The charming 1930s-era brick home we bought in Northwest Washington eight years ago had exactly what we were looking for: enough space for our small family with room to grow, plus a neighborhood with great schools.
The only problem? The master bathroom.
The minute I saw the gray Formica vanity, the inch-thick gray tiles that lined the walls and the “hammered glass” shower door of our master bathroom, I promised that it would be the first remodeling project on our list.
Instead, it was nearly last. Why?
Sticker shock. As many homeowners quickly learn, gutting and remodeling a master bathroom can be as expensive as remodeling a kitchen.
A Remodeling Magazine report comparing the cost against the value of renovations says a mid-level bathroom remodel this year in Washington costs $17,000 for a typical 5-by-7-foot space. Only 74 percent of that can be recouped at resale.
For an upscale bathroom remodel of the same size, there’s less of a return. The average cost is $55,000 — yes, really — and one should expect to recover only 64 percent.
For years, my husband and I did the math and balked.
Let’s face it: In most cases, remodeling a bathroom is about aesthetics. If the toilet flushes, the sink isn’t creating water damage and the shower is structurally sound, there are plenty of reasons to keep it as is. (Besides, it’s not as though many visitors see the master bathroom.)
On the other hand, the master bathroom is one room in the house, like the master bedroom, where you’re expected to allow yourself some privacy, relaxation, even a small luxury, such as a towel warmer or a shower head that pours water down from the ceiling. The name itself suggests a certain indulgence.
One challenge in the Washington area is that many master bathrooms are very small. They were built in homes more than 70 years ago, in an age before soaking tubs and double-sink, his-and-her vanities were common.
But several remodeling pros say that doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of the space and enjoy more modern features. Here are some tips about how to maximize the space and save some money in the process.
For small bathrooms, one of the most important decisions is what size and style sink and cabinet you choose. They often take up most of the space — if not physically, then visually. And in choosing one, the sink and vanity will set the tone for the rest of the bathroom.
In smaller bathrooms, where the vanity is going to take up most of the real estate, there are two options: pedestal sink or a more European design, such as a sink and cabinet that attaches to the wall, since those manufacturers are used to designing for smaller bathrooms.
The pedestal sink looks attractive and frees up space but provides storage challenges that require some creativity, such as where to put the hair dryer and extra toilet paper rolls. But there are plenty of retailers, such as Container Store and World Market, and ideas on Pinterest where you can use small baskets or build shelves or cabinets elsewhere in the bathroom to make it work.
If you decide to go with a cabinet and sink, several remodeling pros recommend choosing a slim design that doesn’t look too boxy and choosing light colors, which won’t draw as much attention as dark wood. One style popular these days are vanity cabinets with dresser-like legs, which allows some visual space so that you can see the floor, which also can help a small bathroom appear larger while also adding an updated look.
Vanities, of course, can range in quality. Many bathroom showrooms feature vanity cabinets with granite or marble sinktops and customizable wood cabinet designs, starting at around $1,000. Big-box retailers offer similar-looking vanity designs at a fraction of the price, but the wood quality and the sink won’t be the same. Online, sites such as Signature Hardware ( signaturehardware.com) and Decor Planet ( decorplanet.com ) offer a wider variety of styles, from modern to neoclassical, and their prices tend to be in between the big retailers and the higher-end retailers or bathroom showrooms. But the quality is hard to vouch for — few have a large number of reviews that can provide consumers with extra comfort.
For our bathroom, our problem was that we had limited depth to work with, since our master bathroom is about the size of a small walk-in closet. Most vanities sold at traditional retailers, such as Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware, are built with 21-inch depth and 24- to 30-inch width. With ours, we had about 18 inches, max.
Given our space constraints, we ended up finding one online that fit our style and space constraints. It was a little counter-intuitive, but we ended up buying a smaller sink than the one we had originally. For sure, we have less storage space, but the tiny bathroom now feels a little bit roomier than it used to. In a small bathroom, every inch counts.
If you’re planning to gut your bathroom and start over, you might ask your contractor to look for some “found space” by rethinking its previous configuration.
For example, if your master bathroom has a large tub in it as well as a shower, consider removing the tub, says Jim McCoy, president of Bath Express, which has two showrooms, in Fairfax and the District. Most people don’t use their bathtubs, and they end up as wasted space — something you have to walk around, he says. “People used to like big tubs,” but today, people seem to have less time for using them and now want to relax in the shower. “Now, they like very nice showers, with a nice handheld shower, a shower bench or maybe a rain shower head.”
Another place to find space is in the walls. Once the old bathroom is gutted, contractors can frame the walls and find new spaces, for example, to build a shelf or a bench in the shower. It may not seem like much, but in a small bathroom, every corner that you can find to put to use can help.
One designer, Elizabeth Boland of Design in a Day, says her favorite tip is to create a built-in cabinet in the wall space, between the frame. She then buys a mirror to cover it up and attaches hinges so it functions as a hidden storage space.
“This is a secret everyone should know,” Boland says. She recommends building the cabinet as tall as possible in the wall. And she has done it often enough for clients that she even buys the same mirror from Ikea to create the look. “It’s not deep enough for toilet paper, but you can put a lot of other things in there.”
Another area to consider is the bathroom door. Simple as it sounds, the space where the bathroom door swings open may be taking up extra room that makes the space feel smaller. Contractors can remove the door and either create a “pocket” door that slides into the wall or they can move the door hinge so that it swings out, opening into the outer room instead of the bathroom.
In our bathroom, we didn’t have enough room to adopt Boland’s secret cabinet idea, but we did find a tiny space to build a niche in the shower wall so we finally had room to put our shampoo and soap. And we made space in the wall to put in a larger recessed medicine cabinet that fits inside the wall rather than sticking out from it, giving us more space for toiletries.
Nothing opens up a space like new lighting. Many old homes were not built with a light above the shower, which my contractor, Neil Jannsen, highly recommends for all of his bathroom remodel clients. Initially, some clients are surprised at the suggestion of shining a light over the space, but it can add depth to the room and make it look larger.
“I don’t think you can have too much lighting,” said Jannsen of Jannsen Design, whose clients are mostly in Northwest Washington and Bethesda. “Some folks have gotten used to older bathrooms being so dark. But once you get it in there, you realize how it shows the whole bathroom off. You want it to show off all the tile and things you’ve put your money into.”
With lighting, one has to also consider wall color and tile selection; in a small bathroom, the tile can easily dominate the color scheme. Several designers recommended looking for classic designs, such as subway tiles, or ones that are oriented horizontally, particularly in the shower. This helps to create a visual effect that the shower is larger than it is.
Jannsen also recommends using tile all the way to the ceiling in a bathroom, which creates a similar effect, and trying not to “do too much” in terms of adding extras in the shower. For example, many bathroom showrooms today have tile showers that feature a horizontal strip of “accent” tile that is different from the rest of the bathroom tile, often glass or a unique design to introduce another tile color or pattern.
But in a small bathroom, these can be distracting, Jannsen says. He cautions the same for people who may really want to try to install a lot of extra shower head plumbing, such as side sprays or elaborate shower systems.
“Keep it simple in the tile department and in the shower fixture department,” he said, “just so that there’s fluidity to it and the design is pleasing.”
In our bathroom, we followed Jannsen’s advice and added a recessed light over the shower and bought a three-bulb light fixture to replace the dimmer one that once hung over the vanity. We also chose white Arrabescato marble for the shower in large rectangular shapes — 22 inches wide by 12 inches long — and had them installed horizontally from floor to ceiling. This created the appearance that our shower wall was made almost like a large piece of marble, and with the light, made the shower appear taller than it really is.
The other luxury was that we added radiant heated floors in the bathroom, which can get very cold with the large window we have in it, especially in the winter. Although it’s only been a few weeks — and for sure, the cost per-square-foot is something I don’t like to think about — I love the new look.
Instead of being the eyesore of the house — a room that my husband used to avoid — even he admits it’s a dramatic improvement.
Goo is a freelance writer and former editor of The Washington Post’s Real Estate section.