What Is Subway Tile? A Classic Low-Cost Upgrade for Kitchens, Bathrooms, and Beyond

Whether you're looking to tile a kitchen backsplash or a shower stall, one popular option is subway tile, so named because it first appeared in -- you got it -- subways. While this staple of public transport may not sound all that appealing for your home, these rectangular, high-gloss ceramic tiles are a mainstay in home decor because they're inexpensive, durable, and versatile. Subway tiles go with just about anything!

History of subway tile

When the New York City subway opened in 1904, its tile-clad stations were eye-openers. The distinctive tiles quickly captured the public's imagination, and found their way into private homes, lining both bathroom and kitchen walls (but not floors, because the glaze makes the surface slippery).

"They've never gone out of style, because a tile in and of itself is a timeless aesthetic," says Eric Sidman, a real estate developer for EMS Development Group in New York. "A light brick is always going to be in vogue no matter what else come and goes."

Types and cost of subway tile

Subway tiles are traditionally white, and measure 3 inches by 6 inches. But luckily for homeowners, they come in a variety shapes, sizes, and colors. Generally you can expect to pay about $2 per square foot.

"It is very inexpensive -- that's what draws a lot of people in," Sidman says. "A basic [subway] tile is one of the most affordable tiles out there."

He adds: "They sometimes come in larger rectangles that are 3 by 12 inches, or even larger at 6 by 12 inches."

The installation doesn't have to be traditional, either -- owners can try an interlocking or zigzag chevron pattern.

Due to their versatility and broad appeal, subway tiles are great for a home's resale value if and when you decide to put it on the market. And while you can expect to pay about $5 to $10 per square for installation, you can also choose to do the work yourself. It isn't hard; just watch out for tiling pitfalls.