Don't take a bath with remodeling costs

December 02, 2006|By Bill LaHay | Bill LaHay,Universal Press Syndicate

When remodeling magazines and home-improvement television programs feature mega-baths that occupy 200 square feet of floor space and carry price tags of $20,000 and up, the goal is often to inspire homeowners to achieve similar results. But how many people have that kind of room and budget for a bathroom remodel?

Most residential bathrooms sport a footprint only a third that size, often matched with an equally modest checkbook balance when it comes to renovation. Neither of those factors, however, should deter you from creating a dream bath.

For better or worse, ours is an era when the exposure to palatial residences can give the average homeowner a serious inferiority complex. Thankfully, bathrooms are mostly personal spaces that can actually benefit from the coziness and convenience that tend to define smaller rooms.

Typically, the cost per square foot is higher than for any other remodeling project, but with smart choices, this is a project with a big payoff. Return on investment is high for bathroom renovations, especially for master baths.

The key to containing bath renovation costs is to keep layout changes to a minimum, which means not relocating plumbing fixtures unless the change provides big gains in features or convenience.

Even with that limitation, you can transform the room, because everything else - fixtures, surfaces, lighting, cabinetry - is fair game. But nudging a sink or toilet over just a foot often requires rerouting of water supply and drain lines, quickly adding costs that may not be reflected in terms of notable improvement.

The compact size of most bathrooms isn't necessarily an insurmountable obstacle. But if you want to expand, try growing via stealth rather than brute force. Some situations might allow you to annex square footage from an adjacent space, such as a hall closet or a bedroom, again resulting in much lower costs than required for a bona fide addition.

Look for opportunities to create small pockets of space - wall niches, built-in cubbies for storage or soffits around the perimeter of the room. Extracting all the usable space might require some custom cabinetry or built-in storage pieces, but you won't need big quantities.

In addition to adding space, you can also use some visual tricks to make the room appear larger. Keeping sight lines open creates the impression of a bigger space, simply because your eyes and brain perceive the extra breathing room.

Opting for a clear glass shower door rather than a curtain, stopping partition walls below shoulder height, and installing a large mirror on one wall are proven solutions for expanding a small bath visually.

Also, consider replacing a conventional sink-base vanity cabinet with a pedestal sink, console sink or a wall-mounted sink cabinet that appears to float off the floor. For storage features above waist-height, plan to keep them shallow, or better still, recessed into the wall. Crowding the room at this level will make it feel smaller.

At this stage, look at other functional limitations in need of a fix. For example, many "full" bathrooms in older homes have wood-frame windows above the bathtub. Replacing the window with a glass-block panel offers plenty of daylight without compromising your privacy.

Also, rethink the placement of lighting, especially if a lone ceiling or above-the-mirror fixture is all that's there. Wall-mount fixtures that flank a medicine cabinet mirror will provide better light for grooming, and recessed ceiling canister lights offer ambient light but don't intrude on the space the way surface-mounted fixtures do. Rig these to a dimmer switch so you can set a more relaxing mood if you want to soak in the tub.

Once you have these layout and spatial solutions figured out, concentrate on the surfacing materials. If you're gutting the bathroom, get the right substrates in place as you rebuild, such as cement-backer board for tile installations and moisture-resistant (Type MR) wallboard for the remaining areas.

For finish materials, stay with lighter, low-texture materials for large expanses, and use more dynamic materials (darker or more intense colors, irregular shapes or textures, and so on) in smaller quantities as accents.

Tumbled marble tiles, natural stones and other tactile materials help to create contrast and interest, but keep in mind that if everything in the room catches your eye, it will likely create an unsettling visual chaos. Set your priorities by using high-contrast materials and bolder colors for personality, and let some areas be tamer and more subdued.

With tile, keep in mind that patterns can add interest or effects even when the individual pieces themselves are a bit generic. A diagonal installation on the floor, for example, makes narrow areas seem wider, and a contrasting grout color will accentuate the pattern.

Finally, upgrade the fixtures and fittings to suit your tastes. For the sink, toilet and tub, shop for a matching suite and stay with white if cost or short-lived color trends are a concern.

Likewise, faucets, cabinet hardware and light fixtures should share a common finish. Polished chrome never seems to go out of style, but brushed nickel (for contemporary looks) and oiled bronze (for traditional) are probably the two most popular finishes currently.

Combining all these upgrades into one package guarantees that you'll transform your bath into a stylish personal oasis. If you don't want or need such a radical treatment for the room, simply pick and choose the features that make the most sense for you.

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