The Basic Bathroom Remodel

In my San Francisco contracting business, here’s what I find that people want from the basic, budget-limited bathroom remodel, when the sky is NOT the limit:

  • New surfaces, expertly applied – We’ve gotten bored lying in the bath, counting the rows of black and white octagon tiles.  Years ago we added variety by counting rows starting with the tile with the chipped corner, and then the cracked tile, but even those variations have become boring. And who picked that ugly green for the vanity backsplash?  It wasn’t us, that’s for sure.
  • We want it to feel cleaner.  How come it’s so hard to keep the shower from getting funky, or to keep the grout sparkling clean?
  • New fixtures – The old ones are scratched up, and we’re just tired of them.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a temperature-regulated shower?
  • Better ventilation and lighting – Can we make it lighter and fresher?
  • An extra sink would be great.  A shower stall would be greater.
  • A fair price.

First steps:

  • Decide on your budget.  Be serious about it.
  • Choose your main goals – add a sink, replace the tile, get rid of that funky rotting smell, just make it nicer.
  • Even if you have a tight budget, ask your builder if it’s possible to add an extra sink, or a shower stall.  It may be too expensive to do the plumbing work, but there’s no harm in asking.

The secret is to choose a few key items for your top dollar.  For good value, I recommend the following general rules:

  • Think hard about your tile design (you’re almost certain to have some tile).  You can get a great custom feel by picking a less expensive field tile and adding just a few more expensive or hand-made tiles for trims, borders, or accents.   Put some time into the tile design, to get great design out of simple tiles.  Every tile design book has great ideas.  If you’re not the type to crouch in the tub, cleaning the grout lines with bleach and a toothbrush (and you don’t pay someone else to do it), ask your tile installer to use epoxy or polyurethane grout.   They stay clean and they stay waterproof.  Mildew is so hard to get rid of because it’s usually growing in the wall behind the tile, and you can’t do anything to the surface to change that.  Modern grouts will help with that, and though they cost more than traditional cement grouts, they’re worth it, in my opinion.
  • Choose mid-range fixtures.  The cheapest fixtures will corrode and scratch and stop working, and very few guests will even notice the most expensive fixtures.  Try to pick fixtures that match, but don’t sweat it if your shower mixer isn’t the same brand or style as the other fixtures in the room; no one will notice, and you’ll enjoy the functionality of the fixture enough not to care.
  • Use your imagination with lighting fixtures.  Take a look at exterior fixtures; some of the modern ones have great style, and they’ll hold up to the moisture in a bathroom really easily.  They are often less expensive than official bathroom fixtures.
  • If you have strong budget constraints, don’t replace the cabinets.  Ask your contractor to refinish them or replace the doors, and to refurbish or replace drawer slides and other hardware.  Replace the top and the sink: stone vanity tops are very reasonably priced right now.
  • Check out the consignment and second-hand stores for mirrors, art, and wall-mounted shelving.  They can all add style for just a few dollars.
  • Make sure your electrical system is at least upgraded to modern safety standards.  In my teen years I still had hair, and I used a hair dryer, and I still remember the day I got electrocuted.

Now, to  ensure that the project happens within your budget, do these things:

  1. Make sure you have specified every detail, every square inch of the bathroom interior.  If you haven’t, there’s a good chance you have change orders in your future, and they cost money.
  2. Have a clear conversation with your builder about structural and rot problems.  Most bathroom remodels involve the discovery of rot in the framing around the tub and shower.  Get your contractor to write down what he or she will repair as part of the basic contract, and what will cost more.  It’s sometimes possible to poke a few small holes in the walls, or even in the ceiling of the room below, to make some judgment about existing damage from water.
  3. Ask your contractor how much money you can save by buying fixtures yourself.  The to-the-trade 40% discounts aren’t common except for higher end fixtures, and I and most other contractors only get a couple of percentage points back from our vendors on most other products and materials.  You can save money by not paying us for our labor and the profit margin we add to labor and materials.  The tradeoff is that you will be responsible for dealing with it if something goes wrong with the shipping and the fixtures are backordered, or the parts are damaged or defective, or whatever….
  4. Get a quote from your builder, and if possible from two additional builders.  Make sure that the quotes are for the same work, before comparing prices.
  5. If the quote is at or above your maximum budget, take something out.  Look back at your original goal for the remodel, and make sure that the money is being spent to accomplish that goal.  Ask the quoting contractors for a schedule of values, showing where the money is going.
  6. Try to get the contracted price down to 75 to 80 percent of your budget.  If it’s too high, don’t expect your contractor just to lower the price: something will have to be removed from the project.   The reason to get below your budgeted price is that it’s much easier to add upgraded fixtures or additional features than it is to remove items from the project: once the contract is signed, the builder will be reluctant to reduce the scope of the project.  And if you keep below your budget, just imagine how you can brag to your friends and neighbors about the great value you got!

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