if your bathroom is more of a sore spot than a sanctuary, you're not alone. Bathrooms have replaced kitchens as the most remodeled room in the home—their smaller footprint and lack of pricey appliances make for a less expensive project. But baths are still a challenge, given their tricky layouts and abundant water. Plus mistakes are hard and pricey to undo.
Our experts spent months testing the latest countertops, flooring, sinks, toilets, and more so that you can get a luxurious bath that can handle harried Monday mornings and soothing Sunday soaks alike. We also spoke with designers and remodeling professionals for their ideas. You'll see our findings, along with the latest trends and bathroom remodeling do's and don'ts, starting with five simple secrets to updating your bathroom, including where to save and where to splurge.
Depending on the size and scope of your bathroom project, you should spend several weeks to a few months on the planning process. Poor planning is the leading cause of cost overruns.
How much should it cost? The 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. Here's how the National Kitchen & Bath Association breaks down the budget:
While the double-sink configuration has been popular in the past, it often makes sense to have a single sink and more counter space to put things on. Besides maximizing the counter space, opting for a single sink vanity saves you the expense of the second sink and faucet. And eliminating a set of plumbing expands the available storage space inside the vanity.
Save: Consumer Reports' sink tests have found that low-cost faucets now often come with better valves, durable finishes, and lifetime warranties against leaks and stains.
Splurge: Framed mirrors over the vanity are replacing mirrored walls. Match the finish on the frame to that of the faucet and towel bars for a coordinated look, or choose something very different to create a focal point.
Palettes that create a calm, spa-like atmosphere are favored, especially in the master bath. Instead of outdated pink and coral, consider a soft shade of blue. "It offers a refreshing feeling evocative of water, which naturally works well in a bath," says Sonu Mathew, senior interior designer at Benjamin Moore. Yellow is also getting more use in bathrooms, according to Debbie Zimmer, color expert at the Paint Quality Institute. Steer clear of dark greens, though; they can give skin a sickly hue. You can be more adventurous in secondary bathrooms, especially powder rooms. Deep, dark hues such as burgundy and eggplant work particularly well in those small spaces.
Proper prep work is essential before painting any bathroom. Scrub surfaces with a sponge and a mild household detergent solution. Tackle mildew spots with a mixture of 16 parts water to one part bleach, being sure to ventilate the space.
Save: Updating the accessories, such as towels and the shower curtain, and repainting the walls is an inexpensive way to bring color into the bath. Behr's Premium Plus Ultra, $31 to $34 per gallon, excelled in our paint tests, including resisting mildew.
Splurge: Glass tile adds a splash of iridescent brightness but can cost as much as $40 per square foot installed. So you might want to focus on a single accent wall, say, above the vanity, or use it only in the shower area. Or you can use a band of glass tile in a field of less expensive tile.
The enthusiasm for gargantuan whirlpool tubs with massaging jets has cooled considerably. "People started to realize that they could count on one hand how many times they actually used the tub," says John Petrie, a designer certified by the National Kitchen & Bath Association. "We're now using that space to create larger showers, often with his and her showerheads, body sprays, and even steam generators." A shower stall that measures at least 4 by 6 feet can provide easy access and universal use no matter your age and ability, especially if you include a bench.
Save: With their large heads and expansive spray patterns, rain showerheads deliver a soft, soothing flow. Moen's Velocity 6320, $190, was a top performer in our past showerhead tests. It also has a more forceful spray setting.
Splurge: If you can take the stall up to 5 by 7 feet, that can eliminate the expense of the door, since the showerheads can be positioned so that the spray doesn't reach beyond the shower area.
Every bathroom needs one, but the latest trend is to make the commode as unobtrusive as possible. If space permits, try placing the toilet behind a half-wall or in its own room-within-the-room, complete with separate lighting and ventilation. A piece of furniture, such as an armoire, can create a barrier without the expense of a framed wall. It will also provide additional storage for towels and toiletries.
Save: Several WaterSense-qualified toilets, which use just 1.28 gallons per flush, make our list of recommended toilets. That could save the average family of four 16,000 gallons and more than $100 per year if they're replacing older, inefficient toilets, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Splurge: If you can't hide the toilet, consider a one-piece model, with a sleeker design that also eliminates the dirt-trapping seam between the tank and bowl.
A single ceiling light just doesn't cut it. Not only will your bathroom be dim, but the overhead fixture will cast shadows on your face when grooming. Instead, create layers of light, including wall-mounted sconces or other vertical fixtures on either side of the vanity, which will cast diffused light for shaving and putting on makeup.
The shower and toilet should each have a dedicated task light, such as a recessed canister light. Consider fixtures that use LED bulbs. Many provided bright, even illumination in our lightbulb tests with the promise of 50,000 hours, though they do cost more. Place the fixtures on dimmer switches so that light levels can be adjusted depending on the mood and task at hand.
Save: Choosing a bathroom fan with an integrated light takes care of two needs—ventilation and general illumination—with a single fixture.
Splurge: For bathrooms located deep within a home, adding windows might not be an option. A skylight will flood the space with natural light, assuming the room is on the top floor.
Got a smart phone? These apps will help inspire and inform your bathroom remodel.
Houzz Interior Design Ideas (free): Lets you create a virtual idea book from more than a half-million high-resolution images, including countless pictures of beautiful master baths.
iHandy Carpenter ($1.99): Includes a level and plumb bob for hanging mirrors, towel bars, and more, plus a steel protractor for measuring angles.
Photo Measures ($4.99): Takes down the precise dimensions of uploaded images, such as the distance between your toilet and vanity, or sink and shower.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Consumer Reports magazine with the headline "Beautiful Bathrooms."