Overhauling a bathroom can be intimidating, but that doesn’t meant you can’t create a new space, even on a tight budget.

Comfort Prevails in Bathroom Renovations

Several simple elements make all the difference when refreshing our most-used room. We caught up with some local experts who share their insights into the process of bathroom remodeling and the latest trends.

Overhauling a bathroom can be intimidating, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create a new space, even on a tight budget.

What motivates people to renovate their bathrooms? Area designers find there are two main drivers.

Many homeowners come looking for an overhaul when there’s a functional issue in their bathroom, like a leaky faucet or toilet, says Sue McDowell, co-owner of McDowell Remodeling in St. Charles.

“A lot of it is driven by problems,” she says. “When the economy wasn’t so good, that was the driving force: something was leaking or not working right. So, that led clients to say, ‘As long as we’re working on this, let’s do everything.’”

That mentality still spurs some to redo their bathrooms, but more and more homeowners are coming to remodelers because their bathroom is outdated, they want more-efficient fixtures and they’ve saved up for their dream spa-like bath, especially in their master suite.

“They have a pink tub, or golden oak vanities, or shiny brass hardware and faucets, or a plate mirror that goes from wall to wall – which nobody does any more – or cultured marble, or Corian countertops that aren’t holding up as well as new products,” says Joyce Zuelke, a certified kitchen designer at Geneva Cabinet Company in Lake Geneva, Wis. “Basically, they want to bring it into the 2010s.”

Overhauling a bathroom can be intimidating, especially because it’s the most expensive room in your house to renovate – if you price it out by square foot, says Dave Wegner, a 40-year veteran bath and kitchen designer for Blue Ribbon Millwork in Woodstock.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t create a great new space with a tight budget. And if the sky is the limit, there are several new bath products you’ve got to try.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

Comfort Comes First

You may not have thought about it, but updating your toilet is a somewhat easy fix that can add a lot of comfort and style to your bathroom, Wegner says.

Comfort-height toilets measure 16.5 inches off the floor, as compared to standard toilets that measure 14.5 inches, says Megan Lebar, bath and kitchen designer with Blue Ribbon Millwork. Many comfort-height toilets also have an elongated bowl that measures 2 inches longer than traditional bowls.

“Ninety-five percent of toilets we do are elongated and comfortable,” says Wegner. “They flush so much better, too.”

For example, Kohler toilets are offering a comfort-height toilet that only requires 1.28 gallons of water a flush, compared with older models that can use up to 5 gallons of water per flush.

“That’s a lot of water you’re wasting down the toilet,” says Wegner.

Ninety-nine percent of the bathrooms Geneva Cabinet Company tackles receive a comfort-height toilet, Zuelke says. The only real concession to the trend is if a child-only bathroom is being renovated. Then, lower-height toilets work best.

Taller vanities also can add comfort to the bathroom. Instead of older, conventional 29- to 31-inch tall vanities, kitchen-height vanities that stand at 34-and-a-half inches or taller are becoming more popular.

“I think it fits into a bigger theme we see of things being accessible,” says Lebar.

Double-bowl vanities usually replace single bowls to provide more accessibility to partners in the “getting ready space,” agrees McDowell.

Newer vanities also feature deeper and wider drawers, like the ones installed for pots and pans in the kitchen. They can be used to store towels or other larger items, or they can come installed with electrical outlets so you can plug in a curling iron or flat iron and leave it plugged in, but hidden, when you’re done using it.

“Having more drawers and having more places to put things helps to unclutter your room,” McDowell says. “If we can put things away, I think it makes you feel more organized and less harried.”

Budget-Friendly Options

One of the simplest bathroom upgrades you can make is to replace a large plate mirror, Zuelke says. Smaller mirrors can be purchased for a few hundred dollars, and they pair well with wall sconces, which can create a nice, updated look to an older space.

Or, you can break up the plate mirror with a vanity tower, McDowell says. Doing so will create more storage space, and it can be architecturally interesting. Some towers reach the ceiling and can be decorated with crown molding. And it’s definitely better than the “old medicine cabinet look,” she says.

Another cost-effective update is painting a bathroom, Zuelke says. A simple paint job can cost $800 to $1,000, depending on the size of the room. In addition to painting, you can add a decorative tile or shiplap – changes that update the walls without affecting the plumbing.

If you can’t afford to switch out an old vanity, consider painting that, too. Geneva Cabinet Company serves many a lake home, so Zuelke sees a lot of navy cabinets being sold these days. But, it’s easy to paint a golden oak vanity your favorite shade of blue to create that beachy, lakefront feel, she says.

If blue isn’t for you, warmer grays and whites are most popular for vanities, whether old or new, and those same tones are being used on the walls, Zuelke says. Taupes and creams are out. Stained wood currently isn’t very popular, but if it is chosen, it’s either a dark stain or a gray/white-washed stain – think beachy, driftwood colors.

If you can afford to replace your countertop, it’ll be hard to find a natural stone or quartz top for less than $1,000, Zuelke says. But, if that’s one of your only major purchases, it might not break the bank.

If a countertop change isn’t in the budget, focus on switching out your fixtures, Zuelke says. Polished nickel is a popular choice for faucets, and brass is coming back in style, albeit in an unlacquered, satin finish that will patina with age. The shiny brass of the 1980s this is not.

“Manufacturers love to bring things back, but slightly different,” Zuelke says.

With some of these small changes in mind, you should be able to completely change the look and feel of your bath without needing to refinance your mortgage.

“For a couple of thousand dollars, you can probably get a nice facelift,” Zuelke says. “But once you get into plumbing, it starts to add up.”

Upscale Remodeling

By far, the most common change people want to make is in the shower, McDowell says. And that comes at a cost.

“They want either a bigger shower or they want different showerheads,” she says. “The shower is really what drives a lot of renovations. There are still bath takers out there, but it doesn’t seem to be as many – probably driven by our busy lifestyle. We don’t have time to sit in the bathtub.”

Quite often, the space for a larger shower is made by rearranging the bathroom’s footprint, usually starting with the removal of an old corner Jacuzzi or whirlpool tub, Zuelke says.

“We’re getting asked all the time, ‘Take my tub out, give me a larger shower,’” she says. “Then you’re moving drains, you’re moving plumbing, you’re adding tile.”

Taking out a 3-foot shower and making it a 5-foot shower is probably a $10,000 proposition, Zuelke says. Besides the plumbing work, there are many variables to consider: do you want a rain shower, body sprays, a hand shower, a linear drain or center/square drain, a seat or a ledge?

When all is said and done, a master bath can easily cost upwards of $20,000, McDowell says.

Many homeowners are opting for curbless showers, which allow them to walk straight into the shower without stepping over a ledge.

“We’re seeing those in a lot of new homes; they’re automatically putting those in,” Zuelke says. “It’s a cleaner look, but it also allows everyone into the shower, whether you broke your leg or you’re older. It’s a barrier-free shower.”

You can opt for custom glass doors to really make your new shower shine, and if you do that, consider purchasing a preventative treatment that will keep water spots from forming on your glass, says Wegner.

The treatment actually isn’t that expensive – maybe an additional $45, he says – though you can also use Rain-X glass treatment for a similar result. Just make sure you clean the glass well, because if you leave a smudge before applying the treatment, it will be locked in.

Sometimes an upscale bath remodel is all about creating a unique space.

If that’s what you’re looking for, consider choosing custom pieces or custom accents.

Both of the cabinet lines available at Blue Ribbon Millwork – Bertch and Wellborn Forest – allow clients to pick any Sherwin-Williams paint color for their vanity.

“That customization makes the space very personal and unique,” Lebar says.

“When you have 1,500 colors to pick from, it’s going to be hard to find that exact same color, especially in someone else’s bathroom,” agrees Wegner.

Keep in mind that using the same materials throughout the bathroom helps the space to feel cohesive, Lebar says. You can use the same countertop material as the bench seat in your shower, or you can wrap your mirror in a wood frame that matches the vanity.

“It starts to bring the whole bathroom together,” she says.

If money is no object, you can even run an accent tile from floor to ceiling to create an interesting look, Lebar adds. For example, it makes a bold statement to run a small, round penny tile the full height of a wall – instead of adding a simple backsplash.

Everyone wants tile, whether it’s on the walls, on the floor, in the shower or all of the above, McDowell says.

Large-format tiles – either 12-inch-by-12-inch blocks or elongated, rectangular pieces – work well on the walls, while smaller tiles typically are suggested for shower floors because they’re not so slippery, she says. Stone-like floor tiles also are popular because they look like the natural rock bottom of a pond.

One of the most popular tile choices is a ceramic tile that looks like wood planks.

“We’re doing so much of that,” McDowell says. “It doesn’t look fake, it’s just beautiful.”

Subway tile is still popular, as well.

“There’s just really a little bit of everything out there,” McDowell says. “It really can change the room. If you didn’t have a lot of tile before, there’s a lot of beauty in what’s available out there.”

Porcelain tile is a slightly cheaper, but still very durable option, or you can stick with natural stone tile – but that always bumps up the cost a notch, Zuelke says.

Regardless of the type of tile you choose, you’ll definitely want heated floors, she says.

While you’re at it, add a heated towel rack, McDowell says.

“They’re just really nice,” she says. “If you want special treatment, and if it’s not a huge bathroom, a heated floor isn’t that big of a deal. We’ve even done heated towel drawers.”

The Sky’s the Limit

Still looking for something that will push your bathroom over the top?

As technology continues to develop, bathrooms are becoming more high-tech, McDowell says. Certain bath models can be programmed to fill the tub remotely so it’s ready by the time you get home from work.

Other models can be programmed to fill themselves to the top, spill over into a small trough and recycle the water back into the tub again, creating an “infinity pool” effect.

Moen even offers temperature control features that allow you to set your shower for the exact temperature you desire, says Lebar.

A major plus to installing a new tub, regardless of its size, is that it likely will use less water and be more cost-efficient over time. But there are other ways to reduce water usage as well, like with the increasingly popular air-injected showerheads.

“Air is injected with the water, so the water feels like bigger drops coming out of the showerhead, and the spray feels stronger, so you don’t use as much water,” McDowell says.

Kohler also has started to offer chromotherapy in some of its showerheads and tubs. The lighting system emits different-colored lights while water flows from faucet heads, either energizing or relaxing you, depending on the color.

“We haven’t done it yet, but it could be on the horizon,” McDowell says.

Expert Advice for a Successful Project

Invest in a Good Exhaust Fan
Exhaust fans are often forgotten, but they’re essential to protecting the renovations you’ve made, says Dave Wegner, of Blue Ribbon Millwork.

“You need one big enough for the cubic square footage of your bath, and you need to leave it on for an hour after a hot shower to dry everything off,” he says.

Start with the Vanity
If you don’t know where to begin, start with the vanity, says Megan Lebar, of Blue Ribbon Millwork. Decide if you want a wood tone, a clean white, or a rich, dark mocha-gray finish. From there, move to your countertops and then your tile.

“If they want to do tile in the shower, we’re coordinating that with their backsplash and countertop to tie it all together,” Lebar says.

Thing Ahead
If you’re overhauling your bath, think ahead 15 to 20 years.

“A lot of people are remodeling because they want to stay in their homes as they age,” says Sue McDowell, of McDowell Remodeling. “Grab bars, seats, shelves and ledges in showers – these things need to be considered when you’re remodeling.”

Remodelers can install a no-threshold shower for ease of access; wider shower doors can be installed to accommodate a wheelchair; walk-in tubs can be a good idea, too.

“It depends on the situation and what the needs are,” McDowell says. “Whenever someone is remodeling any part of their home, we try to help them consider all of their options.”