How does a bathroom remodel work?
May 23, 2018 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I have a bathroom. It is not great. I would like it to be better. How exactly does one go about remodeling their bathroom?

Can you explain the process to me like I’m visiting from Alpha Centauri and know nothing?

I don’t want to move any plumbing, button I’d like to replace the tub/tile/toilet/cabinets/countertop/sink.

My biggest concern is that it’s my *only* bathroom, and I don’t want to get stuck with no shower/toilet for six months. (There are toilets in my building that I will have access to while things are out of commission, and I can shower in the work gym, but it’ll be a pain.)
posted by Blue Jello Elf to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Will you be doing the work? Or, will you be hiring a contractor?
posted by Thorzdad at 2:22 PM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Do you have even more money, and somewhere you can put in another bathroom? One way to do this is to put in a second bathroom, and then remodel the first bathroom.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:27 PM on May 23, 2018

It sounds like you live in a condo complex and presumably do not have the tools or knowledge to do all of this yourself. None of this is terribly difficult to do if you know how. A contracter or even a handyman should be able to do this on their own, but in your area you may need to have an certified Electrician or Plummer hook up new outlets of plumbing, even if you are not changing the plumbing. Your building may also have rules specifying this. For large jobs, you would generally have a general contractor who would do little work himself, but subcontract specialists in each field to do specific jobs.

You could of course try to contract everyone individually, but that can be a hassle trying to coordinate everyone’s schedules, and you have to do your own quality control.

The easiest thing to do would be to check with the management of the building and see what rules you have to follow, and if others in your building have renovated before. Then get recommendations from them. Everything you want to do sounds cosmetic, so you may not need permits for the work, but a contractor will know this.
posted by Short End Of A Wishbone at 2:27 PM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

We remodeled the bathroom and kitchen in our 1br* apartment two years ago. We managed to time it so that we were away for the most destructive 10 days or so, then spent a week with family and another couple days in a hotel. Even after we were back in the house we had a temporary toiled (it was a real toilet but not the one we ordered, it wasn't the most wasteful part of the whole experience by far but we did really get a brand new fully functional toilet installed and then ripped out 12 days later when the real one wed requested arrived - I confirmed with our contractor that the toilet was junked despite barely seeing any service.)

The good news for you is that it just doesn't take that long to rip things out of and replace them back in a bathroom. Id assume bathrooms in seattle generally run a bit bigger than those in NYC but youre talking about at most a couple days of demolition and removals, a few days each to replumb etc, a couple days of tiling and installations. The issue is the way the construction industry works - in order to get what might be a total of 10 days worth of work done usually takes a month because first the guys need to be available, then the materials will be misdelivered or delivered unusable (ask me about how many tried it took them to ship us a toilet in one piece).

Expect it to take half again to one hundred percent longer than you are quoted, but also make clear that you want/need the bathroom to be usable asap even if not complete. A competent** contractor should be able to do this for you in way way less than six months.

*its a "NYC 1br" so really a big studio
**the industry is terrible, we worked with someone with a great reputation and were totally disappointed, vet your vendors well and keep your expectations super low.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:29 PM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

For what it is worth, we had a contractor tear a medium sized full bath down to the studs and bare concrete floor, and the whole thing took less than two weeks with two guys (and a couple of side projects).
posted by Short End Of A Wishbone at 2:31 PM on May 23, 2018

Step 1: find a good contractor. Ideally you'd get multiple referrals from friends who have had a good experience.
Step 2: invite those contractors to come out and give you bids. Some might not want a small job; others will be happier with it. A lot of contractors are super flaky. You want one that shows up on time, pays attention to detail, gives you a straightforward estimate with the timeline and costs broken down in a reasonable way, and obviously is licensed/bonded/insured and knows the permit situation and regulations in your city. The contractor will be able to tell you things like "get X square feet of tile and Y linear feet of bullnose"
Step 3: go pick out all your stuff. Depending on your budget this might be done at a place like Home Depot, a specialized bath/kitchen/appliance store in addition to a tile store, etc. You might need a month lead time on some of the things. One thing I can tell you is that you want a Toto double cyclone toilet. Accept no substitutions. You'll thank me later. Another great splurge is a thermostatic set for the shower/tub so the water is always to the temperature you like. Some things might have to wait until the end, for example if you want a glass shower/tub enclosure, it can't be measured everything else is all done, and then it will take some time to fabricate.
Step 4: once work starts, depending on the size of your bathroom and if all the workers/subcontractors show up when they should, it oughta take two weeks or so.
posted by karbonokapi at 2:41 PM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm assuming that this is a full renovation. Your fixtures are old, things aren't working quite right, the vanity is starting to come apart, there's some water damage to the plaster, your tile or laminate is worn and torn, the ventilation isn't what it should be, etc. Typical old bathroom problems. You are looking at gutting and replacing everything, but you're not too fussy about your new fixtures and you are fine with your existing layout.

You sound like you want to hire a GC. A bathroom reno involves all the major trades: carpentry, plumbing, and electrical plus tilesetting, drywall/plaster, painting, and sometimes counters as well depending on your vanity type. The first three are all going to require inspections from the town, generally once at the "rough" phase (when the walls are still open) and again at the "finish" phase. Some contractors will be able to handle more than one aspect of this, but at a minimum the plumber and electrician are going to be specialists.

That's a lot to handle for a homeowner, especially if it's your only bathroom and you want it done quick. Things need to be done in a certain order and one of the things about bathrooms is that they're small, so it's hard to get more than one person or maybe one plus an assistant working in there at any given time. What you need is someone who is experienced in handling the logistics of that so as to make your bathroom reno roll along as fast as it possibly can. That's what a general contractor does.

I'd start by looking up a few (ask around with people you know; word of mouth is the best way to go if you can) and calling them out to give estimates. Make sure they know that this is your only bathroom and that therefore speed is a priority. Try to hire somebody who has been in business for a while and who has therefore Seen Some Shit. You want someone who has a solid relationship with their subcontractors and can get them to show up on time for a tight schedule. Not reconfiguring your layout will definitely speed things up considerably and also will help keep costs down. You can also save a bit by doing your own painting, if you want.

You'll need to pick out your fixtures at some point, as well as your tile. Try to do this at shops that specialize in this stuff rather than a big box store. The stuff at Home Depot and Lowes is usually of inferior quality, even if it is exactly the same model. They literally have their suppliers make them toilets and such that look exactly the same as what you'd find at a kitchen & bath showroom, but with cheaper guts that will break sooner. Your GC should be able to tell you where you can go, although following their advice is not required. Pick your stuff out early so that it's there for the contractor when they need it and your project doesn't get hung up for want of a toilet or vanity.

Expect your bathroom to be down for a couple of weeks at least, although they may be able to get your toilet and shower working sooner than that. Sometimes they can get stuff functioning on a temporary basis while the rest of the work continues, but it kinda depends on your bathroom. Worth asking about.

If you have more specific questions, I may have more specific answers.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:44 PM on May 23, 2018 [10 favorites]

Schedule is affected by any number of things. One is whether you get a building permit. It may not be necessary if you are not adding any new features. If you get a permit, waiting for inspections is part of the price. Other things that slowed our bathroom rebuild:asbestos abatement ($$$), lead paint abatement (req'd by the city), tile order was garbled causing a reorder, repeated call-backs on the painter who did everything wrong at least once, replacement of tile that was mis-aligned when first installed, plumbers who couldn't get the shower faucet adjusted properly, and workmen unavailable because at a different work site.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:27 PM on May 23, 2018

First, make friends in your building. Make friends with the folks in your line who will have their water turned off mid-day for your work. Make friend with other folks on your floor who might let you shower in their apartment and stop over for late night peeing. Be extremely gracious about this and return the favor in the future.

Second, make notes about what you like and dislike about your bathroom. Lighting? Color? Humidity? Doorknob? Tub not deep enough? Tub too deep? No tub and you want a tub? Toilet too tall or too short? Third, make notes about the things you like and dislike about other people's bathrooms. This means getting yourself into the bathrooms of friends. Listen to what they like and dislike about their bathrooms.

Next, find out from your building what is required from you to them. Then find out from the city what permits you need.

Make your budget. You can go about this in a number of ways. Expect that every construction job goes over budget and over time.

Make a Pinterest board of bathroom things you like. Make another Pinterest board of bathroom things you hate. After you have (some number, maybe 50, maybe 100) of images, make your own notes on each pin. Color, shape, light, texture, flooring. Look for patterns. Is there a family of color that comes up a lot? Are you surprised that you prefer dark and moody bathrooms? Get small pots of the paint colors you think you like and test them in your actual bathroom with it's actual current light. Of course, new fixtures will change shadows, but if you hate the color now, you're more likely to hate it after the Reno is done. Coordinating colors is a place where it might be worth it to pay an interior designer. A person with a degree in interior design, I mean. They'll have taken a few classes in color theory and can steer you in directions for coordinating and lighting and whether you want a shade of green that's more grey or more yellow or whatever. Don't let an interior designer go buy you towels and bath mats unless you have money to burn.

Get at least 3 and preferably 5 GC estimates. Check the insurance status of every contractor you meet with. Every contractor. Check that your insurance policy also covers damage as a result of work to your unit. Be over insured if you can. At your first meeting with the GCs, show them your pinboards. Notice their reactions. If they hate your project, it will get short shrift. Maybe not on purpose. But you want folks working on your job who are excited about it or at least don't look down their nose at you about your taste. Note also that contractors will have a rough idea of when their preferred teams are available, but those are not set in stone. Some GCs only work with specific subcontractors, and some work with a motley crew. I would prefer a GC that sticks with preferred subcontractors. You might not care. I think you should care. Nothing like being a tile guy's first job to kill your spirit.

Be very specific in your contracts about what successful completion means. This also means being specific about quality. Getting the tile on the wall is not enough. For instance, you want an installed shower soap dish to tilt the right way so that water drains OUT of it, and doesn't pool close to the wall side of the dish.

Buying your supplies can be done in a variety of ways. The contractor generally will get the grout/screws/nails/plaster etc. Some contractors will buy all the stuff for you, remember that you pay for that service, with money, time, or both. If you have lots of patience you can stalk a variety of resale and discount places for deals on sinks and toilets. You may decide that having everything brand new is important to you. I would recommend having all the materials (tile, toilet, exhaust fan, flooring, vanity, etc) delivered before demo begins. This way, if something arrives damaged or is deemed to be inappropriate by your GC or subcontractors you have more time to get it re-ordered. Order extra tile and extra flooring (how much extra, I don't know off the top of my head. But if your floor is 20 square feet, do not only buy 20 square feet of flooring. I know this sounds obvious. It is not.)

Things I dream about/recommend in bathrooms: underfloor heating, very good ventilation - especially in the PNW, warm bidet toilet (Toto is amazing), hooks in your shower for squeegee and anything else you hang up, like loofahs or wash cloths, zone lighting - vanity, shower, whole room, a way to have very gentle lighting at night. I don't want to wake up completely when I need to pee at 2am.
posted by bilabial at 4:18 PM on May 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

I did a small renovation last year similar to what you're considering - new fixtures/tile/paint for a small basement bathroom but walls, plumbing and electrical were untouched. The two general contractor/full-service remodeling experts we talked to were hesitant to take on such a small project - both had very high minimums (at least $10k I think - reasonable for a major whole-house project, massive overkill for one bathroom). We ended up going with a handyman who had good reviews and a solid track record doing similar small-scale projects. I did have to do most of the logistics work (ordering and buying tile, hardware, etc) but that wasnt too difficult, and gave me a chance to find the style I wanted. The handyman bought general hardware (screws, pipe, fasteners, etc) and included the cost of most of it in his estimate.

I would start by getting a feel for what exactly you want - would updating tile/paint/fixtures be enough or is the layout an issue? If you don't want to move any walls or utilities, that speeds up the process considerably and will keep it cheaper. For design ideas, there's plenty of sites w design ideas (Houzz, etc) and you can always go check out hardware/tile stores. Definitely get at least three estimates, more is better.
posted by photo guy at 4:25 PM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, forgot to mention - our renovation took about 1-1.5 weeks total, at least half of that was re-tiling the shower and floor.
posted by photo guy at 4:34 PM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Since folks have asked, it is in a condo, and I won’t be doing the work myself.

Thanks for all the good info so far!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 5:11 PM on May 23, 2018

If you live in a condo, I think that word-of-mouth from your fellow condo residents is super key. Condominium work comes with special challenges, plus every condominium has its own special rules. If possible, you really want to find a contractor who is has done several jobs in your building and comes recommended by other residents.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:01 PM on May 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

I've remodeled the bathrooms in three houses and did the work myself, so, I don't have much experience working with contractors. I think the hardest to do item on your list is the tub, mostly because getting a tub in and out of a bathroom is hard - they often don't fit and doors and door frames have to be taken out and put back together again. If you want to save time and you are not unhappy with the tub, you might want to think about taking that off the list. Other than that:

1. Demo should be rather fast. If you are replacing extensive tile, the drywall may be ruined getting the tile off the wall. This will add time. If you have a lot of water damage, again, more time. But, for a contractor who knows what they are doing, putting up new drywall/greenboard/cement board will be relatively fast. Hopefully, you will not have any structural damage.

2. Try to have the new stuff picked out and purchased well before work starts. You don't want to be stuck waiting for your toilet. You need to work out who will be responsible for purchases right away with your contractor.

3. Tiling can take a while. I wanted to do a tile floor in the last bath but, as it is the only bath in the house, I went the fast route and did vinyl plank flooring. Just be prepared for the tiling to be a time suck.

4. Once the floor is down, putting in the new toilet is easy. In the meantime, while you have no toilet, be prepared to poop at work. Also, peeing in a bucket ain't that bad. Not that I have ever done such a thing but a FRIEND did. Also, washing your hair at the kitchen sink sucks. Do not recommend as a solution.

5. If you aren't moving any plumbing, it should all come together fast. Are you changing out the lighting? That's probably a subcontract and could take some time because of the coordination factor. You could go the route of getting the bathroom working again with all the plumbing and tiling and THEN getting the electrician in. Having a toilet and using a flashlight is better than having a well-lit hole in the floor.

6. The last bathroom remodel I did on my own took about two weeks but the toilet was only out of commission for about two days. I did not move the tub because I was not willing to go through that hassle. There is always the possibility that you can have them put the toilet back in place at the end of the workday or have them skirt around the toilet as long as possible. In one of my remodels, the flooring under the toilet was left until the last possible moment, then removed and replaced and the new toilet installed all in the same afternoon. In another, the tile was set under the toilet but not grouted, and the toilet temporarily put back.
posted by Foam Pants at 8:06 PM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

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