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How to save money on your bathroom remodel


Justin Pierce is a real estate investor who regularly writes about his experiences buying, renovating and selling houses in the Washington area.

According to Remodeling magazine, the national average for a full bathroom remodel is $16,128.  The magazine also reports that this improvement will increase your home’s resale value by an average of $11,688.  But in our area you can get a good bathroom remodel for around $5,000 and turn your effort into home equity gold.

The Remodeling magazine figures are based on a bathroom that is 5 by 7 feet.  It is a main bathroom, not a master bathroom.  This work would include all new tile on the floor, a tile tub surround and new  tub, toilet and vanity with top and built-in sink.  It also includes new paint, hardware, faucets and light fixture.

[Make the most of your tiny bathroom by maximizing space, minimizing costs]

This does not include any structural work, new electrical or moving plumbing locations.

When it comes to a bathroom remodel, 50 to 75 percent of the cost is in labor, assuming you’re contracting out all of the work and you’re being reasonable about the materials you select.  So in this project your most powerful money savings tool is knowledge and negotiation skills.  You need to find a good contractor and work with him or her to try to reduce those labor costs while still achieving quality work and providing worthwhile work and profit to your contractor.

The good news is that the material list for a bathroom remodel is pretty simple.  Here’s a pretty good list of items you’ll need for your project:

Materials Amount My Budget Higher End Materials
Tub 60″ 1 $250.00 $3,000.00
Vanity w/Top 30-36″ 1 $300.00 $1,000.00
Toilet 1 $200.00 $400.00
Mirror 1 $100.00 $500.00
Medicine Cabinet 1 $75.00 $300.00
Tile Approx (105) Sq Ft $210.00 $1,050.00
Cement Backer board (4-5) Sheets 4×8′ $120.00 $120.00
Thin set (Tile Glue) (2)- 50 lbs bags $30.00 $30.00
Grout (3) 25 lbs Bags $45.00 $45.00
Misc Pluming
Misc PVC Pipe As Needed $30.00 $30.00
Tub Drain 1 $30.00 $150.00
Flexible Water Lines 2 $20.00 $20.00
Sink Faucet 1 $25.00 $100.00
Tub/Shower Faucet 1 $40.00 $100.00
Vanity Light 1 $40.00 $500.00
Drywall & Paint
Primer 1 gallon $25.00 $25.00
Paint 1 gallon $35.00 $45.00
drywall & Prep As Needed $100.00 $100.00
Misc Hardware
Towel & TP holders $50.00 $300.00
Total Costs   $1,725.00 $7,815.00

I based all of my estimates a 5- by 8-foot bathroom. In fact, this bathroom remodel scenario is the first thing I typically discuss with a contractor when I’m trying to determine if I want to actually take the time to have them bid a project.  If a contractor tells me this work is going to cost $10,000, then I move on to the next contractor.

[More homeowners giving bathrooms a 21st-century update]

The most powerful tool in saving costs on your bathroom remodel is knowledge.  Understanding the process is key.  You can absolutely get your bathroom remodel down to around $5,000 but most contractors will tell you you’re crazy and that you don’t know what you’re talking about if you approach them with this scenario.

I went through each of the tasks required to do all the work in this kind of bathroom remodel and I came up with 73 labor hours.  That is assuming everything goes about average and two people are working the job.  In speaking with several contractors, they confirmed my time frame and most of them said they like to budget five to eight working days to complete a bathroom.

Contractors are used to running into unforeseen problems and are often dogged with changes by the client half way through the project.  So it is certainly understandable that they’d want to budget some cushion in their bid.  However, it’s common for them to budget in a 100 percent cushion, which most other industries would find unacceptable.

Most contractors also budget two people for this work.  They typically have a lead person who can make $20 to $30 per hour and a helper who makes around $14 to $16 an hour.  When you add in 25 percent for the contractor’s payroll expenses and 20 percent profit, that puts the contractor’s working labor per hour cost at right about $58.50 an hour.

So based on 40 hours of work (five  days which is about what it should take) for these two employees a good total labor cost would be about $2,340.  If you add in my materials costs from the list above, that brings your total bathroom remodel costs to $4,065.

But here’s the rub. Assuming everything goes reasonably well and the contractor is done in five days and the contractor is only making a profit on the labor, then the gross profit on this job to the business is only $468.  Most contractors don’t want to take this much risk and effort to only make that little.  Remember, they still have to pay for gas, insurance, administration and all the other things that come with running a business.  So many will balk if approached with this lean and efficient project proposal.

Now that you know the process, the first step to take when beginning your bathroom remodel is to decide on your colors and materials.  Take my list of materials and select your fixtures, tile and all your big ticket items.

The vanity, tub and tile are probably the three biggest ticket items and the things that most people go overboard on.  You can easily spend half of your budget on these three items if you’re not careful.

I find a $350 basic tub works just as well as at $3,000 tub.  Avoid jetted tubs.  They are expensive.  They require additional electrical and permits, and to be honest, no one uses them.  They just end up growing mildew in the pipes.  Even many builders are now cutting them out.

You can spend just a $100 on a very basic vanity but I recommend splurging a little here.  The vanity and the tile are the focal point of your bathroom.  I find I can get a very nice 30- to 36-inch vanity and vanity top for between $300 and $400.  But you can easily spend $1,000 or more on this item alone.

When it comes to tile you can also spend a dollar a square foot or you can spend $15.  I find I can get a very nice tile for between two and three dollars a square foot.  Set your sights there.

Now that you already know the materials you want in your bathroom, sit down and write up a good scope of work to share with your contractor.  This is very simple and anyone can do it.  It will usually consist of demolition and haul away, installing new cement backer board at floor and surround, installing tile at floor and tub surround, installing tile grout, installing all new fixtures and connect plumbing, installing hardware and prep and paint walls.  You can get more detailed but even this basic scope of work will help tremendously with your bidding process and eventual construction contract.

With your material list and your scope of work you’re ready to start calling contractors.  To find contractors I suggest asking friends and neighbors.  You can also go down to your local home improvement store.  I recommend showing up at 6 a.m. when it opens.

There will usually be at least a half a dozen work trucks and vans in the parking lot.  Write down the phone numbers on the vehicles.  There are two benefits here.  One, you know the contractor is actually active in the trades and you know they work in your area.  Second, you know they start early.  Ideally you want a contractor with between three and 15 employees.  You want them to be established enough that they’re not going to disappear half way through your job but small enough that their overhead costs are not going to inflate their labor costs.

Finding a good and cost efficient contractor is no easy task.  Most people recommend interviewing at least three.  I recommend you call many more than that.  When you tell them your plan at least half of them will decline to bid your job.  I would also say that at least half of the remaining contractors will fail to pass your background and reference check.  If you call at least 12 contractors you’ll probably find three to five from whom you can get full bids.

This is a lot of work but this is how you save big bucks.  You don’t just need to find a good contractor.  You need to find a good contractor at the right time.  I find that if a contractor is in need of work at a given time then they’ll give you a good price.  If not then their bid will likely be thicker.  Be careful in relying on a contractor who was recommended by a neighbor.  That contractor’s situation may have changed.

This is all a lot of work but this is another way of doing it yourself.  Rather than strapping on a tool belt you’re taking on project management type of duties and it’s much easier than hauling out piles of old drywall and old tile and spending two days hunched over tile work.

In your discussion with the contractor, tell him that you only want him to provide labor.  You may not feel comfortable buying all the miscellaneous items like drains, P-traps and water lines so you can negotiate to have the contractor provide those. But just consider the fact that if the contractor’s employees have to go to the hardware store then he’s still got to pay his employee’s $58 an hour to roam the aisles of a big box store. Work with the contractor to get a detailed materials list  before going shopping.

I don’t know about you but it’s hard for me to make a run to the store in less than two hours.  Every item you have on site and ready for the contractor is time and effort saved in labor cost.  And, I’ll tell you, anytime your workers leave your project there’s no guarantee when they’ll come back.  This drives construction managers crazy, too.  This time is hard to track.  If you choose to have the contractor buy the materials then make sure you have an agreed upon budget for these items in your contract.

Now when you approach the contractor about wanting to pay only $2,400 for his or her labor you might hear the phone click so try this approach instead: Tell your contractor that you’re willing to pay $2,400 in labor for five days of work.  If the project exceeds five days, you’ll pay another $75 per day for up to four days.

But inform him that if he gets the work done within the five-day limit you’ll pay him a $1,000 bonus.  You’ll pay a $500 bonus plus the daily extension fee if the work is done within seven working days.  You just gave incentive for the contractor to triple his or her profit and to get your job done quickly. Either way you get your project done at or very near your $5,000 limit as long as you don’t go crazy on materials.

Before hiring any contractor make sure you do a good background check.  Make sure he has a license for the work he’s performing in the state he’s performing it and make sure he has at least liability and workman’s comp insurance.  Always check references.  See my piece on working with contractors for more details.

At this point, you’ve done a lot of work to fine tune your project.  Try to avoid any changes to the plan after you have agreed upon a price.  You will almost certainly pay a premium for any additional work you give the contractor after you’ve sealed the deal.

And of course you can save additional money by doing some of the work yourself.  You can probably save $500 to $600 for just doing the demolition and painting yourself.  But be careful not to take on tasks that can create problems for the contractor.  Tile installation consists of nearly half the labor costs in a bathroom renovation but be warned that this is hard and tedious work that will likely take you two or three times as long as a professional and may not end up looking very good.

Like most construction projects the bathroom remodel can consist of many different factors.  No two remodels are alike.  So, it’s hard to address every scenario here.

However, beware in construction you don’t always get what you pay for.  Do your homework before starting any major project.

Previously from Justin Pierce:

How to get a high-quality kitchen remodel without the sticker shock

With headaches behind him, flipper makes tidy profit on Annandale rambler

Neighbors often butt heads with flippers