How to Hire a Qualified Tile Contractor, Tile Installer, or Tile Setter

Hiring a tile installer can be confusing. Whether ceramic, stone, or porcelain tiles, the final look depends on the craftsmanship of the installer or setter. Without the right installation, even the most beautiful and expensive materials will not look or in the case of a floor, feel their best. Ceramic, stone and porcelain tiles are considered to be a permanent finish. With that in mind, who is the most qualified to perform the scope of your project should be the determining factor, not the lowest bid you get, when making a decision on who will get the job. Maybe you're remodeling to sell.  You'll want that wow factor to help seal the deal, not errors that will lower your selling price.  Maybe it's your place.  You'll have to live with the results for years. It will be the difference between you loving your surrounding for years to come ... or wishing you had hired someone else for years to come.

I would like to help in making this decision. I will explain what you should look for in a qualified tile/stone contractor. First let's tackle what it means to be a qualified tile installer.

  1. First things first, that means a Hawaii State Licensed Tile Contractor!  A Hawaii licensed contractor will have passed a state test on the knowledge needed to obtain the tile contractor’s license. Not a bad start. 
  2. If it's just a tile project, a Specialty Contractor, (type “C” contractor), is all you need.  Someone who has the required special skills required; like a tile contractor.  If your project involves more than one discipline, you may need to hire several type "C" contractors or a General Contractor which is a, (type “A” contractor). The letters mentioned here refer to the first letter of the contractor's license.  The general contractor can hire the type "C" sub contractor's, sometimes they do the work, sometimes they have sub-contractor's that work for them as a team.   
  3. Get the contractor’s name and license number and check the Hawaii Licensing and Business Registration Information Section.  You can call 808-587-4272 or go to their website and check: Here is a link to their website.  All you need is the name of the firm or the license number to use this service. 
  4. Also you should do a business complaint history search on the contractor.  Here is a link to check out their histories:  My advice is if you don't want to become the next person to list your complaint about this contractor, find out first if they do have a lot of complaints against them ... and dodge that bullet. 
  5. If you are dealing with a condo or co-op, a licensed contractor is "Always Required" to deal with (A.O.A.O) Association of Apartment Owner boards and their insurance regulations.  These organizations will not deal with someone without the proper licensing. 
  6. A licensed contractor also has to have liability insurance in order to keep their license. This protects you as a property owner, if anything is damaged while the work is being done. You should always ask to see a copy of the "Dated and Current" insurance policy certificate.  That is normal in this trade and should be an expected request to any contractor. 
  7. In the worst case ,where things have gone wrong with your project and you and the contractor are not seeing eye to eye; you can take your claim to the Contractor’s Recovery Fund.  This option is available to you only ... if you have hired a licensed contractor. 

Besides the legal requirements, in the real world a qualified installer means having actually demonstrated the skills that meet the current tile industry's modern standards and best practices. For most clients, not being in the business themselves is going to make evaluating the bidder's knowledge difficult.

However, a portfolio of their work should be easily available for you to see. Also very important "always" ask the tile contractor for some kind of references. Check out the client reviews online, on their website, and all social media pages that they post images and information about the installer's past work. If non online, ask to speak via phone call, text, or email with at least three past clients about their experiences. 

Unless the tile installer is hiding something, they should be willing to comply with such requests.  These are projects that can cost a lot depending on the scope of work and are permanent. Being in the tile business the contractor should know that people need a sense of security.  The contractor should welcome your questions and the opportunity to show off their past work. 

Pay attention to following when you read or hear about references:

  • How easy was it to speak with the installer?
  • Did the installer understand the client? 
  • Can you see photos of their past completed work?
  • Did the installer show up everyday early and leave on time during the project reviewed?
  • Was the installer mindful of the work site and home or property in general?
  • Was the project completed on schedule as stated in a (written contract)?
  • Did any unexpected situations come up during the job, and if so how were they handled?
  • How were the final details handled ... in a timely manner or not?  Any final surprises? 
  • Is the client pleased with the quality of the work done?
  • Would the client hire the installer again?

Things to Keep in Mind when Hiring a Tile Contractor:  

  1. If your question's go unanswered, beware!  When the bid is being explained to you. The installer should have clear and intelligible reasons for all they say.  Whether we are speaking of work or materials, you should get a simple answer that you can understand.  Being told it's too complicated to explain, is another way of saying; I don't know myself or there is really no reason.  One of things you should expect from your tile installer is that they bring with them their industry knowledge to the bid. 
  2. Areas You Should Address with your installer:
    • In the case of a floor. Examine the substrate with the installer. Is the substrate structurally sound for tile/stone? If not what is needed and why? 
    • If you're replacing the existing floor ask exactly what will that entail, how will it be done and in what timeline?  Who will be responsible for getting rid of the old flooring materials removed? 
    • How level is the floor? Will it require floating or grinding down? This is an especially important issue when considering large size tiles.  The problem is two fold.  If the floor is uneven that will cause lippage which is when the ends of the tiles don't meet evenly. The other issue can be tile warpage. Larger tile sizes have an industry standard that allows for a certain amount of warpage. This is when the center of the tile is higher than the edges edges of the tile. A qualified tile contractor knows how to deal with warpage and can minimize the lippage to within accepted standards.
    • Shade variation can be a big concern.  Look up the shade variation code of the tile your interested in.  Codes go from (V1) = Uniform Appearance, (V2) = Some Variation, (V3) = Moderate Variation, (V4) = Dramatic Variations. Before buying your tile, look at several different pieces from different lots to get an idea of the range in color difference.  In the case of dramatic variation in shades or colors present, your installer should always lay out and sort all the tiles before beginning installation. Otherwise there is no telling what your floor will end up looking like. You could end up with areas of a lot of shade variations and colors and others areas that have little to no variation at all.  Making the tile work look unbalanced like patch work. 
    • Are there cracks in the floor? Will a crack suppressant membrane be required? If there are cracks left in the floor, you will see the very same cracks again in the new tile installation without a crack suppressant membrane applied.  It will only be a matter of time. 
    • Are you required to lay down a sound suppressant membrane?  Many (A.O.A.O) Association of Apartment Owners will require a sound suppressant membrane in new or remodel tile installations.
    • Discuss how transitions will be made to door thresholds or to adjacent floors.
    • Talk about the minimum size of the grout joints. In some cases you can have a smaller grout joint than others. Your installer should be able to explain the reasons why to you.
    • Ask about the tile movement accommodations like the use of caulking instead of grout in certain areas or expansion joints when needed.
    • Very important ... ask who specifically will be doing the work?  Also will there be a need for additional sub-contractors.  Trades like Drywallers, Plumbers or Electricians?  If so, will these sub contractors work be included in the total bid price? 
    • Ask about the quality of the materials being used to lay down the tile or stone.  Keep in mind that the use of quality bonding materials like thinset and grout will lead to a longer lasting tile life, and often a better looking result.  Be aware that setting materials are available in a variety of performance levels to meet the requirements of most jobs.
    • Now let's talk about walls.  If it's a shower wall, your concerns are going to be mostly with preventing water from getting in and destroying the tile work.  Cement Backerboard, Cement Backerboard Screws, Plastic Vapor Barrier, Polymer-Modified Thinset Mortar, Waterproofing Membrane, and even additional wall studs or bracing could be needed to support the new installation. 

  3. After the initial on site appraisal, get an appraisal in writing with a mock drawing of the intended design if applicable.  When specific tile designs or patterns are being considered.  The appraisal should be specific and seem clear to you.  If you don't understand something, ask questions until you do.  With such a project a mock up is reasonable to request at this point.  It should be substantial enough depending on the complexity of the design or patterns being employed, to give you a good idea of the finished tile work.  Depending on the complexity of the job, the mock up can be anything from a simple pencil sketch to a real tile mini version of the design. 
  4. If you've decided to go a head with the installer, next get a written contract.  This is absolutely needed in every case, regardless of the job size.  If the installer won't give you a contract, stop right there!  You need a contract that specifies the entire scope of work, including specific designs, patterns, work scheduling, pricing, and expected time at which payment(s) will be made.  A contract protects both the client and the contractor by making clear what exactly is expected from to both parties. It insures that a specific understanding was reached between both parties.  In a worst case scenario, it makes both party's expectations enforceable by law.

The information contained in this document represents the current view of Duval Tile & Stone on the issues discussed as of the date of publication.

This White Paper is for informational purposes only.