The cost of a bathroom

Galvanized pipes, leaky fixtures, seriously damaged tile (that was on both the floor and the walls), and barely enough room to use the toilet. Plus, just a general feeling of “eww.” These were the takeaways on my first walkthrough of the Tulsa investment property. As an out-of-state investor, I’d made the offer with a quick video walkthrough from my agent and all the posted photos on the listing. Everything looks better in good real estate photos. There were a lot of little things we anticipated dealing with in this 83-year-old property, but the bathroom needed to be the priority. I wanted a bathroom in which you would shower and, naturally, feel clean afterward. This was not it.

old cracked bathtub
This was after I had someone do a deep clean on the whole house.

I’ve gotten quite a few comments from friends and family about our decision to do a complete gut job on this bathroom. Why not just paint, re-glaze the tub, maybe replace the tile and be done with it? Well, this was my original thought, too. I definitely didn’t walk into the project with a huge multi-month project in mind. My first thought was to have the tub re-glazed (estimates were around $500 for a professional job) and add some sticky vinyl tile on top of the old ceramic tile to spruce things up. What I learned through research and discussions with contractors is that the re-glazing process is not going to stand the test of time, and would have been better suited to a flip. Or even to a tub that hadn’t already been re-glazed several times in its life.

I also learned that the tile I thought I could just stick on top of ceramic tile most likely wouldn’t adhere well and be long-lasting, either. My research taught me that the grout lines would need to be completely even with the tile so the vinyl wouldn’t mold into the impressions between the tiles. Basically, I’d need a sub floor under the vinyl…and over the tile…. or totally rip out the floor tiles and start from scratch.

dog with vinyl tile at Lowe's
These were the sticky vinyl tiles from Lowe’s I’d originally wanted to try over the old bathroom tile. Cleo is a great shopping companion (she always looks like this – I promise, she’s just fine).

I’d like to point out, to those of you who may have not read the first posts on this house project, that we only had weekends to do this. We both had full time jobs two hours away and it was really challenging to really gain headway in just a Saturday and Sunday. This was a huge part of our decision to hire a contractor.

We YouTubed so many projects, called family members who’d done this kind of thing, immersed ourselves in the rehab forums, etc. One night after watching a few videos we decided we’d do the gut job ourselves and then just hire the contractor to put it back together. The videos online didn’t make destroying a cast iron tub look at all that hard….

I closed on the property on December 29. We started work the first weekend in January. My thought was to have the place rented by February. After spending the first weekend and already encountering surprises that took our attention away from the planned tasks, we knew it wasn’t going to be ready in a month. By the third weekend we decided to start getting quotes from contractors and opinions on what to do with the bathroom. I thought if we could put $5-$8,000 into this space then we’d have an awesome new area to offer tenants.

corner toilet on tile
Corner toilet! Sort of cool…but mostly just awkward. It went to a good home after its removal.

My desires for this project, based on it being a furnished mid-term rental, were as follows: safe, clean, updated plumbing, and low-maintenance. And it needed to be done as soon as possible. I got four different contractors to come and look at the space, each one with a higher bid than the last. Our quotes were between $15,000 and $22,000 for a complete renovation on the space. The two that were in the running were both right around $15k- $16k. The company with the highest bid, over $20k, had a great reputation, was very thorough and informative, and would’ve used an Onyx system in the bathroom. I called them initially because I knew they used Onyx products, and we actually have an Onyx bathroom in our primary AR home. We had some issues in our home when we first moved in and needed to contact Onyx about some mold/damage issues. They were spectacular to deal with! The products were guaranteed, they were responsive and understanding, and sent us replacement parts and pieces with no fuss. Luckily, the previous homeowner had left us all of the documentation from their remodel so I did have the original invoice to present to the company. I highly recommend Onyx products if you’re looking to upgrade your bathroom.

However, the timeline from that contractor, along with the higher cost, wasn’t ideal for this property. I wanted the home rented ASAP, and a couple of the bids had the start date out 2 -3 months. Another bid was quite high, and that was with us providing all the products. I thought maybe I could save some money by finding deals/discounts on tile, fixtures, etc. myself, but when the bids came in high even with me providing the products, that wasn’t going to work either. After much deliberation we went with our very first bid, based on the contractor’s obvious knowledge of the homes in this neighborhood, eye for detail and design, along with the timeline and cost. It was supposed to be a 4 week project, and they’d start mid-February.

bathroom floor joists plumbing
The team we hired had the bathroom gutted in about three days total. By the time we got to the house the next weekend, they’d already gotten to this point with new pipes.

The contractor was definitely talented, but also had a lot of opinions. This was both good and bad at the same time. Good in that there is a lot I don’t know, and I needed his expertise on several things I was unsure about. Bad in that we sometimes felt like our budget and suggestions were taking second fiddle to some of his design choices and upgrade ideas (which were more suited to a primary residence, versus a mid-level rental property). We did call references and two of them had mentioned this as the only issue they’d had during the course of the project. Since this was my first time hiring a contractor, I wasn’t sure if I was being too needy, too picky, or just advocating for my own investment and goals. I also heard from friends and other investors that “contractors are hard to deal with” and “this is just how all contractors are.” There were a lot of variations of these comments over the course of the project. My advice: get multiple quotes, actually call references, and any changes along the way need to be in writing.

bathroom subfloor and drywall
After two weeks of work – this was our level of completion. It was starting to feel like real progress!

I tried to take all of the unsolicited commentary with a grain of salt and just address things as they came up. I am not a confrontational person, I do not like tension or discomfort, and tend to be more people-pleasing than assertive. I also hate talking on the phone. This project was a great opportunity for me to grow in some of those skills and learn how to ask the right questions. If I am going to be an investor, then this was just another chance for growth along the way! Although there was discomfort dealing with what ended up being a larger scale project than I anticipated, it was a great experience dealing with a contractor for the first time. One who, ultimately, got the job done well despite a few hiccups along the way.

One of the tricky points in this bathroom was the window situation. In the original bathroom, I loved the natural light that came in from the south. However, the window was old, not frosted like a typical bathroom window, and was in a really inconvenient location for the new layout. The original plan the contractor suggested was replacing the window with a new, frosted vinyl one and sort of trimming it with tile. The house is stone, and trying to completely remove it and figure out an exterior patch job would’ve been a bigger chore than we wanted to try and tackle in February. We also didn’t love the idea of the window right where tenants would be showering, regardless of whether the window was frosted or not. It gave me the creeps thinking about anyone driving by being able to see an outline of someone showering in there. I kept putting myself in the situation and thinking how comfortable I’d be with it myself if this were my primary home, and ultimately decided I wouldn’t be. The contractor then suggested a unique hack he’d used before and had good luck with – they’d just seal it shut, very thoroughly and carefully, where it would still appear as a dark window from the outside of the home, but wouldn’t actually exist on the inside of the bathroom anymore. We were a little worried about the longevity of this, risks of water in the walls, etc. It took a lot of trust but we were happy with the play-by-play and the crew’s expertise during the process. From the driveway, it just looks like a room that is dark. From the inside, you’d never know there was once a window. A fun bonus will be the puzzle people can solve when they go inside and try to figure out where the window is…..

waterproof hardiboard covering window
During the window-blocking process, the red stuff is an additional layer of waterproofing applied as they finished up the wall.

I think the most frustrating two parts of the whole remodel process were 1) the mess, and 2) the shower doors. We changed furnace filters three times, I think, during the entire remodel process. We knew that demolition would cause a mess, and we did our best to keep everything sealed, put away, etc. during that time. The contractor’s crew sealed off the bedroom doors, which definitely. But when we arrived on the weekends and I spent most of Saturday just cleaning, I felt like Sisyphus with his eternal challenge. The crew had used one of my lamps to cast light into the bathroom at one point, which would’ve been fine, other than the fact that it was covered in grout, dust, and who knows what else. This was the lamp I’d planned on leaving in the finished living room, not a shop light. In the yard, I discovered a pile of grout that had been thrown off to the side of the house in some of the decorative grasses. In the backyard, they’d spray painted a few things black and left random stakes (with small nails where they’d held things in place to spray paint still sticking out) at dangerous angles that my dog could’ve hurt herself on. There were boards with more exposed nails left on the back patio (also dog zone), a huge mess from tile cutting on the driveway, and several other things that I had expected to be cleaned up better than they were (or just cleaned up, period). Again, this was my first experience with contractors. They did eventually come and take away the nail-filled boards after I mentioned it, but the hours spent cleaning felt like a huge time suck. The amount of dust that had gotten in the cracks of the original wood floors was astonishing – the shop vac with a bristle brush got most of it out, but it was a painstaking process to go over each crack between planks.

bathroom vanity toilet mirror
Technically, the toilet and the sink are different shades of “white.” A little detail in the grand scheme of things, but it annoyed us a bit.

The glass shower doors were a whole other fiasco. From the time the original ones were broken (March 24) to the third set being installed properly (May 10) I’d already had tenants move in because I couldn’t continue to wait on these mythical doors. The first set was broken by the contractor when they came to install them. I was working in the kitchen over my spring break and heard the expletives coming from the bathroom. Then I saw them carry a shattered glass door through the living room and out to their truck. Again, a big mess to cleanup that myself (equipped with a shop vac)and the contractor’s right hand man (with a broom) took care of.

They “rush ordered” a new set. In April, those were to be installed – but when they went to open the crate (after scheduling the install with my tenants), it was the wrong door completely. It was incredibly frustrating, and I know the original shattering was an accident, but it was a big setback nevertheless. I wanted to be finished with this whole thing, and the shower door situation turned what was supposed to be a four-week project into about 12.

new tile shower rain showerhead
The door opens into the toilet…so I put a rubber stopper on the back of the door. This is also the view of our gorgeous shower (minus the glass doors).

All said and done, there were moments of poor communication, but I also learned a ton about working with a contractor. My expectations will be a little different next time, and overall it was an experience I’m glad I’ve had.

Some things I didn’t think about asking/clarifying that you might want to keep in mind, especially for a small space:

  • Which way does the door open? Will it block the light switch, or will it hit the toilet? Originally the door position made sense with our planned layout, but the plans changed slightly based on plumbing, which necessitated the toilet being moved to the other side of the door. However, with this change, the contractor did not adjust the door accordingly. Now the door smacks the toilet every time it’s opened. If we’d had a little more hallway space, I would’ve loved to have done a sliding barn door style!
  • Will the trendy and attractive hardware work with the sink? We love the faucet…we love the sink…but they shouldn’t have been paired together. The sink is not a standard depth on this small vanity, and looks great, but the large modern faucet causes a splash-over most of the time and water ends up on the floor. This would’ve been hard to predict unless we’d seen the combo in person.
  • When ordering from different places, or having a contractor pick out the fixtures for you, consider “whites” from different companies. The Lowe’s white toilet was not the same shade as our white sink (from Amazon). We are over it now…but didn’t love that we noticed it right away. We were told it would cost way more (and potentially result in a longer wait time if the toilet broke during delivery) if we were to order one that was actually the same shade of white.

My tenants, who moved into the home in early April (with a shower curtain), were understanding about the doors and flexible with everything, which helped. We have a beautiful bathroom that was expensive (the final number was $14,555.69 – only about a hundred bucks over the initial estimate), but hopefully lasts as long as we own the property! The cost was not just the money, though. Think about what your goal with the property is, because your time may be worth a lot. Try not to not etch the timeline they give you in stone. Especially in today’s world with disrupted supply chains and lack of stock, be prepared for things to take way longer than expected. Even if it’s just one shower door keeping everything from being completed!

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