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Guide to Planning a Bathroom Remodel

Bathroom remodeling projects are the most common remodeling jobs performed, followed closely by kitchen projects. Because a home usually has more than one bathroom, remodeling a bathroom tends to be less inconvenient and less intimidating than a kitchen project. The smaller size of the typical bathroom also lends itself to a lower total cost. While easier and less expensive, planning a bathroom remodel is crucial. Use this guide to prepare for the task ahead and create the bathroom you’ve always wanted.

Determine Why You’re Remodeling the Bathroom

Before you start ripping out wallpaper, pulling up the old bathroom floor, or investing in bathroom fixtures, you’ll want to be crystal clear as to why you’re remodeling the bathroom in the first place. This will influence everything else you do, so take the time to understand your reasoning.

For example, if you’re craving an updated look and don’t plan on moving for years to come, you’re likely to make different choices than if you plan on selling or renting the house.

Common reasons to remodel a bathroom include:

  • Get more enjoyment out of your home
  • Update the look of the bathroom
  • Increase storage
  • Increase resale value
  • Age in place
  • Improve energy efficiency
  • Prepare to sell or rent the home
  • Add more space
  • Improve safety
  • Create a more welcoming, relaxing environment
  • Create an easy-to-clean bathroom
  • Correct flaws
  • Add a freestanding bathtub
  • Add a bidet
  • Improve privacy

Write down all of the reasons you want to remodel your bathroom and then prioritize them. What’s the most important reason? What else should factor into your decision making? By getting clear early in the process, you’ll be better able to achieve your remodeling goals.

Other Considerations

  • Planning for the Present and the Future — You’ll also want to spend a little bit of time considering how your current needs may change in the future. How do you intend to use the bathroom now? Will the proposed design work just as well in the future? For example, a downstairs bathroom may eventually become the main bathroom for an elderly parent. What can you include in the current design that will help when the time comes?
  • Determining the Bathroom Type — The room’s purpose may also influence the choices you make. For example, a downstairs powder room for guests may be more about making a great impression with a stylish sink and elegant accessories while a kids’ bathroom will be all about function. Meanwhile, your master bathroom might be designed to serve as a relaxing retreat where you can wind down after a long day.

Consider who will use the bathroom, how they will use it, and how many people will be using it, both now and in the future.

Budgeting for a Bathroom Remodel

Now that you have a clear idea as to why you’re remodeling the bathroom and its intended use, it’s time to dig into the nitty-gritty details of your budget. As much as you may dread the thought of crunching numbers, setting a budget is essential. A realistic budget based on your priorities will guide you throughout the process, enabling you to make the right choices (or trade-offs if need be) without overspending.

Start by looking at average costs for the type of bathroom remodel you have in mind. This will give you a general idea of what to expect. For example, the national average for a high-end bathroom remodel is $23,000 according to Home Advisor.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association recommends spending between 5 to ten percent of your home’s value on a bathroom remodel. For example, if your home is worth $350,000, that would be between $17,500 and $35,000. On both the low end and the high end, there are exceptions to this rule. For homes worth less than $100,000, the budget should be ten percent to avoid using cheap materials or getting shoddy workmanship. For million-dollar-plus homes, ten percent is probably way too high, benefitting the contractor more than the homeowner.

Financing Options

There are many ways to pay for a bathroom remodeling project. Below are a few of the options suggested by This Old House to consider:

  • Cash – If you have the cash on hand and prefer to avoid debt, your contractor might even give you a discount. It’s worth asking.
  • Home equity loan — Borrowing against the equity of your home provides you with the tax advantages of a mortgage but without closing costs.
  • Home equity line of credit — This is more like a credit card than a loan, secured by your home. Rates and terms vary, so shop carefully.
  • FHA 203(k) mortgages – This is a type of refinancing where you refinance your mortgage along with the extra remodeling costs into a new mortgage.

Estimating Bathroom Remodeling Costs

Once you have an overall budget in mind, you’ll need to figure out how to break it down. The major costs of a typical bathroom remodel include purchasing and installing:

  • A bathtub
  • Shower
  • Sinks
  • Cabinets
  • Countertops
  • Flooring
  • Toilet
  • Light fixtures

Other costs that you may incur, and thus, should factor into your budget include:

  • Demolition
  • Drywall
  • Wall and window treatments
  • Plumbing upgrades and/or repairs
  • Electrical upgrades and/or repairs
  • Costs associated with changing the room’s layout or expanding its space
  • Plumbing costs associated with moving bathroom fixtures to different locations
  • Accessories and decor
  • Mirrors
  • Enclosures
  • Permits and licenses

The National Kitchen and Bath Association breaks down bathroom remodeling costs as follows:

  • Installation: 20 percent
  • Cabinetry and hardware: 16 percent
  • Fixtures: 15 percent
  • Faucets and plumbing: 14 percent
  • Flooring: 9 percent
  • Countertops: 7 percent
  • Lighting and ventilation: 5 percent
  • Walls and ceilings: 5 percent
  • Doors and windows: 4 percent
  • Design: 4 percent
  • Other: 1 percent

Creating a Working Budget

Write down everything you plan on changing in your bathroom along with any possible tasks associated with each item that might add to the cost. For example, if your top priority is replacing a built-in bathtub with a freestanding tub but keeping the existing cabinets and toilet, your remodeling budget would need to cover the new bathtub and associated plumbing costs, flooring, removing the old tub, and repairing the wall that surrounded it.

Estimate those top priority costs. Do-it-yourself retail websites are a good place to get an idea of various fixture and appliance costs, but they don’t necessarily include labor, so make sure to factor installation costs in.

How much is left over? How will you spend it? Split the remaining funds among the other items on your list, prioritizing those that you consider “must haves” over those that would merely be “nice to have.” Make sure to set aside a portion of the budget for those inevitable surprises. Worst case, you’ll have some money set aside to address them; best case, your project will come in under budget.

You now have a working budget. It’s appropriate based on the value of your home and has dollar amounts allocated to your top priorities and all of the other items that will be included in your project. With that out of the way, it’s time to start putting your ideas onto paper.

Bathroom Layout

From a budgetary standpoint, leaving the bathtub, shower, sinks, and toilet in their original locations is smart because moving them can add substantial costs. In most cases, you’ll need a professional plumber to accomplish this. If this isn’t a concern, or if you plan on keeping them in place but changing the cabinetry configuration, sketch out your layout and elevation ideas.

Sketches are helpful even when leaving these items in place. For example, if you’re thinking of replacing a standard door with a sliding barn door, sketch it out. You may realize some space savings that you hadn’t noticed before.

Creating Your Vision

envisioning a bathroom sink remodel

Now that you know how much you can afford to spend, what will you spend it on? This is the fun part of the process, so let your creativity loose!

It may make sense to match the style of your bathroom remodel to your home’s existing style, allow yourself the freedom to discover other bathroom styles. Later you can fine-tune the design to find an appropriate balance that remains true to your home’s character and your taste.

Browse through websites, magazines, and stores for bathroom design inspiration. As you find items you love, save them. If you prefer a tangible medium, clip photos from design magazines and glue them into a notebook. If you’re tech-savvy, Pinterest or Evernote are excellent options. Whether you use a sketchbook, poster board Pinterest board, design software, or any other tool doesn’t matter. What’s important is gathering your ideas and fine-tuning your vision for the project.

Make a section for each of the major areas of your remodeling project so that you’ll know where to look when it’s time to make decisions.

Here are some suggested sections:

  • Bathtubs
  • Faucets and shower heads
  • Showers
  • Toilets
  • Sinks
  • Countertops
  • Cabinetry
  • Flooring
  • Windows and window treatments
  • Lighting fixtures
  • Colors and textures

Research different materials so that you understand all the different options available such as easy-to-maintain surfaces, heat retention properties, energy or water efficiency, and so on. Again, the choices you make should support your reasons for remodeling.

As you explore your options, you’ll likely come to realize that you gravitate toward a certain aesthetic. Maybe you love sleek lines, soft curves, and crisp white colors. Perhaps a more rustic or industrial look is more to your taste. Before you purchase any items, review the reasons you identified earlier to ensure that the choices you make now are appropriate.

For example, if you intend to sell the home in a few years, will this look be appealing to potential buyers? Consider the rest of the home, too. Will the new look fit in or clash? Depending on the answers to these questions, you may need to fine-tune your vision accordingly.

Aligning Your Vision with Your Budget

Once your vision has taken shape, let’s see how it fits with your budget. For each category, pick your favorite item, price it, and compare it to your estimate. Are you close? Great! Nowhere near where you need to be? That’s okay, check pricing on your next favorite item or look to see if a different item came in under budget.

These won’t necessarily be your final items. For example, they might not fit the space, or they could even be discontinued. Consider this an exercise in making sure your budget is realistic for your vision and for giving your designer a solid idea about what you have in mind.

Also, knowing the price ranges before you start getting quotes will help you to better understand which estimates are fair and which ones are not. In fact, the National Kitchen and Bath Association suggests buying bathtubs, vanities, and other fixtures on your own to save money. Other ways to cut costs include doing the demolition work and painting on your own and keeping tile designs simple.

Sometimes getting the bathroom of your dreams requires making trade-offs, so consider which purchases deliver the biggest bang for the buck. For example, splurging on a luxurious freestanding bathtub will have a huge impact on your personal enjoyment and the look of the room whereas a set of expensive sink faucets would have a lesser impact and could be easily substituted with more modest sink faucets without overly affecting the design of the room.

Getting Estimates

Whether you’ll be doing it yourself or hiring a contractor, it’s time to start getting estimates for materials or for designing and completing the entire remodeling project.

By all means, share your ideas with prospective designers and remodeling companies. It will help them to understand how best to serve you. At the same time, be open to suggestions.

The rule of thumb is to interview at least three licensed contractors. This can become overwhelming, but it’s worth your time to find the right fit for your project. If you’re working with a designer, he or she may have contractors they routinely work with and recommend, so that’s a great starting point. If not, your real estate agent, neighbors, mortgage broker, friends, coworkers, or family members may have recommendations. Sites like Angie’s List and Yelp are good for preliminary research.

Each interview should be conducted at your home where the contractors can examine the space in person. Expect to answer a lot of questions about the project and be prepared with questions of your own. In addition to the logistics of the project itself, you’ll want to know:

  • If the contractor does the work directly or uses subcontractors
  • Has adequate insurance
  • Is licensed and in good standing with the applicable licensing agency
  • Is trustworthy
  • Is local and established
  • Is experienced and knowledgeable
  • Is easy to get a hold of
  • Enjoys projects like yours
  • Is someone you could work with for weeks or more
  • Is familiar with local permit requirements
  • Have references (make sure to call them)

After the interviews are complete, expect each contractor to present you with a written estimate and concepts.

It’s not unusual for bids to vary. Be leery of bids that seem way to low or way too high. For those that are within your expected price range, look carefully to be sure the quality of materials are as expected and that you are comparing comparable bids.

It’s not just about the bottom line and the quality of the materials. Did any of the contractors nail it? Is one more accommodating than the others? Which one “gets” you? Who are you most comfortable with? What are the payment arrangements?

Understanding the Contract

Make sure you understand the contract before you sign it. Just like any other type of salesperson, remodeling salespeople often push to close the deal quickly. Though you may feel pressured, take as much time as you need to review and understand the contract. There’s no contract? Find another contractor!

According to Houzz, in addition to having a written contract, you should also look for:

  • A physical location (so you can track down the contractor if something goes awry)
  • A valid contractor’s license
  • Insurance coverage – General liability and worker’s compensation in adequate amounts for your area
  • Scope and duration of work
  • Exclusions
  • For pre-1978 homes, an EPA lead safety certification
  • Payment schedule, ideally tied to milestones so that you’re essentially paying for work as its completed
  • Warranty – One year from “substantial” completion is standard

Bathroom Remodeling Permits

Not all remodeling projects require permits, but you’ll need to check with your local planning department to be certain. For example, wallpapering and painting a bathroom doesn’t require a permit, but adding an electrical outlet or extensive plumbing changes most likely does. You may be required to submit detailed plans to the planning department for review, or your contractor may handle all permits on your behalf. Make sure to ask for copies and never assume permits have been pulled or aren’t needed.

Surviving the Remodeling Process

You’ve signed a contract and applied for permits. Now it’s show time! You may have mixed feelings at this point. It’s natural to feel excited about the project, yet nervous about a portion of your home being demolished. Just as it was important to plan the project itself, it’s also important to plan to survive the process.

First, make sure that all materials have been ordered and are on track to arrive before the project begins. Clear a space to securely store these materials before and during construction.

Next, consider access to your home. Are you willing to give construction workers free reign over your home while you’re away at work all day or can you arrange to work from home during construction?

Expect the bathroom to be unusable for some time. If this is your main bathroom, set up another bathroom with all of your toiletries, favorite towels, and other necessities. If other family members also use that bathroom, it might be necessary to set a morning schedule that allows everyone to get ready for school or work on time.

What about the mess? Demolition will likely require one or more trips to the dump or an onsite dumpster — and it will be messy. Protect carpets with drop cloths or plastic runners and consider sealing off the room with plastic while actively tearing out drywall, floors, or anything else likely to create airborne debris.

Where will workers be allowed in your home? It’s smart to come to an understanding beforehand. Some contractors bring their own portable toilets, for example, so their crew has its own facilities.

It’s not unusual for problems to arise during a remodeling project. These can be as simple as messy caulk or a squeaky cabinet door hinge to unlevel surfaces, dents, leaks, malfunctions, or damaged bath fixtures. Reputable contractors will rectify problems, but only if they know about them. Take photos and notes and let your contact person know what the issue is. Set a reminder in your calendar to follow up later if it hasn’t been taken care of in a reasonable time.

The Finishing Touches

Finally, the crew has cleared out and your bathroom remodel is complete. It’s probably gorgeous as is, but there may be some construction debris left behind. If it’s excessive, call your contractor to make sure someone comes out and finishes the job. If it’s just a little dust here and there, clean your newly remodeled bathroom, so it meets your standards.

Now, let’s make it truly your own by decorating it. If you haven’t already purchased new luxury towels, a bathmat, shower curtain, soap dispenser, or other necessities, now’s the time to do so. Put the finishing touches in place and enjoy!


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Eli Mcmullen
4 years ago

I like that you explained the importance of getting estimates to see how much your bathroom remodeling project will cost. Now that I have received an inheritance from my late uncle, I would like to remodel my bathroom but need to prioritize my additions based on my budget. Maybe it would be best to find a contractor that can help me determine how much a bathroom remodeling project will cost.

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