Howard Campbell, owner of Campbell Renovation and Rentals in Kennett, Missouri, recommends installing ceramic tile first. "Cabinets become outdated; replacements will likely not fit the exact configurations of the old ones and you'll be left with gaps to fill in. If you don't have left-over tile on hand, you'll have to replace the entire floor or implement a lot of creative add-ons to make it look right."
Cabinet style may dictate the installation procedure: cabinets that sit on legs and show the floor underneath should be installed after the tile installation. Another consideration is the appearance of grout lines that butt up against the cabinet base, a potential problem because grout can shrink and pull away from the cabinet, leaving a gap.
Campbell says, "It makes more sense to add the cabinets last. If you don't, you'll have to add quarter-round trim molding to dress out the bottom of the cabinet base." Asked if cost is a factor, Campbell adds, "If you're hiring contractors and paying them an hourly wage, putting the tile down first is more cost efficient; it takes less time because there are fewer cuts-ins, plus you won't have to add the trim molding, saving the cost of the trim." Campbell cites the cost of additional tile to put underneath the cabinets as negligible when compared to the potential cost of renovating the floor should you decide to replace the cabinets. "It's like an insurance policy," he says. "You may not need it, but if you do, it may save you a bundle."
Cabinets are often not squared exactly in their measurement, and neither is ceramic tile. Just 1/16 of an inch difference from the front to the back of an imperfect tile or a cabinet base that's slightly off in measurement, makes a noticeable gap where the floor butts up to the cabinet. "Getting the cut-ins exactly right is difficult, even for a seasoned professional," Campbell says.
Jesse Sanchez, of Jesse's Tile Service in San Antonio, Texas, prefers adding the cabinets first. "There's always the possibility of damaging the floor if you put the cabinets in last." He counters Campbell's claim that it saves time and money, citing that covering and protecting the floor during the cabinet installation negates any time saved.
The type of tile is also a factor in whether to install it first or last. The grade of the tile will affect the balance of the cabinet. Sanchez says "Rolled and uneven top surfaces on the tile present a problem for cabinet installation if the tile is installed first. Also, grout lines underneath the cabinet can create an unstable surface and the cabinets may rock back and forth. Gaps at the base of the cabinet are noticeable because of the dips in the grout lines, so you still have to trim out the base with molding."
Whether to install the tile or the cabinets first is a personal choice; the decision has to be made keeping individual considerations in mind. It's common to splurge on one item with the intention of replacing the other one later, when the budget allows. Weigh the probability of renovation against the cost of any future modifications.