tile looks exactly the same
  • V2 - Slight or subtle variation, the tiles are fairly consistent
  • V3 - Heavy variation, either of color or pattern
  • V4 - Dramatic variation, such as many tiles designed to look like slate

While high consistency (a V1 rating) is desirable trait for solid color tiles, tiles that are designed to look like stone or wood are more attractive with better/more natural-looking variation. Since more natural-looking variation requires better technology, these tiles are usually at a higher price point.

Repetition

Glazed tiles with patterns tend to have repeat patterns. A tile line where each tile has the exact same print tends to be fairly inexpensive (as they are cheaper to produce), while a tile whose pattern doesn't repeat for several hundred square feet will be more expensive.

Print Quality and High Definition Porcelain

A tile with a low-quality print and a tile with a high-quality print.
Tile 1 is around $2/sqft, Tile 2 is around $7/sqft. One major difference between them is print quality.

The quality level of the glaze will affect the look of the tile. The patterns are most commonly made with inkjet technology. If the print quality is poor, the design may look fuzzy or spotty (the tile equivalent of a pixelated, low-resolution picture). If the tiles are of a higher print quality (such as those that integrate High Definition Porcelain technology), the lines will be clean, the details will be sharp, and the tile will look more natural and convincing.

 

Higher print quality leads to a better image, and increases the price.

Polished Tiles and Luxury Looks

Many tiles cost more because they have a more impressive, elegant, or expensive look. Compare an attractive hand-glazed ceramic tile at $9/sqft to an industrial kitchen floor tile at $4/sqft. While the floor tile is more durable and less expensive, it is not very attractive or sophisticated.

 

Polished porcelain tiles tend to cost more than their unpolished versions. The polishing process adds more to the price, as does the fact that polished tiles often look more elegant.

Production Costs


Firing Temperature

Porcelain and ceramic tiles are made from clay materials and fired at high temperatures. It's more difficult to reach those higher temperatures (which create a denser, more durable product), so the higher the temperature, the more it adds to the cost.

 

Some tile lines have both a porcelain floor tile and a ceramic wall tile. The wall tiles are always less expensive than the floor tiles because it takes less heat to produce them.

Technology

Some companies have more research and technology behind their products than others. They've developed less brittle clay blends that are easier to install, inkjets that print more realistic and natural looking patterns, more durable and freeze/thaw-resistant tiles, and more attractive and versatile materials. 

 

These advances in tile production lead to better products, but these products tend to cost more. 

Production Quality

Some tiles are simply made with higher production standards than others. These include:

  • Better color consistency from batch to batch
  • Fewer broken pieces and better shipping and packaging quality
  • More size consistency from tile to tile
  • Fewer flawed tiles

Higher standards often equal higher prices; it's the difference between a BMW and a Pinto.

Production Location

Flags of the USA, Italy, and China

Where a tile is made and what it takes to get it from there to your home plays a substantial role in how much it costs.

 

Compare Chinese-made tiles, Italian-made, and American-made tiles. Shipping costs on a tile from Italy will increase the price, while the low labor and productions costs on Chinese-made tiles keep the prices down. American-made tiles usually have the lowest shipping costs, but higher production costs.

Availability


If a tile is stocked locally and in large quantities, it's price will go down. If it has to be ordered in, shipping and handling costs will raise the price of the tile.

 

For example, we at Tile Lines import large quantities and numerous sizes of our most popular porcelain line (World Travertine Porcelain) directly from Argentina. As such, we are able to get better pricing, which we pass on to our customers.

 

A large retailer such as Home Depot or Lowe’s can purchase several hundred thousand square feet of a tile to be distributed to several hundred of their stores. By purchasing such large quantities, only stocking one size of the tile, and not carrying trim pieces, they keep costs down.

 

But just as good stock and high availability can reduce the cost of a tile, a special order or made-to-order product often costs more than locally-stocked counterparts.  

In Conclusion...


Yes, a higher quality tile is usually more expensive. But it could have a high quality appearance, higher quality production standards, or a higher durability rating

 

A $20 per square foot artisan-style glazed ceramic tile is not as durable as a $5 per square foot through-body porcelain, but they are both high quality tiles designed for different purposes. 

Manage your Expectations


If you want a more durable, higher quality product, expect to pay $5 or more per square foot. If you only want to pay $1/sqft for your tile, prepare yourself for limited options and potentially inferior products.

 

Now, this doesn't mean that everyone needs the most expensive or most durable option for their home; sometimes a mid-range tile is perfect for your home, your lifestyle, and your budget. If a $2 porcelain looks fine in your low-traffic laundry room, then get it!

 

Consider your lifestyle and the wear and tear you put on your surfaces. The tile for a hallway floor in a house with five children and three dogs needs to be far more durable than the tiles on the floor in grandma’s never-used guest bathroom.

 

Consider the weather if tiling outside. If you are tiling a patio in an area where temperatures can drop below freezing, invest in a tile that has a good freeze/thaw rating. If you don't, you'll have to re-do your project when your installation inevitably fails, essentially doubling the cost of your project. Learn more about exterior installations.

 

Consider your tastes. If you're choosing a product that you'll be living with for years to come, do you want to settle for the tile that's "okay", or do you want something that looks exceptional? If you're a perfectionist who wants perfectly straight lines and high color consistency, expect to pay more for a product with higher production values.

 

Your home is an investment. Your tile is an investment. If you are willing to compromise on quality for the sake of cost, know what you’re getting into.

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