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Bathroom remodeling guide: Trends and costs

You can spend a lot to redo your bathroom but you don't have to

Published: March 2012

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The master bathroom is supposed to be your own private escape—a place to pamper yourself, to preen. So why are you always in such a hurry to leave yours? Maybe it’s the pink-and-white tiles. Or the perpetual beads of water on the ceiling. Or the way the entry door slams into the toilet.

If your would-be sanctuary is a major sore spot, you’re not alone. Bathrooms are second only to the kitchen on people’s wish lists of rooms to remodel, especially since the current economy-induced deferred maintenance has pushed so many past their 20-year lifespan. “At that age, bathrooms really start to get tired,” says Art Donnelly, president of Legacy Design Build in Mount Sinai, New York. “Leaky toilets, grimy grout, loose tiles—you name it, it’s probably an issue.”

Given the complexity of bathrooms—multiple components in a compact space, not to mention all that water—doing the project right is a challenge. (See Remodeling Dos and Don'ts.) On a cost-per-square-foot basis, bathrooms are one of the most expensive spaces to remodel. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune. That’s where Consumer Reports’ Bathroom Remodeling Guide comes in. Our product testers have spent months rating the latest toilets, sinks, countertops, and other bathroom essentials to separate the winners from the also-rans. We’ve also interviewed designers, contractors, and real estate pros nationwide to find out what to include—and what to skip—on your bathroom-remodel wish list.  

What it will cost and how to budget

How much should you spend on your master bathroom? A rule of thumb is that the total project—including materials and installation—should cost no more than 5 to 10 percent of your home’s value. The National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) puts the national average at about $16,000. Another guide is Remodeling Magazine's Cost vs. Value report, which compares the average cost of various renovation projects with the value they retain at resale. In 2011-2012, mid-range bathroom remodels cost an average of $16,552 and recouped 62 percent, while upscale bathroom remodels cost an average of $52,249 and recouped 56 percent. Here’s how the NKBA breaks down the budget for a typical bathroom remodel:                               

Labor: 20 percent
Cabinetry and hardware: 16 percent
Fixtures: 15 percent
Faucets and plumbing: 14 percent
Countertop: 7 percent
Floor: 9 percent
Doors and windows: 4 percent
Walls and ceiling: 5 percent
Lighting and ventilation: 5 percent
Design fees: 4 percent
Other: 1 percent

Five small details that make a big difference

These details aren’t necessarily cheap, but if there’s room in your budget, they can help turn a good master bathroom remodel into a great one.

1. Radiant flooring. This heating system will not only keep your floors warm underfoot on cold mornings, it will accelerate drying, reducing the risk of slips and falls.

2. Stain-resistant grout. Though it costs more than traditional grout, stain-resistant formulas cut down on tedious cleaning. Thinner, darker grout lines can also help.
 
3. Skylights. Natural light is desirable in any room, but for bathrooms located deep within a home, windows may not be an option. A skylight is an excellent way to flood a room with sunlight, assuming it’s on the top floor of your home.
 
4. Heated shower mirror. A fog-free mirror makes it easy to shave or remove make-up in the shower. That’s particularly helpful in master bathrooms with a single vanity.
 
5. Framed mirrors. Besides the fact that wall-to-wall mirrors have become passé, framed mirrors present a design opportunity. Match the profile of the mirror frame with the moldings for a coordinated look, or choose something very different to create a focal point.

The $1,000 makeover

While a thousand dollars may not go as far as certain remodeling shows on TV would have you believe, it can actually do a lot. That’s especially true if your space functions well—no leaks or loose parts—but is in need of a facelift. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Replace the vanity with a new wood model that has a stone counter.
  • Add a new mirror and faucet. Alternatively, keep your current vanity but replace your toilet and faucet and add a new vinyl floor.
  • Improve lighting and ventilation with a new combination light and exhaust fan. One with a heat setting will keep you from getting chilled when you get out of the shower.
  • Add a set of sconces on either side of the mirror or medicine cabinet.
  • Update towel bars, hooks, toothbrush and toilet paper holders, and cabinet hardware. Add matching shelves for your towels and toiletries.
  • Switch your standard showerhead to one with multiple settings, including a pulsating or massage setting.
  • Keep your towels toasty with a heated towel bar, some of which cost $100 or less.

First-rate secondary bathrooms

Master bathrooms get the most remodeling dollars, but homes typically have one or more other bathrooms—or else their owners wish they did. Here are a few key considerations if you’re renovating or adding a kids or guest bathroom or powder room to your home.

Powder rooms
These compact spaces are often tucked into nooks in the home, such as converted pantry closets or the cavity beneath a staircase. They’re all about economy of space, though the best examples also emphasize design. “This is not a high-traffic room, so function is not as important as the wow factor,” says says Elizabeth Goltz, owner of Design by Orion in Kansas City.

Streamline the design. A sink and toilet are the only must-haves in a powder room. A round toilet bowl takes up less room than an elongated one, which may be worth the compromise in comfort that some users will experience. Consider a pedestal sink instead of a bulkier sink/vanity combination.

Be adventurous. Design treatments that would look over the top in other parts of the home are fine in the powder room. Deep dark hues, such as burgundy and eggplant, play well in these small spaces. Not that adventurous? Limit dark hues or unusual colors to wall paint. Pricey materials such as vessel sinks, custom floor patterns, and stone counters won’t be as hard on your budget because you won’t need as much as you would in a larger bath.

Splurge on the accessories. With so few accessories to consider, you can spend more on those you do need. “Invest in the faucet,” says Carolyn Cheetham, president of Design Works by Cheetham in Alberta, Canada. “It’s an opportunity to bring something fun and sculptural into the space.” Also, consider matching the faucet finish to other accessories in the space, such as the towel ring, mirror frame, and light fixture.

Kids and guest bathrooms
A second bathroom, be it for the kids or overnight guests, is expected in all but the smallest homes. If you’ve bought a home without one (say a 1950s split-level), it should be high on your wish list. To get the job done right, follow these recommendations.
   
Focus on durability. The surfaces and fixtures will likely get lots of wear and tear, especially if children use the room. Plastic laminate flooring and countertops are durable and inexpensive, plus the kids likely don’t care if they have high-end materials. As for fixtures, you still want high-quality construction, including all-brass parts and a PVD (physical vapor deposition) finish that resists scratches, but go with basic chrome, rather than pricier nickel or bronze. On the walls, choose an interior paint that resists mildew.

Don’t forget the bathtub. You might not take baths, but every home should have a bathtub. Even when master bathrooms had whirlpool tubs, it was still customary for the secondary bath to have a tub, usually in the form of a shower/tub combo. A one-piece molded acrylic unit can cut down on cost and maintenance compared to one that’s tiled.

Remember ventilation. A bathroom fan is critical in high-traffic bathrooms where the shower is going all morning. And since kids can’t always be trusted to turn the fan on and off, spend more on a model that uses humidity sensors to operate the fan on its own.

   

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