What to Expect With a Bathroom Remodel

Plan for the unexpected

The process of remodeling a bathroom is time consuming and messy, to say nothing of being incredibly inconvenient ... especially if you have a one bathroom home. Whether you have one, two or twenty bathrooms, knowing what to expect and planning accordingly can make all the difference in staying sane during the project.

Plan first, then pick a contractor you can really work with

It absolutely cannot be stressed enough: You need a plan. If you don't have a plan, you will spend much more money than you want or need to. That's a guarantee.

Tip #1 A bathroom designer is helpful if you plan to gut the room, but essential if you plan to move fixtures.

Whether you work with a designer or not, it's important to select all your finish materials during the planning stage. The choice of tub surround determines the type of substrate your contractor must use. The type of shower hardware determines the size hole the installer cuts for the flange that surrounds the valves. Not knowing the answer to these kinds of questions means added expense as you shop for materials or force rework to accommodate changes. The money adds up in wasted labor and increases the project bottom line dramatically.

Once you have a good plan, you can interview contractors for the job. Unless you know them and their work personally, checking credentials is the best protection against sub par workmanship as well as contract or financial issues. Get bids in writing based on the plan. Once you have the various bids in hand, you can make a selection.

Tip #2 Don't choose a contractor based only on the price of the bid. It's important to choose someone who listens and will work with you. They will be in and out of your house for days, so choosing the lowest bid, but disliking the people will make your project awful. Don't go there. (Also, especially if working with friends or relatives, keep the paperwork professional. Get your agreement in writing to prevent misunderstandings.)

When planning a project like a bathroom remodel, assess your do-it-yourself skills realistically. Unless you are experienced and tend to be meticulous in your craftsmanship, many aspects of a bathroom remodel may be outside your skill set. A bathroom remodel can make or break the value of your home, especially when it's time to sell. Hire out work you don't want to do.

Tip #3 Unless you have a place to live other than your primary residence, don't try to do too many rooms, especially bathrooms, at one time.

Demolition

Demolition is the first step. Depending on the extent of the work, it can entail replacing a few fixtures or taking the bathroom down to the studs. This is the first point of potential departure from the plan. Be ready for it.

The life expectancy of a bathroom is 15–50 years depending on the construction materials and methods. Poor maintenance reduces life expectancy. It makes little difference if a bathroom is 5 or 50 years old; it can be in reasonable condition or ready to fall through the floor. Condition often derives from the materials used and how well it was constructed—copper, brass, and galvanized pipes and fittings hold up much better than newer materials like PVC and other plastics. Craftsmanship can make a big difference too. You may find that a previous owner was an inexperienced do-it-yourselfers who made goofy alterations because they didn't know any better. When you bought the house, you inherited those headaches.

Demolition and removal of wallboard and fixtures brings you face-to-face with the reality of what is going on behind your walls. With luck, everything will be dry and tight.

Check for structural problems

An experienced contractor will provide the feedback you need to proceed. Evidence of water damage, dry rot, or mold damage may be apparent. Carefully examine the plumbing lines for leaks. This is the time to do repairs to ensure a trouble-free bathroom for years to come. Don't scrimp; it's more important to spend the money to fix plumbing, electrical, and structural issues now than worry about pretty finishes or spiffy bathroom jewelry.

Any issues discovered may blow your initial time frame depending on the extent of work required. If there is water damage, it can take from a few hours to correct to a week or more.

Plumbing & electrical

Remodeling a bathroom is a relatively expensive proposition because it's all about plumbing. Licensed plumbers are not cheap. Like electricians they are well-trained professionals who must adhere to exacting construction standards. While a general contractor or handyman can easily set a toilet or install a faucet, hire someone who knows what they're doing to work on anything that requires ripping out walls to fix.

Completely replumbing the house with copper pipes isn't necessary for most homes. Flexible PEX tubing combined with copper or galvanized fittings can last several decades. The key is in the details: quality brass valves, Teflon tape to seal joints, and conscientious craftsmanship ensure that your bathroom stays dry.

Select plumbing fixtures like bathtubs and showers carefully for quality and have them installed by someone who knows what they are doing. A bathtub or shower must be installed before the drywall. It can take several hours to set into place, and attach the drain and overflow connections. Custom-built showers can take several days because they require installing the cement floor and liner, drain, and cement board walls. (Tiling takes a couple more days but can occur at the same time the rest of the drywall is installed as long as the tiler and drywall installer aren't in each other's way.)

Often people choose tub/surround kits because they are cheaper to install than a separate tub and surround. Quality can vary, but from the mid-range and up you can expect a decent product that is both easy to install and maintain. Often the kits are within the skill set of a conscientious do-it-yourselfer. (Tip #4 Install diverters where the tub ledge meets the wall.)

Electrical wiring for outlets, switches, and lighting is also completed before drywall is put up. A competent contractor can move a switch, but when it comes to new wiring, a licensed electrician should be employed.

Drywall

Once the plumbing lines and tub or shower have been installed, electrical updated, and insulation added, drywall is installed. In a bathroom, water-resistant green board may be used on most walls, but cement backer board should be used in showers and behind tub surrounds. Building codes permit different applications, which is why a licensed contractor is useful. If you are doing the drywall yourself, be sure to check with local building authorities for recommended materials.

Once the dry wall is up, it's ready to be plastered and taped. This process can take several days, especially when humidity is high. A dehumidifier, fan, or space heater can help the process along. Several layers of drywall mud need to be applied. For smooth walls, as many as five or six layers are needed. Rushing the plastering process can result in walls with ripples or divots. When the walls are white with plaster, the surface imperfections may not show, but they become glaringly obvious when painted.

Sanding is the last step of the drywall process. This is a step the homeowner might elect to do, but it provides an opportunity to mar the wall surfaces if you don't know when to stop. It takes relatively little time, so leaving it to the contractor can make sense. (You can save a bit of green by cleaning up yourself. A vacuum, putty knife, and damp rags are all that is really needed to pick up the dust and clean surfaces.)

Separate tile and solid surface tub surrounds

Once the drywall is in place and the mud (plaster) is applied, the tub surround is installed. Solid surface surrounds are easier to maintain than tile and, with no grout lines, there is less opportunity for leaks.

Tile is handsome and available in an infinite number of colors and styles, but it also requires a fair amount of maintenance. Unlike a solid surface, the grout needs to be sealed before use and renewed every year or so. Small tiles with narrow spacing between each tile typically use unsanded grout, which tends to be denser and less subject to leakage than the sanded grout. However, the larger tiles, which use the sanded grout, have fewer grout lines so it probably evens out. Regardless, choose tile only if you can commit to a maintenance schedule.

Painting

The walls are in, the shower or tub is installed, and everything is shaping up nicely. At this point, even if you have had a contractor do all the work, you may choose to do the painting yourself. A painting contractor can probably do the work faster with less trauma, but if you want to get involved in the process or save a little money, it's something a motivated homeowner can do.

The key in a bathroom is priming all paintable surfaces to seal the drywall and plaster. By choosing a high quality sealer and having it tinted a lighter shade of your wall paint, you can prime twice and paint once for an impenetrable surface that repells moisture.

Installing cabinetry and lighting fixtures

Linen cabinets and vanity are installed before the flooring is put in. It's also a good time to install lighting fixtures and unless these are very extensive or complicated a homeowner can easily manage them.

Floor installation

Bathroom floors, like the other surfaces, benefit from being water proof. A solid linoleum or tile floor will make it easy to mop up after bath and shower and even the most rambunctious kids can't damage it. In many cases, this may also be a project the homeowner can undertake. The larger the room, however, the more likely you'll benefit from the offices of a professional.

Underlayment should be thick enough (1/2–3/4 inch) to level out the floor and provide a smooth, clean, dry surface for applying the flooring material. The choice of underlayment is based on the finish chosen. The best substrate for tile (aside from having professional tiler install a mud bed) is concrete backer board. For sheet linoleum, you can use plywood or MDF (medium density fiberboard) as long as there are no seams and the edges are caulked. In larger bathrooms, where seams are inevitable, a professional installation provides additional insurance that floors will be properly sealed against water.

Install the toilet and a free-standing vanity

Once the floor is installed, the toilet is reseated. A free-standing vanity, which are more like furniture with plumbing than cabinetry, is also installed along with faucet hardware and drains. (Tip #5 Before installing the toilet, install the trim that will go behind the toilet first. It's easier than trying to install it afterwards, especially in a tight space.)

Tip #6 It's often easier to install the light fixtures over the vanity before installing the vanity.

Install trim and touch up

Often it's possible to reuse the original trim. This is often desirable because older trim may be real wood, which can be saved and reinstalled at little cost. New trim can be expensive or inferior to the original, so recycling is both environmentally friendly and cost effective. Paint the trim if necessary before installation. Once it's nailed to the wall, it's usually necessary to touch up the nail holes with a little wood putty and paint.

Finishing touches

After completing a bathroom renovation, most homeowners are ready to close the door and take a vacation. There are still a few small details such as installing towel bars, shower curtain rods and curtains, and other accessories. Try to get these items during the remodeling process, so once the trim is installed, you can add these simple, but essential bathroom elements right away.

Additional reading

For additional information, the following articles might help:

Books


One of the most cost-effective improvements you can make is to remodel your bathroom. It improves your home's comfort and livability and adds to its value. Find an experienced local bathroom contractor at Update Renovate .

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