Planning the Perfect Bathroom

Kitchens might be the social center of your home, but bathrooms are all about getting away from it all. You, too, can have your own oasis with a little planning.

Gerhards Showroom

Gerhards Showroom

If you can dream it, your bathroom can be it. Custom tile. Dual showerheads. Heated floors. Steam rooms. Everything is possible. But it takes more than a genie in a bottle to transform a ho-hum space into a personal retreat. It takes planning, homework and careful decion making. And it won’t happen overnight. But it can happen.

The first step is to determine why you want to remodel, advises Jeff Grundahl, owner of JG Development, a full-service design, building and remodeling contractor in Blue Mounds. What you do and how much you spend varies a great deal depending on whether you are simply sprucing up to improve resale value or if you’re trying to create a luxury in-home spa experience that you will enjoy for years. So knowing what your goals are will help you set an appropriate and realistic budget.

“If clients are thinking about resale, in most cases they won’t spend the same kind of money as they would for something they’ll enjoy for years,” Grundahl says. “Or maybe I should say they shouldn’t.”

For homeowners intending to stay put, it is important to determine what works and what doesn’t in the current bathroom. Maybe it is just the paint color, or maybe it is the size of the room itself. In any case, you can’t fix what is wrong if you don’t know what it is. So spend some time determining what the problems are and what they aren’t.

Then you can determine your budget. Your budget reflects two things: what you are able to spend and what you are willing to spend. If you are borrowing, it is good to know what your approval limit is. If you are using saved money, you know exactly how much you have. You could use a combination of funding sources, of course, and you don’t have to use everything you have or everything you can.

Even with concrete ideas about available funds and what to change, homeowners—particularly those who have not remodeled recently—can struggle with budgeting. Most anyone who has watched a home-improvement show on television or has read a shelter magazine knows that bathrooms are expensive rooms to renovate. The fixtures, cabinetry and flooring materials can be pricey in their own right. Add in the plumbers, electricians and all the other members of the remodeling team, and it starts to become clear why a little bathroom can carry such a big price tag.

“You have everything going on in a small room, and in many cases it’s on a second story and not in the most easily accessed area.” Grundahl points out.

Yet without any frame of reference or first-hand knowledge of the intricacies of a bathroom remodel, it can seem impossible to even come up with a reasonable estimate. Naturally, most of us don’t want to go too far down the remodeling road only to discover that most of our wish list is out of reach. Others of us don’t want to rule out options because we assume we can’t afford them only to discover after we’re done that we could have had the granite countertops after all.

That is where a remodeling expert can help, says Lori Leistico, a designer with Bella Domicile, a full-service kitchen, bath and interior design studio and cabinetry resource that has been in business nearly 50 years. Leistico says a designer can work with homeowners to determine an appropriate budget and then determine what is possible within it. There are options for every budget, so she encourages homeowners to get some sense of available resources and then meet with a professional.

“Even if it is vague or a general range, some idea of what you intend to spend will help the designer put the client in the right product line,” Leistico says. “And if the client comes in and says ‘I don’t want to spend more than $5,000,’ then that’s our cue to see if we can refresh the countertops but reuse the fixtures.”

Brian Boehnen, owner of granite fabrication company Midwest Rock Tops, points out that many companies, including Midwest Rock Tops, offer free in-home consultations to help homeowners in the early stages of planning and budgeting. Even ballpark figures are helpful to homeowners as they determine how much to invest. Determining the approximate costs of various options ahead of time also prepares homeowners to think about priorities and potential tradeoffs. So if it is granite countertops that you want, you can explore them specifically and without any risk before you make any commitments or other selections.

With a budget in place, it’s time for the fun part. Chances are that you have already pored over magazines and idea books to collect clippings. If you haven’t, you should. Even if you can’t afford any of the exact fixtures or finishes in a particular photo, having a stack of images you like will give your design team a good idea of the style, color and feel you want.

A little shopping doesn’t hurt, either. Retail showrooms feature a wide range of products and styles. Doug Widish, showroom manager at Gerhards Showroom, says the kitchen and bath fixture and accessory retailer updates displays all the time so shoppers can always see the newest products and design trends. “We like to be the showroom that has the latest and greatest products,” he says. “We have three large displays that just opened up this year. It’s constantly changing.”

Getting out and talking with designers and sales representatives at various businesses can also help you determine whom you want on your remodeling team. You might click with someone at one business but not another. You might also learn that some retailers offer more products or services than you expected, and this can make the remodeling process easier down the road.

Leah Barrett, a designer with Coyle Carpet One Floor and Home, points out that many retailers offer broader product lines than their names might suggest, and many offer thorough and professional design services.

“We are a full-service, one-stop shop,” Barrett says. “We have everything here … We have four lines of cabinets, most any countertop you can imagine, and we do every aspect of flooring. We have very knowledgeable sales consultants for each and every area, [and] most every consultant on the floor has an interior design degree.”

Robert Archambault, a sales representative at Madison Block and Stone, agrees that visiting showrooms is one of the best ways shoppers can educate themselves and get ideas. “Maybe somebody has an old laminate countertop and they want to change it out, so they come in. They see that we sell sinks and faucets, and we fabricate and install countertop materials, vanity tops, tub decks and shower surrounds. So sometimes it leads to a lot more than just countertops,” he says.

Boehnen encourages homeowners to explore all value-added services when shopping. For example, Midwest Rock Tops will bring granite samples to customers’ homes “to give them a feel for how the stone will look when installed,” he says. “After all, any showroom, warehouse or shop is going to have different lighting than any home.”

Widish says it is essential for homeowners to do some of this initial research before starting work with a contractor. That way, for example, they can discover if they like stock options or might be more inclined to use special-order products, which take longer to acquire. It also narrows down their options so that decisionmaking during construction is expedited. No one wants to make selections under pressure, but delays add cost. Homeowners will feel pressure if they are still shopping once the contractor is on site and the clock is ticking.

“If you’re going to do an entire remodel of a bathroom, it takes a lot longer than most people think,” Widish says. “People often short-change themselves on time and end up rushing some decisions later in order to keep the contractor on schedule … It is less disruptive for you if you, do a little homework on the front end.”

Of course, the final designs and decisions are made with the contractor and design team. The right professionals can help you determine whether it is worth it to move fixtures—which is far more expensive than leaving them in place—or whether there are other options that will meet your remodeling goals.

One big way to save is to keep the existing fixtures, particularly the tub and toilet. “If they are outdated, at least keep the general locations where they will be to save on plumbing labor cost,” Leistico says.

Barrett notes that demolition costs can be high in bathroom remodels, and homeowners can do some of that work. “The more the homeowner can do to get the space ready, the better,” she says.

Other cost-saving options include replacing just the flooring, just the vanity, or just the countertops. Boehnen says that sometimes turning a bathroom into “a room you can retreat to, [something] that is visually attractive and comfortable … can be done by changing the countertop and the sink to the right color and configuration.”

Leistico adds that homeowners with even less to spend can still make improvements. “If you really want to do something within a tight budget, just fresh paint, new rugs and accessories, and new hardware and pulls or knobs on cabinets will freshen up a bath,” she says.

Grundahl also points out that choosing the right contractor is critical. Experienced contractors will know building codes and how to address hidden water issues that are discovered during demolition. They can also address structural issues that come up when moving walls or making other major layout changes.

Archambault advises customers to look for licensed contractors and suppliers that will communicate well with all members of the team. Poor communication can derail projects and add cost.

Widish cautions that bathrooms are usually not the best place for homeowners to develop do-it-yourself skills. In addition to potential water issues, there are other issues that could challenge inexperienced remodelers. For example, removing an old cast-iron bathtub usually involves breaking it apart to get it through narrow door and hallways. “The only way to do that is with a maul,” he says. “Much of the work goes beyond the typical limits of a homeowner.”

An experienced professional team might seem more expensive at the outset, but it will save money and headaches down the road. “Do not cut corners on installation,” Barrett adds. “Too many installers are not properly trained. A floor and shower can fail and cause a lot of increased cost. Pay for a professional company with a longstanding reputation for quality work.”

Boehnen agrees and cautions homeowners from shopping on price alone. “Experience matters,” he says. He encourages homeowners to ask for references from all businesses involved in the process. “Ideally you want a contractor who you would invite over for dinner after the project is done. After all, they will be in your home.”

The experts all agree that no matter how large or how small the room is, remodeling a bath is a big undertaking. Take your time to make sure you choose the right team, the right design and the right products.

“A nicely done bathroom could be one of the best home improvement investments you make,” Archambault says. “So don’t hire just any contractor, don’t start without figuring out your budget, don’t do it yourself if you’re not skilled, don’t buy anything without research and comparison shopping, and don’t purchase the wrong types of products in order to save money.”

That sounds like a lot to keep in mind, but Archambault says it is really quite simple. “Don’t wing it,” he says. “You need to have a plan.”

– Jennifer Garrett


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