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A Guide to Bathroom Design

How to Design a Bathroom on a Budget

The neutral colors of the walls, counters, and cabinets appeal to most buyers, making this bathroom good for resale.

Inch for inch, the bathroom is the most expensive room in the house to remodel, largely because of the variety of skilled labor required from plumbing and electrical contractors, carpenters, and other experts.

Materials, too, take their toll in cost. So, heed some advice from the experts and from families who've done the job already: Take your time at the beginning to make sure each decision reflects your tastes and meets your needs.


You don't want your bathroom project to be a financial burden, so make sure you really need the high-end solution in each case, and plan as much as possible in advance to avoid costly changes in the middle of the project.

To ensure you won't lop off something essential when you fall in love with a "nice-to-have" item in the showrooms, make a list of everything you'd love to have in your new bath.

Now, divide this list into A) things you really need and B) things you want but could live without for now. As you shop and plan, make a note of the nice-to-have items you find, but don't commit to them until you've finalized the essentials and added up the costs.

Try to anticipate what features can easily be added and what can't. One good example: You'll want to install reinforcements for a grab bar before you tile the walls, even if you don't need the bar now, but you can decide to add a towel ring at any time, since it doesn't need reinforcement.

In general, it's wise to get the floor plan and any back-of-the-wall structural needs accounted for first. You can get a faux-marble laminate or a cultured marble vanity countertop now and replace it with a genuine marble slab later, but if the sink's in the wrong place, you still won't be happy.

What makes up the costs of a new bathroom? Most costs fall under the broad heading of time (actual person-hours, or labor) and materials, sometimes abbreviated on proposals as "T&M." You can save money on both.

Save Money on Labor

In construction, time is expressed as hourly rates paid to various workers on your project. Invest your time instead of theirs, and you'll save big.

Most homeowners find it's best to do their part before and after the workers do theirs, instead of trying to work at the same time. For example, you could steam off wallpaper, pull up old flooring, and remove old fixtures before the workers arrive.

But use common sense: Be sure you know how and where to shut off water pipes before pulling out fixtures, and find out where wiring and pipes are located before you tear out walls.

Steer clear of removing old insulation that may contain asbestos or old paint that may contain lead. And if your home has historical significance, get guidance from an expert before tackling anything. You don't want to disturb something of value.

Before you start the project, discuss with your contractor what you're willing to tackle, and work out specifically what you'll do and what they'll do. Then, get that agreement into the written contract, and make sure they deduct the cost of your work from their bid.

When it's time to put on the finishing touches, you can paint the walls, screw on switchplates, and, yes, pick up the debris rather than paying someone else to do it. The money you save on labor can pay for some of those luxurious material upgrades you crave!

Save Money on Materials

Of course you'd love a marble vanity countertop; state-of-the-art imported fixtures; hand-painted wall and floor tiles; and custom vanity and storage cabinets in high-end, furniture-grade woods. If, like most of us, you can't afford them all, choose the ones that matter most to you -- and find artful substitutes for the rest. A few examples:

  • High-end fixtures and fittings. You can't turn a standard tub into a whirlpool for four or make a gravity-assist toilet work like a pressure-assist model, but you can find fixtures that mimic the look of costlier designs. Traditionally styled fixtures and fittings are widely available at all price points, so look carefully at the high-priced models, and then seek out the more affordable looks in the same general style. Contemporary innovations, such as one-piece elongated-bowl toilets, are harder to replicate at modest prices, but you can skimp elsewhere if you can't do without them.
  • Marble vanity countertops. Marble slabs are the top-of-the-line choice, but as with diamonds, it's finding one large, intact piece that's so costly. You can get the same look for less if you opt for large marble tiles set flush to each other. For even less, you can choose "cultured" marble, which is marble dust bonded into a solid slab, or, for still less, select a laminate countertop with a faux-marble pattern.
  • Handmade, custom-colored, imported ceramic wall tiles. If they're too costly to use throughout, use them as "bath jewelry" in tile borders and accents. Choose a compatible plain tile for most of the installation, and save the custom pieces for eye-level areas such as the backsplash or a border around a window.
  • Luxury flooring. Marble flooring may be out of reach, but ceramic tiles with a faux-marble look or handsome vinyl flooring are good-looking, affordable alternatives.
  • Custom cabinetry. Many vanity and storage cabinets come in such a wide array of stock sizes and shapes that they assure a virtually custom fit, so use stock cabinets wherever you can. If your budget says pine or oak but your heart says cherry or maple, you may prefer to paint rather than stain your cabinets to disguise the more prominent grains of the lower-cost woods. To create a custom look, replace ho-hum hardware with novelty cabinet door pulls such as pewter fish, whitewashed or verdigris brass shells, or flower-painted porcelain.
  • Fancy faux finishes. Bathrooms are a great place to indulge your desire for a hand-painted tromp l'oeil garden scene or a beautiful ragged or marbled faux finish, but the cost can be high for a professional artist's time. Look into do-it-yourself stenciling and faux-finish kits available in most craft, hobby, and paint stores, or see if your local school's art department boasts any great student portfolios. Another option is wallcovering that gives the look for less.

Bottom line: Whatever the look you like, you can probably find similar looks within your budget. When in doubt, remember that the rich look is to spend on function and keep style beautifully simple.Planning for Resale ValueYou want your new bath to meet your needs and reflect your tastes -- right up until the day you want to put your house on the market. That's when you'll be glad if you kept an eye on what the average home buyer in your price range is looking for.

A consumer-pleasing bathroom is one of the top home-selling elements, but even an opulent, custom bath can detract if it's too individualistic. Appropriate upgrades can return as much as 70 to 90 percent or more of their cost to you at resale time, making it much easier to get your asking price on the home. When making decisions about materials, keep these tips in mind:

  • Upgrades to better-performing basic fixtures or windows, for example, almost always add to both the sales appeal and the value of your home. Plain stock ceramic tile will hold its beauty and its value longer than laminate for about the same price, and a simple porcelain sink bowl has more timeless appeal than its cultured marble cousin in the same price range.
  • Don't go beyond what's typical for new or improved baths in your home's price range. Experts advise not to spend more than 10 percent, tops, of your home's current market value on a bath improvement. A palatial bath in a cute little house will make your home less, not more, desirable. You'd be much better off putting in a second full bath if you don't have one or adding a powder room or half bath if you do.
  • When it comes to flooring, countertops, and other installed products that are available in many colors and patterns, think twice before making a strong fashion statement with these areas. You don't want to date your bathroom or turn off your best home-buying prospects in a few years.
  • Keep it simple when it comes to sinks, faucets, and other fixtures and fittings. If you're tired of shiny chrome, look for brushed pewter or chrome and brass, but keep the style free of curlicues or other design elements that can be dated-looking or hard to clean.
  • Choose neutral colors for installed products, especially if they are not luxury-grade. Midtone neutrals show wear the least; light-colored neutrals give a spacious, bright feeling. Be a bit careful of black, chocolate, or other dark colors: They disguise grime just fine but show soap scum, hard-water stains, and some marring worse than lighter tones.
  • Do you crave an adventurous scheme? Indulge your love of bright colors or patterns in wallcoverings (paint plus borders are easiest to change), towels, soap dishes, guest soaps, nonslip rugs, and accessories. Wine and hunter green against bone is a whole different look than peach and turquoise blue against bone!

What If You're Not Moving?

Do you have young children or grandchildren? Want to stay in your home as long as possible as you age? Do you have any kind of physical limitation? "Universal design" is something you definitely want to consider for your new bath. It goes way beyond designing walkways to accommodate wheelchairs.

The blue/green walls brighten up an otherwise stark bathroom.

Universal design creates a space that works for every family member at every stage of life. Something as simple as bordering a counter in contrasting color tiles to make the edge more visible, increasing aisle width from 36 to 40 inches, or specifying no-scald faucets and wing-style faucet handles that don't require wrist-twisting, can make a significant difference in your bath's long-term usefulness.

If a family member has allergies or you want to be particularly rigorous about ecological issues, you can even specify products made with special hypoallergenic finishes and glues. If your floor plan allows, you may want to consider converting a first-floor powder room into a universally accessible full bath now.

Let's Go Shopping!

Before you hire the pros, spend some time looking at bath design solutions and products on the Web, in your local home improvement store's bath center, and in home decorating and remodeling books and magazines.

You want to get an idea of what's available and what everything will cost, especially if you've never bought bath fixtures or haven't done so for many years. Educate yourself ahead of time, and you'll avoid "sticker shock," enjoy a better relationship with your bath professionals, and have a greater chance of getting exactly what you want.

Hiring labor to design and renovate your bathroom is one of the most expensive propositions you face. On the next page, learn the tricks to hiring bathroom professionals.­

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