Bathroom remodel advice - tub surround vs. ceramic tile

I’m going to remodel the (original) bathroom in my 1953-built home. It is old-school ceramic tile on lathe/chicken wire/plaster. It is solid as a rock but ugly as sin.

I had a guy come out for an estimate (via Home Depot). Even though I am going to completely re-model every inch - take it down to the studs, as they say - 95 per cent of his presentation was about how wonderful his company’s proprietary tub enclosure system is. I wanted an estimate, I got a sales pitch. He spent precious little time discussing which floor, vanity, sink, counter surface, accessories I want.

To be fair, the example photos he showed me did not look horrible. Modern surrounds have evolved from the cheap, plastic-looking enclosures that are commonly seen in cheap hotels (not that I frequent cheap hotels).

My mind is set on ceramic tile for the tub area, but every time I mentioned it he hand-waved it away and re-directed toward his product. Needless to say, I’m not going with that company.

I am wondering, though, if there is a grain of truth in his assertions that ceramic tile is a very bad idea, that it’s only a matter of time before the grout wears away (all that water pounding against it in the shower dontcha know) and behind-the-wall leakage occurs.

My home is 65 years old, and the tile is in good shape. But there is some moisture and mold/mildew on the subfloor under the tub (can see it from the basement).

I am still set on ceramic tile, but I thought I’d ask here for other opinions.


Grout is always the problem with tile. Yet, tile has been used successfully for many years. As your own old tile proves. If you like tile I say use it. I don’t like the tub surrounds either. They just look cheap.
I would use cement board under the new tile. That will help with waterproofing.

I’m with Beckdawrek. You can get surrounds that look good, but good tile always looks better.

As a real estate agent, people who notice such things ALWAYS criticize surrounds and prefer tile. Tile just looks classier.

My concern with a tile tub surround is mildew or mold. Scrubbing it is a pain. I’ve seen solid surfacing material (Corian or the equivalent) used for tub surrounds in some hotel rooms.

I’m lazy, so I’d go for whatever is easiest to maintain.

Edited to add, except for those plastic tub surrounds. They look cheap.

The surrounds also have “edges” the water might eventually get into, if one is so terrified of water damage. But the idea of water wearing away the grout to the point where it’s a problem? It’s the first time I hear such a thing. Every instance of “water damage from bathroom” I’m familiar with starts with pipe damage.

Here in the south (US) grout can and does mold and crack, due to humidty. Sometimes the loss of adhesion occurs and water gets behind the tile. Then you are set up for a big failure. Cement board behind does help with waterproofing. Using the right grout helps too. I like the cement colored grout. To me it is more stable. Used with the right color tile it can be quite attractive. It looks good with matte finished stone looking tile. IMO.

Another person living in the South. No problem at all with tile. Just the usual cleaners. And it was a cheapo, quick-and-dirty tract house job.

Modern tile installation will include a sealing step that will last a long time. Even then the “work” to keep away the mildew is quite modest.

It’s like taking care of a care: you do the proper maintenance and it will last a very, very long time.

Your old bath may not have a fan, but if you get a building permit, you will probably have to install one. In CA, not only does a bath have to have a fan, but the fan has have a moisture sensor so it doesn’t turn off until the moist the air is exhausted away.

Lack of ventilation is probably the main cause of mold that people are talking about. Whatever the situation is, be sure to use your bath fan if you want to keep the mold problem at bay.

Oh, and go for tile for all the reasons posters have already said. I would stick to ceramic tile, rather than natural stone, just because it’s easier to care for.

Another vote for tile.

About 3 years ago I did the same thing that you are starting except we have no tub in that bathroom, it’s a shower only. I ripped out the original lath/wire/plaster tile back to the studs, then added a moisture barrier, cement board (mudded and taped for further moisture resistance) then tiled over that. I even replaced the tile on the shower floor. It looks good. The old tile job lasted ~50 years with no leaks, I expect this one to do the same.

As an aside, that lath/plaster/tile combo is HEAVY! The hardest part of the job was hauling all that crap out.

ETA - make sure the contractor uses thinset, not mastic. Mastic is not designed for wet areas and will not completely harden under the tile. Any moisture can cause it to lose adhesion. Always us thinset in wet areas, and IMHO, dry mix thinset is better than premixed.

I strongly strongly recommend the Onyx Collection. Their surrounds are top notch. I sell about one per week plus a few countertops.

It’s a molded product but the base ingredient is the same as Corian. They offer an unlimited lifetime warranty. If they had outside reps or salespeople I’d go work for them.

We just had a Kohler Luxstone shower put in. This is a composite product that comes in sheets, not a vinyl surround. We’re happy with it.

Note that if you go for tile, you’ll have less grout (and therefore less grout to clean) if you use larger tiles, like ones that are 12x12 or even 12x18.

That is the point at which I throw the salesman out of the house and go elsewhere. Which you did.

It reminds me of a recent incident when I called about my internet access and wound up with a hard-sell on a new cell phone. Insisted on talking to a manager and said I was calling about internet, and rather than selling phone they were in danger of permanently losing me as a customer for anything. I said first step is resolving my internet problem, if they couldn’t/wouldn’t do that before anything I was going to hang up the phone now.

I would have done the same to the guy who came out to your home - called his boss and explained that I wasn’t getting my problem solved or what I wanted. Can you supply what I want, yes or no? Because if no, there are other people willing to make me happy. I want to hear about more than tub surrounds and this guy isn’t answering any of my questions about the rest of the bathroom fixtures. Can you send someone capable of answering those questions?

Mind you, I talking about doing all of the above politely and reasonably, but sometimes you have to make clear what you want in a firm manner.

As for what treatment you use in your bathroom - having spent some time making repairs on bathrooms of various ages I’d say the care and competence of the installation is the most important thing. I’ve seen cheap plastic surrounds that were well installed and, although looking sort of cheap and crappy, didn’t have mold or moisture or breakdown problems and did their intended job. I’ve seen gloriously beautiful tile poorly installed that was literally falling off walls, the under structure dissolving and rotting.

In other words, find what looks good to you (and fits your budget) and make sure it is properly installed and the result will be structurally sound.

After they strip out all the old stuff, have them put up cement board instead of drywall. It’s impervious to water damage. Then put your tile up on it just like it was drywall.

I’ve seen several bathrooms ripped out to the studs- water getting through the grout between the tiles is rarely the issue- it’s more where the tiles end and there’s caulk; it tends to crack, and then leak.

I’m a tile fan. Look into the Kerdi line of waterproofing membranes. It’s the gold standard. Another good option is hardi-backer painted with a waterproofing gooplike this.

If you just do tile directly on the hardi-backer water can seep through the grout into the hardi and eventually cause mold issues.

I would only go with a surround instead of tile for one of two reasons:

  1. If you can’t access the back side of the shower by cutting through a plaster or drywall wall, but instead would have to break the tiles if there were a leak. Could be because you have two bathrooms back to back or the back side belongs to someone else, IE in a condo or something. The concern here is that the shower piping and fixtures usually fail before any major tile failure, ideally you can cut an access through the back if worst comes to worst.

  2. If I wanted to save money. I would assume the surround is much cheaper ?

Otherwise in my experience tile is a much longer lasting product than a surround - when installed correctly. Make them install on cement board and use a membrane like the guy above me says. Under no circumstances just install on green paper drywall or something like that, those are the jobs that have problems.

This is a good overview of waterproofing methods.

I really like the look of tile and when we had one bath redone it was in tile. But my main concern is that I absolutely require handholds and no surround bath that I have used has them. I don’t know if they are not possible, or simply not done, but I find them very awkward and two of my kids have them.

I think with surrounds there’s a problem of how do you securely anchor handholds - if you attach them solely to the surround you risk have the surround pull away from the wall. If you drill through the surround you then have to worry about sealing that point or else getting water leaks through the surround. So… not terribly compatible. I’m sure you could find some way to do it, but that doesn’t mean that it would be a good idea to do so.