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Carpet or tile for basement floors

QuestionI'm currently finishing my basement and I can't decide between carpet and ceramic tile. I'm not putting a subfloor in—I can't afford to lose the height, which is at 6' 5". With carpeting, the padding would act as vapor barrier; but what happens with tile? Do I not need a vapor barrier? Is it just a bad idea to install ceramic tiles down there? I would like to know the disadvantages with regards to vapor, associated with putting ceramic tile in a basement.

AnswerFirst, find out whether or not you have ever had (or continue to have) water problems in the basement. How old is your house? Houses built within the last 10 years or so might have rigid insulated foam under the slab—check with the contractor. Finally, what kinds of space do you plan to finish in the basement—laundry room, bedroom, family room, bathroom, exercise room, etc? I recommend you check with your local building department to determine if any of these uses can be classed as "habitable space" due to your limited headroom.

Now, to your question. Do you really want ceramic tile installed in all these different rooms? Personally, I would use it in the bathroom or in the laundry room. Then I would install a good-quality direct-glue rubber backed carpet everywhere else. Yes, you can use a jute back carpet over a good-quality foam padding (not rubber).

Now let's address the ceramic tile issue. Professionally speaking, ceramic tile is not used for flooring installations—it's used for wall installations. Consider using Glazed floor tiles, Pavers (sealed), Quarry, Terracotta, Monocoturra, or Mosaic tiles for the floor:

I would not be concerned with the vapor barrier issue if you install tile over dry concrete and use the proper adhesives: thinset for dry concrete slab, epoxy thinset for heavy-set use areas, and thinset with latex additive elsewhere. Ready-to-use organic mastic is not recommended. To learn more about tile, get a copy of my book, Remodeling A Bathroom (The Taunton Press), from the General Store and check out Chapter 7. If you are still concerned about a vapor barrier, then consider installing WECU-Crackless or Soundless cork underlayment. You can learn more about this product in my book, Build Smarter with Alternative Materials (Craftsman Book Company).

Let's change direction for a minute and explore some alternatives to carpet or tile. What about bamboo, cork, or laminated flooring products? These might be just the ticket provided they are installed over a vapor barrier such as 6-mil film. The beauty of these products is that they can be installed with very little hassle because they are a floating system. Check out Chapter 9 of Build Smarter with Alternative Materials, which offers more ideas for floor installation.

You have a lot to consider. Take a step back, consider your priorities, determine what you want as a finished product, and yes, take the time to read those chapters I recommended. Let me know how your project turned out—and good luck!

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Copyright © 1999 & 2006 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved.
Question answered by Leon A. Frechette.



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