The #1 Money-Saving DIY Skill Every Rehabber Should Learn
There are many jobs you can do yourself to save money—and even in some instances, time—as a rehabber. Some jobs are worth learning, while others take so long to master that it’s better to just hire them out.
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Painting, light drywall repair, basic electric, and basic plumbing are all skills you should learn as a landlord or flipper. Touching up a wall, repairing a small hole in that wall, replacing a broken light switch, or installing a toilet are all easy tasks that can take more time to have a repairperson do than if you just did it yourself.
Hanging and finishing drywall, full electrical, and foundation work are not jobs to attempt by yourself the first time out. Drywall is a mess, and to get a good finish is an art requiring many hours of practice to master. Electrical wiring isn’t difficult, but one wrong turn can cause massive problems. Foundation work just needs to be done right—the whole house depends on it.
But there is one job that pays more dividends than any other.
Tiling is easy to learn and easy to master. It requires very little skill and few supplies, but doing it yourself can save you a TON of money.
Specialized but Few Tools Needed
There are a few tools you’ll need to do the job correctly. My arsenal includes:
- Dedicated mastic bucket. Mastic is the cement-type stuff you use to stick the tiles to the floor or wall. It comes either wet or premixed — the dry stuff needs water added to it, and the premixed is ready to go. (Pro Tip: Do NOT use the premixed in your shower, no matter what anyone tells you.) If you purchase the dry bags, you’ll need to add water before you use it. I say dedicated bucket because you will never get it completely clean.
Tile cutter. There are three basic ways to cut tile.
- There is a sort of can opener-looking thing, which is a complete waste of money and cuts nothing. It’s about $8, and since it’s the cheapest option, it’s where most people start. Skip it, it doesn’t work.
- There is a slightly larger manual tile cutter, maybe 14 inches long, that also cuts nothing. It’s around $20, and while you may be tempted to “upgrade” to this one, it is also a waste of money. It looks sort of like those paper cutters from elementary school, but is less effective.
- The tool you want is called a wet saw, and it is a gift from a higher power. Even a cheap wet saw is great. I spent about $100 on mine more than 12 years ago, and it still runs perfectly. I’ve replaced the blade three times over those 13 years, and I broke the water tray. I replaced it with a paint tray and all is well once again.
- Mixer. You need to mix the mastic if you bought the dry stuff and remix if you bought the wet stuff. The mixer attaches to a drill, so you’ll need one of those, too. If you are at all handy, you should have a drill already.
- Putty Knife. Again, as a DIY-er you should have one of these in your arsenal anyway. You use this to take the mastic out of the bucket and put it onto the trowel or floor.
- Trowel. This is actually a very important tool, and you won’t use it for anything else. If you haven’t laid tile before, then you won’t have one of these guys. They come in different teeth sizes and shapes — the most common shapes being “V” and “square notched.” The deeper the tooth, the more mastic will be spread onto the tiling surface, so larger tiles require a larger-toothed trowel.
- Level. I have an assortment of levels from 8 inches to 6 feet. (I like things to be straight.) I use a variety of levels during my tile work to make sure not only are the individual tiles level, but all the tiles are level with each other.
- Float. This is like a sponge with a handle on top. You use it to squish the grout into the spaces between the tiles. I’ve used my fingers many times, but the float is a whole lot easier.
Learn With Someone Else’s Supplies
Both Home Depot and Lowe’s offer classes on tiling. They’ll show you exactly how to do it using THEIR supplies and THEIR tools. You can learn how to set tile properly, how to measure, and how to cut. (Pro Tip: Do NOT buy anything other than a wet saw — you will be bitterly disappointed in your results.)
A bad tile job is extremely noticeable. When tile isn’t level or doesn’t line up exactly, your eye zooms into that one spot (or those many spots), and you literally can’t stop staring.
Laying tile isn’t rocket science. Learn from someone who knows what they are doing and practice on their supplies. Classes at my local Home Depot seem to be taught about once a month or so.
Natural Stone Isn’t More Difficult to Install
Contrary to what you might think, natural stone isn’t any more difficult to work with than ceramic or porcelain. It cuts like butter with a tile saw. Ditto glass tile and those multi-material mosaic tiles. But if you speak to a professional tile installer, your quote goes up significantly when you start talking natural stone or glass.
The one downside to natural stone is that there may be slight differences in size. 1/16″ isn’t very much in the real world, but it is a big deal when laying tile.
Purchasing your tile off the shelf from a local big box store will allow you to pick and choose which ones you want to use. You buy a lot of extra, install right away, and return what you don’t want. Those odd-sized pieces just go back to the store.
Tips for Success
Take your time.
It’s not a race, and your first time is going to take forever. Embrace that. Make peace with that. Rushing through the job just so you can get done, but having it look terrible is a bad choice and a waste of money and time.
Don’t be afraid to do it over.
Remove the tile and start over if it doesn’t lay right. I frequently have to remove a tile and put more mastic underneath it or take some away. It is an art more than a science, so don’t be afraid to do it over. Cut an entire new tile if necessary.
Level is the key.
Use your level(s) and check after every single tile. You can remove a poorly placed tile even after it is set—it’s just 1000% easier to do it while the mastic is still wet. Check, recheck, and check again after every tile is set. Yes, that takes time, but what’s the point of doing it if you aren’t going to do it right?
Tiling: The #1 Skill for DIY Rehabbers
I have installed miles of tile. Porcelain, ceramic, glass, travertine, and slate. It’s all the same to me. I was very slow in the beginning, but I’m much faster now.
Knowing how to tile—even taking my own time into account—has saved me thousands of dollars over hiring it out. I can create funky patterns that help the property stand out and use desirable natural stone tiles for even more pop—all without breaking the bank.
[Editor’s Note: We are republishing this article to help out flippers newer to BiggerPockets.]
Have you tiled your own property? How did it turn out? What do you consider to be the #1 DIY skill?
Leave your questions and comments below!