Splurge or save? How to keep bath remodel ideas within budget

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | July 29, 2014

You've been pouring over tempting photographs of high-end spa bathrooms. Your wish list keeps growing along with your creative bath remodel ideas, as your spouse keeps growling, "There goes our retirement savings!"

You know you need to establish a bathroom remodeling budget, but how can you keep costs down when all you want to do is gut that sucker -- the bathroom, that is, not your savings account. In the interest of maintaining domestic tranquility -- which should be achievable when the remodel is finished to everyone's liking -- consider these tips for taking your bath from tacky to terrific without taking a bath, financially speaking.

Splurge and spend -- or salvage and save?

The key to deciding where to splurge and where to save on your bathroom transformation is to prioritize your wish list. There are certain expenses on which you probably should not skimp, especially if your entire reason for remodeling revolves around them. On the other hand, there may be perfectly serviceable elements of your current bathroom that can be salvaged. Give them a facelift and incorporate them into your new design to avoid busting your budget.

These five types of expenditures can be adjusted up or down, depending on what you need and what you want in your final design plan. You may have to reassess your bath remodel ideas and take a creative approach if you want to keep costs down.

  1. Plumbing and electrical. If you are moving fixtures, walls, or vanities or making modifications to the layout of your bath in any way, plumbing and wiring are usually involved. These are tasks that are best done by licensed, professional plumbers and electricians. If your current bathroom layout is not very functional, you may want to make those kinds of remodeling changes, in which case, paying the plumber and electrician could, by necessity, be a sizable expense. Examples of situations where professionals are needed would include adding an additional sink, moving and walling in the toilet, moving the tub or shower, and adding task lighting in the shower area. Don't forget wiring for built-in electronics for music, TV, or news addicts. It is not typically advisable to save by installing new wiring and plumbing yourself. However, if new fixtures, outlets and lighting are going exactly where current ones are now, and if you are handy with replacing existing plumbing and electrical fixtures, you may be able to cut your costs by doing simple replacements yourself.
  2. Mold and rotted wood. You never know what unhappy surprises lurk behind your walls until you tear them down. These are two situations a homeowner hopes never to encounter with a bathroom remodel. Unfortunately, they can be present, especially in older homes or if there was a previously undetected leak or insect infestation. If mold is extensive or there are structural issues to be addressed, you should be prepared to pay a professional mold remediation expert or structural engineer.
  3. Focal point fixtures. These are generally considered to be your shower, tub, vanity/sink, and toilet. You can make one or more of these a focal point, depending on your budget. You may want to splurge on both a soaking tub and a steam shower with custom tile work. If you are remodeling to incorporate universal design or just to make bathing easier, you might have to spend more for walk-in tubs or other fixtures that accommodate a family member's needs. Be sure to consider and prioritize any special features you want, such as a side-jetted shower or a bidet. If you want to save on fixtures, remember that white is always in style, and that you can keep the old fixtures if they still fit your needs and are not stained or damaged. There are plenty of other ways to create stunning focal points.
  4. Vanity, thy name is visibility. If your vanity is structurally sound, you can give it new life by refacing the cabinetry. Decorative feet, faux finishes, open shelves, new doors, or moldings are just a few of the ways you can completely disguise your old vanity and make it a one-of-a-kind bathroom focal point. Don't be afraid to splurge on the countertop, and get something that is not just another pretty surface. It has to stand up to the constant assault from water, cosmetics, and cleaning products. An above-the-counter sink basin may be less costly than you think, and it adds elegance to a bathroom. Don't get new mirrors; dress up your current mirror with a DIY frame made from inexpensive molding stained to either match or complement your cabinet's finish. For a really custom look, create a mosaic on the frame by adding small, decorative tiles or other size-appropriate objects to it.
  5. Finishing touches. If you decide to rein in your costs by sticking to some very basic fixtures or even keeping the old ones, you can still give your bathroom that luxe look with higher end hardware, faucets, shower heads, lighting fixtures or decorative custom tile. And don't forget wall paint colors that make your focal points pop; mood lighting for relaxation; a basket of fragrant soaps or a niche to hold a vase of flowers. If you are happy with the style and placement of your current lighting fixtures but wish they were bronze instead of chrome, take them down and spray them with a metallic paint finish. Create display shelving between two studs and incorporate an art piece or even a thick stack of decadently, plush towels.

If you still need convincing that you do not need to break the bank to remodel your bathroom, consider your return on investment (ROI.) Remodeling Magazine's Cost vs. Value report for 2014 shows that midrange bathroom remodels nationwide actually have a higher ROI than upscale bathroom projects -- 72.5 percent compared to 63.6 percent for the high-end remodel. However you look at it, it makes good sense to salvage what you can, spend wisely on professional services that you really need and only splurge on the luxuries you can comfortably afford.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.