20 lessons from renovating two bathrooms in six months

Over the course of six months, we managed to tackle two complete bathroom remodels from the studs up, and I wanted to share some of our biggest learnings, since these were our first two bathroom renos ever and we learned a lot. These lessons apply if you’re tackling the work yourself, or if you’re hiring it out.

You can check out our Master Bathroom and Guest Bathroom reveals.

Planning Stage

1. Take your time to rethink the layout. You may be able to unlock space and make your room more functional. It might be expensive, but it’s worth exploring the cost in case it fits in the budget.

2. Determine your must-haves for the space. Prioritize the things that matter to you: tubs, rain shower heads, steam showers, a double vanity, heated floors, etc. if you’re limited on space and/or budget (like us!) you’re going to have to identify what matters to you and what is less necessary. Everyone has an opinion on whether they think a master bathroom needs a tub, but space constraints are real and it may not be critical for you.

3. Identify your storage needs. Do you have a lot of makeup? Do you need a place to store towels? How big a vanity can your bathroom accommodate? If you think through storage in advance, you’re way less likely to end up with a cluttered bathroom because everything will have a home. Also think about how much space you need for toiletries in your shower and whether you want a niche.

4. Invest in a high-powered fan. You don’t want humidity hanging out in your brand new bathroom, because mold will follow. You also want to make sure that the fan is graded for the size of your space. We used this one in both bathrooms.

5. Install the extras now that you have the chance. During the remodeling process we heard from a lot of people who said they wished they had installed the upgrades while completely remodeling their bathrooms, because there’s no other time to add them. Some of those things are splurging on a nicer floor material or installing in-floor heating. You won’t have the chance again, so think through whether it’s something you might want down the road to avoid future regrets.

6. Get many quotes for work you’re contracting out. The range of quotes we got for the work we hired out, like plumbing and cabinetry were staggeringly different. We had consults with three different plumbing companies because we wanted to make sure we were getting a fair price and to ensure it was someone we wanted to work with. Ask friends for recommendations, check Nextdoor and Google Places for trades.

7. Old plumbing stacks can often easily be moved into the wall. We had an entire plan built around how to work around a plumbing stack that jut out into our bathroom. And then the plumbers came and replaced our very old and desperately in need of replacement plumbing stack with a new one that fit neatly inside the wall cavity, rendering our plan completely unnecessary.

8. Details matter. There are so many decisions that you need to be prepared to make: Where will the outlets be located and what’s the minimum required for code? Where will the light switches be located? Where will your towels hang when you’re showering? Where will the toilet paper holder be mounted?

9. Natural light makes a huge difference. If you can add a window, go for it. We’re fortunate to have windows in every room of our house (I’m obsessed with natural light), but any added light will make your morning showers that much more pleasant.

10. Lighting is critical.  Be intentional about your light sources, you’re going to want overhead lighting, lighting at the vanity (soft, diffused glow is ideal) and water-safe lighting in your shower. Dimmers for your lights matter, just because it’s a bathroom, doesn’t mean the lighting shouldn’t be completely controllable. You want to be able to set the mood when you’re taking a bath and don’t want to end your day in an overlit bathroom. We have dimmers on our sconces and overhead lights in both bathrooms.

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Execution Stage

11. Have all your fixtures on-hand before work starts. The plumbers will need your fixtures before they can start work. Every shower system requires its own valve to to be installed on the inside of your shower or tub walls, so you really can’t get away with not having fixtures on site. The plumbers will also need to know the height and size of your vanity (as well as any schematics) to determine where the pipes for the faucet will be located in the wall.

12. Level everything. Make sure everything is square. You want to use a leveling system for your tiles to avoid lippage. Don’t be afraid to pour self-leveling compound to level a floor, it’s well worth the effort for a super smooth, even floor. We also used a laser level to confirm everything was level as we installed.

13. Take your tile to the ceiling. Unless you are blessed with incredibly high ceilings, there’s no reason not to take your shower tile all the way up. It will add height to your room and will keep everything looking streamlined.

14. Pick the right type of paint. There is paint designed specifically for damp spaces, like bathrooms and kitchens. We use Benjamin Moore Kitchen and Bath on our walls and Benjamin Moore Regal Classic in Matte on the ceiling, on recommendation from our paint store.

15. Soundproofing. This one we only caught on to for our second bathroom, but wish we had thought about it for our Guest Bathroom too. Showers are noisy and if your bathroom abuts a bedroom, you may want to take a moment to add soundproofing (we swear by this one that’s super easy to install) when you have a chance. It’s not terribly expensive and it’s a modern upgrade, especially in an old house like our own.

16. Overbuy tile and buy in one batch. If you’re working with a natural stone, like marble, there will be a lot of natural variation from tile to tile. To minimize that variance, buy all your tile at once, so it’s more likely to come from the same source and mix your boxes of tile in advance of laying the tile so all the variance is spread out and not clustered.

17. Don’t be afraid to splurge on a few key things and leave specialties to the pros. We had planned on installing a pre-fabricated shower door but kept running into sizing issues. So we sat down and discussed how much nicer and more custom it would look if we hired out the glass, and while it was pricy, it was the best decision we made. Our shower door is gorgeous and is perfectly hung. I don’t regret the added expense at all, because it really allows the tile we belabored installing look 100% professional.

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Finishing Stage

18. Bigger is better when it comes to mirrors. Go for a big mirror, it will open up your entire bathroom and make your vanity way more functional. In both our bathrooms we went for huge mirrors and absolutely love how well they work for both my average-height self and my 6″2 husband.

19. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Just because it’s a bathroom doesn’t mean it can’t be treated like any other room in your house. You don’t need to buy a mirror or lighting from the bathroom section. Have fun with personalizing your room. Bathrooms are naturally colder, more sterile spaces because of the materials, so think about ways to add warmth and interest. Layer on accessories like vintage rugs and window treatments.

20. Understand the maintenance needs of your materials. We heard from a lot of you on the importance of grout color (white will be very hard to maintain on the floors) and the difficulty of keeping marble from staining. Know that if you’re going with marble that you will need to seal it annually (we use this one), and think about using trays on countertops to protect them. We recently had an incident where our conditioner leaked for a full day on our marble countertop and I didn’t panic because I knew how to fix it (a homemade marble poultice did the trick).

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