Lesson four: Be flexible. Contractors can’t always work around you—and you may not want to hire those who can.
Small baths are harder to renovate.
Partway through our project, a bathroom designer told me that small bathrooms are harder for contractors.
We’d had our own problems designing our small upstairs bath. We had to find a sink no wider than 20 inches—harder than it sounds—and a fairly compact toilet. We went to several showrooms before finding what we wanted at Union Hardware in Vienna.
What we didn’t know is that small spaces are hard for contractors, too. They’ve got to fit a lot into a small space, and there will be more frequent tile cuts.
A bigger issue, says Dee David, is that smaller bathrooms are often in older homes. A home more than 40 years old has settled, and the walls and floor may no longer be level or square. A contractor can adjust for that. In our case, the company installed new subfloor and laid the floor tile on a diagonal to hide the slightly off-square walls. But you may not know what you’re dealing with—for example, hidden water damage or plumbing problems—until the plaster and drywall come down.
“From both a design and technical standpoint,” says Case’s Richardson, “bathrooms are the riskiest renovations. There’s plumbing, there’s electrical. If you do something wrong, the cost and pain of fixing it are great.”
Lesson five: If you have an older home, be prepared for surprises.
A bathroom may be the smallest room in a house, but there are dozens of decisions.
We had spent hours at a tile shop picking porcelain and ceramic tile for the walls and floor of our downstairs bath. Then the saleswoman said, “Now you have to pick your grout.”
I groaned. Already there had been more decisions than we’d expected for both bathrooms: What style of trap did we want under the wall-mounted sink upstairs? What seat did we want on our dual-flush Toto toilet? Did we want the edges of the bullnose tile round or straight?
“In the past few years there have been more new choices in bathroom products than in all of the past 100 years,” Richardson says. “It’s overwhelming.”
It wasn’t that we didn’t have answers for most of questions; it’s that after a while the level of detail became mind-numbing—so much so that we made mistakes.
When ordering the tub for downstairs, I was presented with two cast-iron choices by Kohler that would match my sink. The saleswoman suggested that the tubs were similar except in price—one was $600 more. I couldn’t see the cheaper tub in person; it wasn’t on display. Because she seemed to be suggesting there was no reason to pay extra, I chose the less expensive model. I never took a hard look at the dimensions. Only later, when the tub was delivered, did we realize it was a builder-grade model too shallow and narrow to allow a decent bath. Waiting for the new, more comfortable tub held up the project two weeks.
It wasn’t the only mistake we made on materials. When the downstairs bath’s floor tile was incorrectly installed—laid straight instead of diagonally—the contractor offered to redo it. At the tile shop, I opted for a different tile that was in stock rather than waiting two weeks for the original tile to come in. But I didn’t realize that the pattern of each ceramic tile would vary greatly from the sample—until the tile was on the floor. Next time, I’d look at every tile in the box and take out the ones I didn’t like.
It’s important to think through every detail. “A typical thing people don’t think about when planning their bathroom is accessories,” says Dee David. “I tell people that planning where the towel bar is going is just as important as the height of the sink.” Or you may finish the bathroom and realize you didn’t leave space for a towel bar.
Another common problem, says Sarah Bernheisel of Renaissance Tile & Bath in Alexandria: “People plan for the fixtures but don’t think enough about storage.”
Lesson six: Take snacks with you on your shopping excursions; they may take longer than you expect.