If you’re undertaking a bathroom makeover and struggling to decide what stays and what goes, remember that even seasoned pros have to balance the pros and the cons — and the budget.
Deborah Burnett, for example, regularly recommends total destruction of old bathrooms for remodels as a residential contractor in Nashville, Tenn. But she knows from personal experience that sometimes you should keep at least part of what you’ve got. “In my own bathroom, I have two long, tall and expensive mirrors that literally sit on the backsplash,” says Deborah. “For the remodel, the only way to replace the counters would involve taking out the backsplash and cracking the mirrors. Instead, I decided to leave the Formica countertop and use Granite Transformations, which is emulsified granite in an epoxy base that they pour over existing laminate. When it’s dry and done, it’s non-porous and looks identical to a granite counter.”
The counter’s just one of the “big ticket” bathroom elements to scrutinize before you proceed with a bath makeover. Others include tubs and showers, surrounds, toilets, flooring and sinks, and contractors and experts have all sorts of handy rules of thumb for evaluating each. Before you decide about individual elements, though, the pros recommend answering the question, “Am I re-decorating or re-designing?”
Cosmetics vs. Surgery
“The critical factor when you’re deciding which elements you can keep in a bathroom remodel is to know the difference between decorating and remodeling,” says Deborah, who is also the residential design spokesperson for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). “You can make very different decisions when you’re primarily looking at giving the bath a face lift — updating your colors and changing the fixtures and accessories.”
Re-decorating tasks might include such things as adding some color wood trim, putting a new commode in the old spot or replacing a vanity with one that’s the same width and depth but taller, making it a more back-friendly 34 – 36 inches instead of the old standard of 30 – 32 inches. Or maybe you want to put in shutters instead of blinds. These are all updates that do not require re-plumbing, which in turn requires tearing out walls, or new floor plans, wiring or lighting.
In contrast, says Deborah, “a remodel is all or nothing, and you can count on throwing out 99.9 percent of everything in the room,” says Burnett. “In the past, the bathroom was designed for utilitarian use. Today the emphasis is on luxury and relaxation and to achieve that you’ll have to make a dramatic and drastic overhaul.”
In most cases, says Deborah, a remodel may make use of the same tub and commode but will require a new vanity, sink, faucets, mirror, plumbing, wiring, lights and windows replaced with skylights. In the course of such revamps, one new element often dictates the addition of another, like a new shower requiring new plumbing which requires a new tile wall.
And it’s a false economy to go halfway once you’ve started. “If your sink or faucet, for example, look borderline they will definitely be out of place in your remodeled bath,” says Mark Lambert, a contractor and owner of DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen in Bellingham, Wash. “And I would definitely not leave one colored fixture and replace the others with another color. That type of effort to save time or costs in a remodel will come back to get you big time when you sell the home.”
Deborah takes an even stronger line on taking the whole remodeled bathroom to the same high standard. “Otherwise it’s like accessorizing a K-Mart outfit with a Chanel bag and Prada shoes.”
Within the “go new for a remodel, negotiate on re-decorating” dictate there is some wiggle room, particularly regarding floors and tiles. Here’s what the experts say to consider for each major element of a bathroom makeover:
Take Out the Tub?
Don Dominick is the marketing director for Miracle Method, a company that offers a tub reglazing product and process, and even he says to replace the tub if you’re undertaking a total remodel. “If you’re going to gut the whole bathroom anyway, you’ll want a new tub and maybe to go to some new features,” he says.
If your tub is nicked or someone has used abrasive cleaners on it to the point where it’s grey at best after cleaning, then the decision to refinish or replace becomes financial. The National Kitchen and Bath Association says an average bathtub removal and replacement costs $3,000. “That includes the cost of things like tearing up the door because you can’t get the old tub out otherwise,” says Don.
Refinishing a tub is less than a third of that cost in most markets, and has the added advantages of not interfering with lead drain traps that have been soldered into place and letting you keep your existing fixtures, says Don, and DreamMaker’s Mark agrees. “If cost is the driving factor, refinishing the tub is probably your best option.”
If it’s just the “god-awful colors” on the tub that are driving your decision, refinishing is also an option in lieu of replacement. “The four biggest offenders we tend to take care of are avocado green, harvest gold, rose and what I call ugly brown,” says Don.
But refinishing loses its economic appeal the moment you decide to rip other parts of the bathroom, says Mark. “If flooring and wall coverings are coming out, replace the tub, don’t refinish or reglaze it.”
When to Stick with the Surround
The rule of thumb on tub surrounds is to stick with tile but trash anything else in a remodel. “Tile surrounds can be successfully refinished or reglazed if the tile and grout are in good condition or repaired,” says DreamMaker’s Mark. “You can get custom acrylic panels in solid colors or marble finishes to cover old tile surrounds, assuming the tile is in good condition or can be repaired. Missing tiles and bad grout are not a problem.”
It’s different if the tiles are no longer sticking to the wall, though. “If they are loose and ready to fall off it is better to remove the whole system and start over with a good solid base,” says Mark.
Don’t Get Attached to the Toilet
In re-decorating mode, a toilet in good repair is something that can stay, says Deborah. But once a toilet has to come out of the floor during the remodel, the best option is “Replace, replace, replace,” says Mark.
“Realize that an old toilet taken out for a remodel should be rebuilt before it is returned to its old home. The tank-to-bowl seals harden over the years and tend to separate when the toilet of taken out. The cost for a plumber to rebuild a unit versus installing a new one is a wash.”
Sink or Save
“If you think your sink or faucet looks borderline it will definitely be out of place in your remodeled bath,” says Mark.
But even if you’re just in decorating mode, it rarely makes financial sense to re-glaze an old sink. “Do not reglaze old sinks unless they are irreplaceable antique pieces,” says Mark. “Replacement costs for sinks are about the same or less than the costs to refinish your old one.”
Give Some Floors a Future
The decision you make about the floor depends on what you have and how you feel about it. “If you like your floor and it appears to be in good condition I would keep it,” says Mark, but he has a qualifier: “I would always get carpet out of the bathroom.”
If a floor’s in less-than-idea shape, you may still be able to save it. “You can very often successfully repair and refinish a hardwood floor,” says Mark. “If a tile floor is only in need of regrouting it’s a keeper.”
But if the tiles need replacing and you don’t have a box of extras sitting around, you will probably want to replace the floor. “Otherwise, you will spend a lot of frustrating time looking for matching tiles,” says Mark. “Read your fortune cookie, ‘You won’t find it. Be happy, give up’ or, ‘You will go crazy by end of week.'”
When you decide to rip up and re-do, watch your timing, he adds. “Sometimes homeowners get ahead of themselves and replace the vinyl flooring in their bathroom a few months before starting a major remodel.” That takes away any options on the floor plan, says Mark. “And you also put your new floor at risk of being damaged during the remodel.”