Home & Garden Columns

About the House: While My Bathroom Floor Gently Rots

By Matt Cantor
Friday December 21, 2007

I look at my bath, see the fungus that’s growing 

While my wife Jill gently weeps. 

It’s just a rehab that I keep on foregoing, 

Still my wife Jill gently weeps. 


I don’t know why nobody told me 

How to avoid this mess. 

I’m so upset, won’t someone hold me? 

These memories I’ll suppress. 


I look at the floor and I notice it’s moving 

While my wife Jill gently weeps. 

The subfloor and tile I’ll soon be removing, 

Still my wife Jill gently weeps 

(with apologies to George) 


I don’t dislike the pest control folks, but it’s important to remember that they have a specific mandate (to find and replace the parts of your house that have been damaged by wood-destroying organisms), some incentives that you might want to keep in mind (including making money) and little or no focus on design. 

This does not make these folks dishonest or irresponsible, although, as in all trades, the quality of the help ranges. 

The issue I want to focus on, to invoke a somewhat hackneyed term, is that of holism. The problem with pest inspections and bathrooms is that inspectors tend to view the built environment as something diseased. This is similar to the problem of the patient being viewed as a disease rather than as a person who might benefit from some medical advise or assistance. 

I’ve seen hundreds of baths over the years that were slated for a set of specific repairs as a part of the mandate laid out by a pest report. While each of the items might have been valid from a technical perspective, the formation of a plan of action based on the report alone is probably a bad idea. 

Considering the house or just the bath as a whole often gets missed in this process and it’s a good idea to step back and consider how the money and effort might be best spent. Let me give you a couple of examples. 

The floors of baths are often called-out for repair in pest reports. This is usually the result of water that had been weeping through poorly installed substrates in the floor and the ensuing damage created by watering fungi that were lying around waiting for someone to feed them. 

A bath may have a shower surround that’s been identified for replacement as well and the finished work based upon a pest report is very likely to end up looking much like the same bath with some new “neutral colored,” “contactor’s choice” (terms often found in pest reports referring to something inoffensive or plain) ceramic tile on the floor and around the shower. 

In many of these cases, the damage identified by the pest company could easily have been addressed during a more substantial and productive bath rehab, one that might have included aesthetic and physical improvements culminating in a much more desirable space, both personally and financially. 

A partial bath remodel is usually nothing more than a missed opportunity. If you remove more than about 1/6 of the wall material, you will probably end up spending more time and money patching those areas than if you were simply drywalling the whole room. It’s hard to patch well and it’s easy to get joints to look good when you do them all at the same time. Also, drywall is almost free, it’s so cheap. It’s all about the labor, and baths are all about multiple services hidden in the walls and floors that are only accessible when everything is exposed. 

If a shower surround of tile is removed and replaced and the house is more than, say 50 years old, it makes almost no sense not to replace the plumbing hidden in the walls at the same time. Just think how awful you’d feel removing nearly new tile to fix the plumbing you were looking at just a short while ago. If you do all the plumbing while the room is gutted, it’s much easier.  

It’s also much cheaper. And so it goes with wiring, lighting and heating (You mean you put heating in the bathroom! Oh my, but doesn’t that lead to SIN?) and all the other goodies that can make for a great bathroom. 

By the way, this can all happen in a very small space. A tiny bathroom can have a heated floor, a skylight (solar tube skylights are cheap and provide amazing amounts of light), and all the other bells and whistles, but if you just do what’s on the pest report, you won’t get all those goodies. You might at best get a few and you’ll probably pay a large percentage of what the full Monty costs.  

This isn’t because pest control folks overcharge. They’re like any contractor. Some are high. Some are low. The reason has to do with economies of scale. Because so many of the good things one wants in the bath involve access to the wall and floor interior (and ceilings), everything gets a lot cheaper when the walls are all gone.  

The plumbing cost of adding another fixture when the plumber is already there isn’t twice as much. It’s always cheaper when you can do an extra thing while you’re already there. It’s the same trip to the jobsite, the same trip to the store and it might even be more soldered joints while the torch is in your hand. 

The same is true of wiring. Adding a vent fan, some extra lights, a floor heating pad, a towel heating rack, an electric wall heater or an extra GFCI outlet (the ones that can’t shock you) gets much cheaper when you’re already there pulling wires in your wide open space. 

I’m not suggesting that you want all those things but I would strongly recommend a vent fan and at least one heat source for every bath.  

Baths suffer in several ways from the steam of showers. Steam penetrates grout, gets behind paint, moistens the paper of drywall and feeds fungi living behind these surfaces. It also grows fungi on painted surfaces and makes for an unwholesome environment and more cleaning (who likes extra cleaning?). A vent fan can also provide a clear mirror when you moistly emerge ready to greet your spendid countenance. 

The heat thing is a self-made argument for those who demand it. Some of us hate getting out of the shower on a cold winter morning, and a warm room (especially a warm floor) is either darned nice or simply essential. Heat is easy to add during a full remodel and rarely done during your typical pest clearance. 

Also, most baths are too dim for my liking. It’s really nice to have plenty of light in the bath to check for imperfections (who’s imperfect!?) or simply to get those remaining hairs just so. Again, it’s easy to have a sealed lamp over the shower, ceiling lights in the main space and a vanity lamp added when wiring the room. Also, these need not be enormous expenses. Lamps and fairly inexpensive, wire is dirt cheap and junction boxes are nearly free. It’s all about labor and when the walls are open the labor is much cheaper. 

Lastly, let me suggest that most of what I see on pest reports regarding baths tends to be less critical than many of the issues that houses present. Most fungal infestations in baths including rotting floors and loose tile in the shower can wait for at least a few months if not a few years. Fire hazards should take precedence. Earthquake preparation too. If holding off for a while is what’s needed to find the extra funds to do it wonderfully and not just palliatively, it’s much the wiser in terms of your satisfaction and in terms of long-term investment. 

Most fungal infestation advances at something less than a break-neck pace and the advantages of a better bath greatly outweigh the advantages of removing the decay immediately. 

In the short term, get a caulk gun and a tube of Sikaflex caulk, a bag of grout and a can of paint. Keep all the joints in the bath sealed. The edge of the floor, especially at the tub, the joint where tub meets tile (or any other kind of surround) and the gaps around shower fixtures. This will SLOW the advance of decay while the money finds its way to you (here boy). 

Whether you choose to do the work with a pest control company or a general contractor (and only a pest company can issue a clearance of pest damage), you’ll be glad you waited.