The #1 Money-Saving DIY Skill Every Rehabber Should Learn

54

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.

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.

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.

Related: The Simple Step-by-Step Guide For Rehabbing Your First Rental

How to Invest in Real Estate While Working a Full-Time Job

Many investors think that they need to quit their job to get started in real estate. Not true! Many investors successfully build large portfolios over the years while enjoying the stability of their full-time job. If that’s something you are interested in, then this investor’s story of how he built a real estate business while keeping his 9-5 might be helpful.

Click Here For Your Free eBook!

Specialized but Few Tools Needed

There are a few tools you’ll need to do the job correctly. My arsenal includes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

 

IMG_20160603_100858251

Can opener-style tile cutter (that doesn’t work).

IMG_20160603_100906788

The elementary-school paper cutter-style tool that also doesn’t work.

IMG_20160603_100959628

Tiling tools: Mastic bucket, putty knife, float, mixer, and trowels.

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.

Related: 4 Rehabbing Materials That Are Always Worth Spending a Little More On

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?

P1030540

Completed bathroom tiling project.

P1030626

Completed bathroom tiling project.

P1030627

Completed bathroom tiling project.

IMG_20160521_171105450

Outdoor tiled pillar project.

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.

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!

About Author

Mindy Jensen

Mindy has flipped numerous homes in the past 10 years, one at a time and doing much of the work with her husband. She lives in Longmont, CO, and is always looking for an ugly duckling to turn into a swan.

54 Comments

    • Mindy Jensen

      My investment model is live-in flip, so scale isn’t top priority. The DIY-vs-hire-it-out debate continues…

      My main issue with hiring it out is finding the contractor. Spending time looking for someone who is both good and reasonably affordable seems to wasteful when I can just do it myself.

  1. Kevin Dickson

    I think tile should be avoided in rental homes. Always use sandable hardwood for floors, even in the kitchen and bathroom.

    Showers and tubs get fiberglass surrounds. In new construction I use clawfoot tubs. In those bathrooms, a 360 degree shower curtain protects the walls around the tub (which are painted, and can look brand new between renters. Not so with tile)

    I rarely see tile jobs in rentals that look good after 10 years. Either they’ve been neglected and the grout is gross and unsalvageable, or the tile choice looks really dated. On that subject, white subway tile never goes out of style. When you sell the house in those photos, I could understand if the new owners replace the tile even if it is in perfect shape. No offense, I like it. Large tiles like that is a good choice because it minimizes the problematic grout lines.

    In rentals, I don’t think that boring, easy to clean fiberglass surrounds cause a rent penalty. And they can be made to look absolutely brand new with the right wax and elbow grease.

    • Mindy Jensen

      Those pictures are a few years old, and I fell victim to installing what I liked, vs installing timeless choices. I no longer install slate – it makes small rooms look dark. My tile of choice is travertine, now.

      There is a debate about the best flooring to use in rentals, and I fall into the sandable hardwood floors camp, too. But I do like tile in the kitchen.

      Thanks for reading.

    • tillamooktim on

      We are on the same boat Kevin! I use the tub-shower combo’s Right now in the middle of a 5k footer, four stories on a cliff with river frontage. I have mastered every skill in construction and have about 250K just in tools. Cut back on my rental units to 5 sfh.

    • PJ Muilenburg

      What are yours thoughts on tile planks that look like wood? I don’t have the long term experience to know what wears the best but seems like wood wears pretty poorly, and requires refinishing often which isn’t cheap. Carpet cleaners also offer grout cleaning, which is a cheap add on during turnover.
      I feel like wood looking tile gives you the best of both worlds… Durability of tile and timeless elegance of wood look. What do you think?

      • Mindy Jensen

        The long, skinny tiles are great for the floors, but the issue that some other people are saying is that tenants don’t take care of them as well as you would.

        I had linoleum and carpet in my rentals, but I’m a huge advocate for natural wood now. Oak is super durable, and many times a light sanding/refinishing will take care of those inevitable scratches.

        I like tile for kitchens and bathrooms, though. Ceramic is a great choice most of the time for rentals. The wood-look tiles may be difficult to install in small spaces like bathrooms, though.

        I like natural stone for flips. Travertine is my favorite, because it doesn’t cost too much more than ceramic, but looks so much better.

  2. Don Petrash

    Thanks for a great article! I enjoyed the pictures and tips, and appreciate the advice on making peace with how long tiling will take the first time. Hoping to use this information for a future flip. Cheers!

  3. julie oldham

    I love your articles, Mindy! I too have saved a bunch of money doing my own tile, especially in flips where I sell before anything can go out of style. One crucial thing that I have in my box of tiling tools that’s missing from yours: knee pads! 🙂

    • Randy E.

      Knee pads. Definitely!

      I remember the first time I installed flooring. My flooring friend strongly suggested knee pads, even offering to loan me his. When I declined, he grinned knowingly and dropped the subject. Halfway through the first room, my knees were killing me. I bought knee pads before continuing the next day.

      Despite leaving out knee pads, great article Mindy!

  4. Nicholas DeLouisa on

    I respectfully disagree concerning the electric. Making mistakes with any electrical installation, regardless of size, has the potential to kill people and/or burn down a structure. Plumbing leaks, bowing floors, crooked tiles, etc. – none of those issues has the potential for the destructive power of an incorrect electrical installation. I am an electrician and I teach apprentices in a trade school. Please use a licensed electrician, if for no other reason than a licensed electrician is required to carry $1M in insurance (NY) in case they cause something terrible. Protect yourselves.

      • Luke Piper

        Fear stops a lot of people from getting into REI. Spreading fear over something as simple add switching out an old electrical outlet or switch isn’t acceptable.
        Mindy, you have it correct. Anyone can do small electrical and plumbing jobs. You tube and stores like home depot are adequate education solutions for this. Professionals are incredible and so are their prices. Why pay a minimum $100 service call for a $2 fix if your local laws allow you to improve on your own properties?
        There are countless stories, mine included, of going from zero to full remodel skill experience in a single rehab. It’s life, you can learn it and do well. Other humans did it who were no smarter than you, you can do it!
        I think, focusing on the jobs where time investment is short and pay out is big is a great tool for every investor. Especially those starting on a budget.

  5. Garry C.

    Agreed, the wet saw is the way to go. Those nippers can be good for breaking off pieces that you’ve almost got shaped properly with the saw, like circles around drains. But that’s about all they are good for.
    I’ve done a few radiant heating systems under tile too, you have to really be friends with your level when doing that. And if you go that route, don’t try to cut costs by only doing it under a portion of the tile. I learned that the hard way, go end to end, all the way to the walls.

    • Chad Justice

      Having had the misfortune of having to deal with several different types of contractors lately (siding, concrete, etc.) for jobs around my own personal home, I would say that if you can effectively use a telephone — as in, answer it and/or return calls and texts promptly — you’ll have a leg up on at least 50% of your competition right out of the gate. If you learn even halfway how to actually do the job you’re being hired to do, and you actually show up to do it when you say you will, you’ll be ahead of about 90% of your competition regardless of how well you perform the actual job. If you can manage to communicate AND do a good job tiling (or pouring concrete, or hanging siding, or laying floors, or just about any other home improvement job) you’ll be a unicorn among your peers. Scratch that — you won’t have peers; you’ll be a rockstar from Mars. You’ll have more work thrown your way than you could do in ten lifetimes. You just gotta answer the phone, show up, and — if you can — do a good job.

      I’m only about halfway joking about all this, BTW. The guy I had do my concrete work was very good, very reasonably priced, but he was extremely hard to get in touch with and was generally pretty unreliable. Never the less, once my job was done, he took my money and drove away in a really nice BMW. I have NO DOUBT WHATSOEVER that if he could just learn to answer a phone, return calls promptly, and follow some kind of schedule, he could have driven away in a Ferrari.

      • Mindy Jensen

        Have you been talking to my husband?!? This is almost an exact quote from him, too.

        I wish there was a way to vote your comment, and give it multiple votes at that. I would vote 1000 times for this. It is 1000% true.

        Attention Contractors. Are you looking for more work? Would you like to have a steady stream of jobs lined up? ANSWER YOUR PHONE!!! Show up when you say you will, and get the job done when you say you will be done.

      • tillamooktim on

        I’m a rockstar with about $250k just in tools and every skill. But the trick is still knowing where to buy not just how to rehab. Even if I did hire a contractor (having been one for 40 years) I would know in 5 minutes if he was real. There is a game played in the construction field, if you have a job and someone ask you to give a quote on a job, you simply quote them a sky high price and some times you land the job and some times you don’t but you still have the job you are doing. I’ve seen contractors do this time and again.

  6. Robert Massena

    Love the article Mindy! Not only do you save money and gain a valuable skill, if you are doing these projects with say your spouse, children or other loved one, the time spent conversing is priceless. Look forward to the next article.

  7. Peter Bowen

    As a hands on landlord with a contracting background. I would say that the basic skills you talk of are a huge competitive advantage I have vs. other owners in my market. I base my finishes on the new construction going on around me…. I also have young children that join me on our projects they love to help and learn… Great Post.

    • Chad Justice

      Your post gave me some confidence that going into either flipping or being, as you put it, a “hands on landlord” is the right REI choice for me. While I don’t have a background in contracting per se, I have been a homeowner since age 21 and there’s very little work to be done around a house that I can’t do as well as most contractors. Plumbing, electric, framing, drywall, flooring (vinyl, tile, wood, laminate, whatever), decks, trim, doors, windows — I’ve done a good bit of all of it. Part of me thought my knowledge and experience was probably par for the course for someone looking to flip or become a landlord, but after talking to a few folks who own rentals, I’ve come to realize that’s not necessarily the case. Anyway, thanks for the confidence boost!

  8. John L.

    Mindy,

    Nice guide and will have to bookmark this if I ever need to install tile. I think tile is a great choice that is extremely durable. I deal with class B+ properties in the 180-220k range in Texas so I typically prefer a wood laminate but it can get quite expensive. For about 1500 sq ft, how much do you think it would cost to install a medium grade tile vs. doing it yourself?

    My other issue is time to learn and perform these skills. I have a full time job and am not mechanically inclined. Both are excuses but even if I learned enough to understand the process, I’d be hard pressed to find value in spending multiple days (perhaps spread over a few weekends) doing these projects myself!

    • Mindy Jensen

      DIY isn’t for everyone, and if you can find a great contractor who will install for a reasonable price, that may work best for your needs.

      I can’t count all the awful contractors I’ve met.

      My investing model is different than some, though. I’m a live-in rehabber, specifically to avoid capital gains taxes. I’ve got two years to work with.

  9. Thomas A.

    I enjoyed this article. I tiled my kitchen, dining room, and entry ways several years ago. The kitchen had a particle board base over the plywood that I didn’t take out, but a tiling professional I talked to takes it out to keep the rest of the flooring level with the new tile. That job can be a pain that requires a special electric chisel. I love your comments on the wet saw and the other cutters. I still remember the ease of cutting with the wet saw over the other cutters. The others are USELESS.

  10. Eric mcginn

    I agree that tiling is a good Diy project. But as you said in your article, it’s usually easy to tell the difference between a diy job and a pro job.

    I also agree with the comment that tile often isn’t the best choice for rentals.

    And lastly, I never have a problem with the paper cutter style tile cutter. For $15 at Home Depot it does the job fine IMO but expect to break a tile or two.

  11. Shellie S.

    Thanks Mindy, you just gave me the excuse to go get a wet saw! I’m tiling fireplaces, kitchen backsplashes, and bathrooms around the vanities. I’m tired of the nippers hahaha. I’m with you, I like the travertine, it’s more timeless and the natural differences make it interesting. I just have to clean and seal it really well at least yearly.

  12. kara haney

    I personally like the tile cutter over the wet saw for ceramic tiles – does a cleaner job and no glass shards from the glaze – need the nippers too for little cut- outs – they were never meant to cut an entire tile?

    the wet saw I had was not good enough for natural granite but some places will cut them for you for free or almost if you dont have too many – you can also rent saws which can cut anything. just be careful of breathing in the mastic – wear a mask – it is bad stuff for the lungs and the skin…

    I agree it was a nice surprise to be able to get really good results the first time tiling – just make sure you get the right mastic – I used regular mastic under mosaic glass = that was a disaster for the color…. and you will need shorter levels – the 6 foot ones will not fit most situations.

  13. Rodney Marcantel

    I’ve leaned many skills over the years and tiling is one of them. I tiled my front porch with slate and 2 bathrooms and one laundry room too in our first house before selling. Borrowed the tile saw from a friend who’s in construction business. My latest project is in our brand new home where the builder wanted $3,300 to install stacked stone on our 11 foot tall fireplace. I said, no thanks and just put the cheapest thing in to pass inspection. Once moved in, I bought my own tile saw at Home Depot for $89 and had my stacked stone fireplace installed with my own two hands in 2 days. Purchased the distressed wood mantel online (unfinished to save 50%) and stained it myself. That $3,300 price tag from the builder only cost me $620 in materials including the mantel and stain and 2 days of my life.

  14. Robert Lindflott

    Thanks Mindy! I chuckled when I read your review of the can-opener style tile cutter and the manual rail cutter. I followed the same progression, and experienced the same results as you did. When I bought my wet saw, birds began to sing, the sun began to shine, and miracles began to happen.

  15. Amber Webb

    I love this article, Mindy! I could not agree more about tile being a great skill to have. I really think that adding tile to a kitchen and bathroom takes the whole house up a notch and gives it that feeling of longevity and quality. It seems to be a concern that it will become outdated, but I have seen very old houses that have original tile in them that still looks great. It is not trendy, but that is not a concern for everyone.
    My husband and I are just getting started with flipping and have tried a little of everything. For us, flooring and trim carpentry seem to be the big money savers. These skills really allow us to achieve a higher quality look for a much smaller investment.

  16. Lee Carrell

    Good article Mindy! I still have to say that tiling sucks! I’ve saved a lot of money over the years, but my knees still hurt! Knee pads are the #1 item to purchase!

    I’ve had good success with the paper cutter style, nippers, and wet saw to know that each of them works fine for the particular use they are created to do.

    I will no longer put ceramic or stone tile in rental units, unless they are SFRs. Apartments tend to have too much play in the floor for tile. Tenants will never take as good care of it as you will In your personal residence. They will drop pots and pans, hammers, A/C units, bowling balls, whatever on it! Before you know it, you have one crack, then two, then…

    I too go with the fiberglass shower surround. They are easy to clean, last a good long time and are easier to install than tile. An added bonus is that white or tan surrounds match any décor!

  17. Adam Stanton

    So I guess I’ll be the lone dissenter in the group. I’m a huge fan of the DIY/Maker culture but there are some inaccuracies here. Tiling is a great skill to learn if you like doing your own finish work, but it is extremely hard to master. I don’t know of any pro who would recommend mastic in wet areas, behind glass tile or large tile. Always use thinset for those applications. Mastic is an organic compound and thus susceptible to mold. Most setters I know prefer the strength and workability of thinset regardless of where they are putting tile down. The “can opener” tile cutter is actually a nipper and very necessary for almost all tile jobs. They’re needed to remove very small fragments that are usually hidden later i.e. under toilets for example. The “paper cutter” object is for ceramic tile such as the 4×4 glazed white tile that is very popular but in my opinion very overused. The cutter is used in place of a wet saw because it’s faster and easier (unless the area is completely out of square or irregular requiring odd cuts). Not all notch trowels are the same and anyone putting down tile should research the proper trowel to use. There is no wiggle room with tile. Unlike wood, where a little caulk can make up for small mistakes, mistakes in tiling like lippage, unevenness or miscalculated centerlines will make all the effort worthless. Finally, as someone else noted, kneepads are an absolute must.

Leave A Reply

Pair a profile with your post!

Create a Free Account

Or,


Log In Here

css.php