Ten Bathroom Remodeling Mistakes

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As I’ve mentioned before, bathroom remodeling is among the most value-adding home renovation projects you can pursue.

AND YET. (Yes, there’s a catch.) Bathrooms are among the most challenging spaces to remodel, not despite but because of their relatively small size (so many nooks and crannies!) and the fact that so many systems converge on one location. Electricity, heating, plumbing—pretty much every amenity in a house can exist cheek by jowl in a bathroom. Add to this utility density the fact that precision is everything in bathroom renovations, and it becomes clear that some definite pitfalls can derail a bathroom remodel big time. As always in home-renovation projects of any sizable scale, a good general or home-renovation contractor is your best friend along the way.

Below are the top ten mistakes (both in the sense of the most significant and the most common) that can upend a bathroom renovation in a hurry. Don’t let this list scare you—forewarned is forearmed, so knowing these bathroom-remodel booboos exist can help you avoid them completely.

1) An Inadequate, Unrealistic, or Poorly Defined Budget

When budgeting for your bathroom remodel, be realistic and define your needs clearly within the scope of your financial abilities. An extensive and luxurious bathroom remodel can differ from a more conservative renovation by tens of thousands of dollars. A good home-improvement contractor will work with you to understand your needs and dreams and offer a realistic quote for your specific project.

Bathroom renovations can rank among the most expensive home improvement projects because of the utilities and materials involved. Having too small a budget for your remodeling project will yield frustration and disappointment. Preparing a budget in advance of any work allows you to decide what aspects of your new bathroom matter most to you; you may decide, for example, to spend money on a beautiful tile while sticking with less expensive fixtures.

Having a solid bathroom-renovation budget also means being prepared for the possibility of unexpected costs. You will want to build a reserve fund into your renovation budget (again, your renovation expert can help you gauge the appropriate amount). Bathrooms are notorious for the surprises they fling at renovators! While it’s possible to know, for example, that the plumbing will need to be extended or moved to create the bathroom of your dreams, it may not be possible to know whether internal leaks or aging pipes will require action until after your contractor has opened up the walls and floors. There is no way to guarantee the condition of your bathroom’s utilities and substructure until they’re laid bare.

Your bathroom renovation budget should also include the cost of any upgrades needed to bring your space up to current building codes—for example, increasing ventilation, adding a window, upgrading electrical wiring to meet damp-resistance standards, and so on.

2) Inadequate Planning

Home renovations often involve midstream changes. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to “go with the flow” as your bathroom renovation progresses! As with kitchens, details matter a great deal in bathrooms. And renovations can move swiftly at certain stages; the last thing you want is to realize after the fact that you overlooked an important aspect. Retroactive changes cost a great deal, and some things may not be reversible at all.

Some aspects to consider with your renovation contractor well before the sledgehammers start swinging:

  • Accessibility and safety: Comfortable, usable vanity and toilet heights are important, particularly if your bathroom needs to be wheelchair or child accessible. Slip-resistant flooring increases safety dramatically—always choose a tile or other flooring with some traction to prevent devastating falls. A zero-threshold shower will help to avoid tripping hazards; just make sure you mention your preference to your renovation contractor before the shower area is installed. Need handholds or grab bars (never a bad idea, especially if elderly, differently abled, or young ones will be using the space)? You may need blocking in the walls to ensure a steady mount that can withstand the sudden application of body weight.
  • Space: Measure, measure, measure—and please, do remember that adequate space is necessary around each bathroom fixture. Your renovation contractor can assist you with measuring and laying out your bathroom efficiently and attractively. Not only comfort and usability but also building codes play a role in bathroom layout.

When shopping for fixtures, measurements and space availability are crucial data points. The double sink you covet might not fit in your space, for example. If one of your goals is to increase sink capacity in your renovated bathroom, a redesign of your layout may be in order. Your home remodeling expert will know how best to balance budget and layout needs to maximize your remodel’s value.

  • Maintenance: Selecting details for your new bathroom involves both personal preference and practicality. Considering a tile floor? White grout, for example, betrays traffic patterns and can be a real pain to maintain; a pewter or medium-gray grout will conceal the stains that can build up even with frequent washing. Another example: You may want a marble vanity counter, but keep in mind that marble is porous and requires sealing to prevent staining.

Proper installation is key to minimizing maintenance and increasing safety. Your renovation contractor should ensure that tile, lighting, mirrors, shower doors, and the like are properly installed for safety and longevity.

  • Sightlines: Having natural light (in the form of a window, a skylight, or both) in a bathroom can make the room feel larger and definitely improves makeup application. The key is to ensure privacy and weatherproofing. Consider window placement carefully and ensure that skylights are located where the chance of leakage is minimal.

On another note, fixture sightlines require forward planning, as well. A common mistake is to make the toilet the main attraction—often the result of conveniently placed existing plumbing. Many designers and contractors prefer to put the toilet and shower in the same room, with the vanity separately located. Adding a divider wall between the two bathroom zones requires only a few inches of space while doubling the bathroom’s functionality.

  • Materials: Choose your materials for longevity. Paint, wallpapers, flooring, light fixtures, and the like should all be appropriate for the humid, high-traffic environment of a bathroom. Your home renovation expert can offer his or her field-tested advice on these details. You’ll be glad you thought ahead.

3) Doing It Yourself

Some home-improvement projects are DIY friendly. Bathrooms, in general, are not. Aside from the real possibility of leaks, poor installation, improper material selection, and physical harm (water plus electricity, anyone?), spearheading a bathroom renovation without the help of a remodeling professional can cost far more, and take far longer, than hiring a trusted expert up front. Even if you do choose to streamline your budget by doing some aspects of the work yourself (e.g., painting), calling in a general contractor to oversee and help plan the project will make it easier to stay on time and on budget—and ensure that the final product is not only handsome but also safe and up to code.

4) Improper Ventilation

Proper ventilation can make or break a bathroom renovation over the long term. The air in bathrooms not only gets, well, stinky, it also frequently becomes extremely humid. Over time (less time than you’d expect), humid air can rust metal hardware like hinges and drywall screws, lift paint, and feed the growth of mold and mildew.

Your remodeling contractor can tell you how much ventilation power you will need based on the size and traffic of your bathroom. Lots of different options are available, from the central ceiling unit to multiple units placed around the space. Adding a window or skylight where possible can also dramatically improve air flow in your new bathroom.

5) Poor Lighting

Bathrooms are multi-use spaces. You put on makeup, dress wounds, bathe, shave, and even read in there! Adequate, layered lighting—including ambient, task, and shower illumination—offers both safety and better function for the room’s users. Bathroom-rated fixtures will withstand the harsh environment a bathroom presents, offering greater safety as well. Check with your renovation contractor about lighting placement and the total wattage recommendations for your new space.

6) Ignoring Conservation

Bathrooms use a tremendous amount of water. Flushing, bathing, showering, washing hands—all of these activities use ever-more-precious water resources. Toilets installed before 1980 use five gallons of water per flush! But new technology in fixtures makes it possible to save money and reduce strain on our stressed planet by reducing the amount of water used without undercutting the pleasure and effectiveness of your bathroom rituals. Low-flow showerheads, auto-shut-off faucets, and high-efficiency toilets save money and resources over the long haul. You may even be able to recoup some money after your bathroom renovation in the form of a rebate from your local government.

A gray-water system may be an option, too; your renovation contractor can tell you more. “Gray water” comes from other household uses such as dishwashing and laundry and is appropriate for use in toilets, where perfectly fresh water is not a necessity.

7) Overlooking Small Mistakes

Slightly crooked tile? Cabinet doors not quite flush? Sticky shower door? Grout lines too wide? Ignore seemingly trifling problems at your peril—they have a way of wreaking havoc over time, since improperly installed items can dramatically shorten the lifespan of your renovated bathroom. At the very least, little goofs will drive you batty eventually, causing frustration instead of offering the pleasure you wanted from your remodeling investment.

8) Losing Focus toward the End

It’s easy to lose your compass as a bathroom renovation winds on and on. Keep your needs and preferences front and center, and resist the urge to add new details here and there without assessing their functionality. Losing your vision for your bathroom can result in a room that looks odd or meets no one’s needs in the long run. It can also add significantly to your bathroom’s price tag! Your home remodeling contractor can help keep you on track with project-management software and personal project attention.

9) Thinking Short Term/Being Too Trendy

Rule of thumb: When you’re renovating or building a bathroom, only go wild with things you can remove without a screwdriver, wrench, or sledgehammer. Do you really need a claw-foot tub that weighs 2,000 pounds? How crucial is that dramatically swirled marble backsplash? Will a vessel sink or waterfall faucet really serve your family’s simultaneous tooth-brushing needs? It’s far easier to go trendy or splashy with accessories—towels, candles, art, shower curtain. At most, lighting and paint are okay options for adding zing, but they do take time and money to change. Go classic (not necessarily boring!) and save the super-personal, on-trend items for details.

10) Too Little Storage

One cannot have too much storage in a bathroom. One of the best-renovated bathrooms I ever saw was not only classic—sunny, with a hard-wearing, beautiful large-scale stone-look tile floor and clean white tiles with a lovely detail band—but also loaded with storage. An entire end wall of the long, 4×12-foot space was devoted to white cabinets that stretched from floor to ceiling. It was like Nirvana for the storage-deprived!

Too little storage in a bathroom, especially a primary bathroom that sees daily action, frustrates like few other flaws. Make sure you have plenty of well-mounted towel hooks, towel rods, inside-door hooks, shelves, and cabinets. If you really want or need a pedestal sink, so be it, but make sure you and your renovation contractor sort out how you will make up for the missing under-sink storage in other ways. Recessed, mirror-fronted medicine cabinets are a wonderful way to add storage while leaving open space intact.

Your contractor can advise you on the best ways to squeeze extra storage—open and closed—into your bathroom layout. You may be surprised at how much you can fit in while keeping your look airy and open!

There you have it: ten bathroom renovation mistakes that can undercut a bathroom renovation. Ultimately, a really good contractor will help you avoid these pitfalls and get you to the bathroom you’ve always wanted and needed. Don’t let these cautions ruin your excitement; just keep them in mind and make wise choices based on your particular renovation scenario and budget. Happy remodeling!