Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Remodeling Your Only Bathroom

By Matt Cantor
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:06:00 PM

Risk aversion varies from person to person. Some are comfortable on motorcycles while others prefer to walk. Some skydive or walk tightropes between buildings and still others, inexplicably, choose to remodel the only bath in their house. 

Remodeling your sole bathroom is not for the meek and certainly not for the unprepared. Frankly, I don’t know how some people survive it, and I know that it has been the source of much heartache and more than a few screaming bouts since the outhouse pushed its way inside and became the W.C. (For those of you under 50, that stands for “water closet.”) 

Remodeling is a surprisingly scorched path for many, but few projects carry with them the weighty burden of this one. If you are preparing for a remodel of your loneliest number (which would be ONE, of course), here are some suggestions that might save a portion of your sanity. 

First of all, be prepared. While some level of spontaneity can be enjoyed in many remodeling projects, this should be kept to a minimum in this case. Do your homework; plan this job out thoroughly; have your remodel drawn out to the quarter inch and have your contractor carefully selected. 

Picking a contractor for this particular job is different than for other jobs. You want to have a contractor who is very skilled in anticipating the many surprise items that can interrupt the flow of the job, but small enough (the crew, not the person) so that they will be able to stay on your job without a break for the entire period. That’s the key. From the time that the job begins, the job should proceed without a break until the day you enter and lock the door, sequestering yourself in secret joy. 

A crew of two or three is about right for this job. More members than this will be sitting on their hands and, one way or another, you’re going to pay for this. A single, very energetic person can do this job, but it’s not optimal in terms of time. 

A plan, a permit and a complete list of objectives should be in hand prior to commencement. Anything that can impede progress of the job should be eliminated prior to giving up your magazine-reading privileges and allowing Joe or Marge to place tools in your hallway or extra bedroom.  

Permits are required for virtually anything that can reasonably be called a bathroom remodel, and when in doubt, call the city building department and ask. Despite the fact that they will tend to fall on the side of administrative rigor (“Yes, ma’am, you have to have a permit to replace a light bulb”), the bath remodel is one job that will virtually always require a permit. And this permit is quite beneficial, because there are many code issues at play in the bath (though they do not splash, nor do they frolic). Despite the small area, these code issues carry with them significant safety and practical gnosis. Baths have changed a lot over the years and codes regarding baths continue to change at a steady rate.  

This means that you are quite likely to participate in some serious changes in the way wiring, plumbing and finishes are installed on this bath as compared with the one you are demolishing, or even the one you would have wrought 10 years ago. The latest code version has plenty of text in red (or underlined) as proof of this. So, again, to prevent undue delay (and puffy red eyes from crying), it is best that permits be obtained and a simple set of plans submitted. 

Shopping is incredibly important. Make it your objective to procure all components to the finished bathroom prior to commencement of the job and you will be a much happier camper. Have the tile (including plenty of extra to cover breakage, cutting and other waste), thin-set mortar, grout and tile backer board in the garage. Have the toilet in the basement (special orders can take weeks to arrive and this can bring your job to a halt if not properly considered), have the tub in the backyard. Buy the vanity, sink and light fixtures well in advance and pack them away. While it is possible to buy plywood, studs, nails and Wonderboard on a moment’s notice, many of the items that will go into the bath (a new window? a skylight?) may not be readily available once the job is under way and will certainly take time to buy while the job is in progress. If nearly every component is present and on site when you start, this will speed things along. 

Another thing that you can do to make sure that things will proceed swimmingly is to request that your contractor carefully examine all the accessible areas that may be affected by the work prior to starting the job. Have them get into the crawlspace and look at the configuration and condition of the waste pipes as well as the water supply piping. Is the piping old galvanized? (This must be upgraded in the confines of the bathroom walls, at least.) Is the waste piping corroded? Properly supported? Adequately sized? Make accommodations for upgrade in advance. Don’t leave these issues to be dealt with in the heat of construction. 

Ventilation requirements have changed in our newest codes, and vent fans are no longer optional for bathing spaces. Plan ahead to have the best ventilation, since good ventilation saves the paint, the tile and wood framing as well as making a space safer (less slippery) and more efficient (you don’t have to wait to see your God-like visage in the mirror). In-line fans are my personal favorite, although any good vent fan is a step above the open window approach that never worked very well anyway. Planning in advance should include shopping for your in-line or in-ceiling fan, identifying the output location (wall, ceiling) and the type of ducting. 

The same applies to lighting and heating. Shop early, buy all the parts, set them aside and be ready to install them the minute the preceding task is complete. Don’t miss out on in-floor heat or an extra duct and register from your existing furnace. Most baths lack adequate heat and the bath is certainly one place where this is de rigueur. Light is often and afterthought, and when rushing to get through to a completed bath, may get tossed aside. Consider a small sun-dome skylight (or any skylight), and consider a range of lighting types, despite the small space. Overhead, vanity and accent lighting all can fit nicely into the smallest bath to wondrous effect and need not cost a great deal. In fact, lighting and electrical wiring is downright cheap if you do it while the walls are open. 

Lastly, let me say that the single most important factor in the remodeling of your lonely bathroom is, perhaps, the selection of the contractor. This is not the time to pick your brother-in-law or the woman you really like on the next block. They may be the right person for the job, but you must pick someone who is dedicated to moving through this job with determination, sagacity and vigor. It must also be someone who you believe will be able to talk to you when you are angry and tired. Remodeling is trying under the best of circumstances. Those who have been through lengthily remodelings can testify to this and some can tell you, if they are honest enough, that they may have lost it a time or two when they were just overwrought and not their best selves.  

We are all private creatures to some extent. Some of us are very outgoing, but all of us need our privacy some time. There are few places in our lives where this is as rigorously true as in our relationship to the place where we bathe, make up and refresh ourselves. When this room is taken from us for several weeks (yes, I said several weeks—if all goes well!) we may begin to exhibit behavior and experience feelings that we can not justify. Working with an experienced contractor who can demonstrate progress each day and show us that things are proceeding toward completion can aid us (even you big, strong men) in understanding that everything is OK and that, soon, we’ll be showering in our grandly renewed space. A contractor who doesn’t over-react to our momentary moodiness and understands our feelings and the importance of staying the course in stormy seas is worth many drachmas (and is rarely the low-drachmas bid). 

Oh yes, there is one more bit of advice I’d like to add. To the best of your ability, try to create an alternative bathing situation for yourself prior to having your bath taken from you. A port-a-potty in the side or backyard (near the back door?) is just about essential, although you could purchase a camp toilet or a small incinerating toilet. These are nice to have in the event of a natural disaster anyway, and might be a worthwhile long-range investment. Add to this a shower or bathing option at your gym, workplace or a neighbor’s house and you might actually be well set. If it’s a neighbor or friend, you might want to have a backup so that you don’t strain the relationship after a few weeks. Joining a gym for a month might be well worth the cost. More sensitive (or self-knowing) shoppers might even find it worthwhile to rent a nearby apartment for a month. 

The difference that good planning can make is hard to demonstrate or prove until the wheels come off the bus, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one.  

The French author Andre Gide once said of risk that, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” I’m not certain but it seems like this has to have something to do with waiting to use the bathroom. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.