“This is worse than I thought it would be,” our contractor said as he stood in our half-finished shower. “This is embarrassing.”
My husband and I were having our upstairs bathroom—a black-and-white bath original to our 1951 Arlington Colonial—gutted and updated. We’d been happy with how prompt and neat the crew had been for its week at our house, but three days into the tile work, we contacted the owner of the firm: A number of our travertine tiles didn’t line up, and some were badly cut. We wanted him to see the sloppy work and have it fixed.
“This tile all has to come down,” the contractor finally said. “I’ll get my best stone guys on this project.”
He did. And he paid for new tile.
My husband and I had learned our first lesson in bathroom renovation: All tile setters are not the same. The workman who had laid our stone wasn’t a novice—he had, according to the contractor, recently done an intricate ceramic-tile backsplash. But he’d never installed stone, and natural stone—which is uneven and heavy—is hard to work with. Tile setters usually charge $2 to $5 per square foot more for stone.
Lesson one: Make sure the person laying your tile has experience with that material—especially stone and glass. Most experts at laying stone can usually lay ceramic or porcelain, which is easier. It doesn’t always work the other way.
Tales of renovations gone wrong are frequent cocktail-party banter. What you often hear is that renovation takes longer and costs more than the contractor tells you. Both were true: Our project, which the contractor had estimated would take four weeks, took 20 weeks and cost 5 percent more. At least the crew finished the work—we’d been warned about contractors who take the money and run.
While our contractor made mistakes, so did we. Here are nine other things I learned the hard way about bathroom renovation.
Even if you’re just giving a bathroom a facelift and not changing walls or plumbing, it pays to consult a designer.
Our first mistake was assuming that because we were just ripping out old tile and fixtures and putting in new—sometimes called a facelift—we didn’t need a bathroom designer.
We were redoing two bathrooms—the black-and-white one on the second floor and a 30-year-old bath with ocean-blue fixtures in a first-floor addition. We had flipped through books and magazines and found photos of the looks we wanted. We had interviewed three contractors and one design/build firm, showing them our photos and getting estimates.
The upper range of the design/build firm’s quote was twice what the three contractors wanted to do our 5½-by-6½-foot upstairs bathroom. (The design/build firm would give us only a range, not a firm estimate, until we paid a $500 design fee.)
My husband was impressed by the design/build firm’s reputation and leaned toward going that route. I balked at spending so much more on a “simple” project. To this day, my wonderful husband has never blamed me for the challenges we had.
We assumed we could get design advice from our tile shop and our contractor. After all, they did bathrooms all the time. The contractor we chose says his firm does at least 40 bathrooms a year.
A few tile shops we visited offered suggestions—some have staff designers, and you can make an appointment. But many tile shops, including the one where we bought our travertine, are staffed by salespeople who know the products but who aren’t designers.