Wednesday, August 3, 2011

DIY Bathroom Overhaul: a budget approach

Like many first-time homebuyers, we traded cosmetic appeal for a lower price when we purchased our home. The main bathroom had a hideous color scheme:  a pink bathtub, brown tiles, grey flooring, and yellow walls. Damaged cabinets and ugly fixtures from the 60s were made uglier by the paint splattered on them -- evidence of a previous owner's DIY ineptitude.  Leaky plumbing had stained the tub with rust.  There was no vent fan, and the light switch was outside the bathroom in the hallway.  A section of damaged drywall had been "fixed" with a piece of old plywood.  The cheap low-flow toilet had an unfortunate tendency to plug up.  The list of problems was long and daunting.

A professional bathroom remodel starts around $10,000 and goes up quickly from there.  A sledgehammer project financed with a loan didn't sound appealing to us.  So, how to update the ugly bathroom without going broke?

Limit the scope of the work

We limited our bathroom overhaul to a list of specific tasks:

1. Fix the leaky plumbing

2. Install a vent fan to discourage mildew and mold growth

3. Repair and paint the existing cabinets

4. Replace the cheap toilet with a better one

5. Paint the walls

6. Install better lighting

7. Remove the stick tiles and install better flooring

8. Install beadboard wainscoting to cover damaged drywall

9. Replace dated fixtures such as the mirror and towel bars

10. Add cosmetic touches such as a window valence and wall art

Acknowledge personal limitations

We felt reasonably confident in our ability to do these tasks ourselves.  We had the greatest reservations about DIY plumbing, hence leak repair was the first task we approached.  According to Murphy's Law, if a pipe breaks, it will fail in the least accessible way and cause the maximum amount of damage in the process.  We knew we might have to hire a plumber if our DIY plumbing efforts were unsuccessful, and wanted to leave ourselves enough money if that became necessary.  

We dislike the existing tub, tiles, cabinets, and countertop, but realized these things would be expensive and difficult to change. Tub replacement, tiling, and cabinetry require many additional skills and tools, and usually come coupled with drywall work. We decided to accept the existing features because they were still functional. This decision restricted our aesthetic freedom, requiring us to work around the color and style of these fixtures.  

Generally speaking, the three big limitations in home improvement are money, time, and skill. DIY improvements can take months or even years, but they can save tons of money IF a person has practical knowledge coupled with relevant experience. Lacking the proper skills, a DIY project can quickly become a very expensive misadventure. 

Keep in mind that time and effort are wasted if expended without knowledge. Starting a project without a specific goal and practical knowledge is like driving a car with no particular destination or directions in mind, yet still hoping to get somewhere. Chances are, you'll waste a lot of time and gas to get somewhere unsatisfying. Don't know a thing about a particular area of home improvement? Do a little research first.  If the task is not straightforward, consider hiring a qualified contractor to do the work instead. 

Be reasonable about cost

When crafting a budget, allow for cost growth. Don't allocate 100% of your budget for core materials and tools. Something unexpected will often happen in the middle of a major project, and you'll need money to address it. The less experience you have with an area of home improvement, the more margin you should leave in your budget. 

Don't try to save money by purchasing subpar materials and cheap tools. Americans have an unfortunate tendency to equate the words "cheap" and "economical" with each other. The cheapest product often won't last. It is not "economical" to replace a tool after a single project. Likewise, it makes no sense to guarantee a dissatisfying result by purchasing poor quality materials.  Rather than settling for poor materials, reduce the project scope by postponing discretionary cosmetic tasks. If you commit to doing work, commit to doing it right. If the final result is durable, you'll be happier in the end.

Be realistic about time

It might be possible to finish a DIY bathroom remodel in a couple weeks -- in a world where you don't have kids, a day job, or other responsibilities. Most of us don't live in that world. There will be days you can't work on the project, and days when you don't want to work on the project. Are you prepared to turn part of your home into a project space for weeks or months? DIY projects often take longer than initially expected. 

Think about ways to divide the project into bite-size pieces. Tackle one thing at a time, and try to leave the overall space as functional as possible for as long as possible. Recognize when you're about to hit a "point of no return," such as ripping out a wall, a major fixture, or the floor. Don't pass a point of no return unless you're totally committed to the next steps.

When the going gets tough, it's easy to stall. Assess the reason for the pause: Unexpected technical problem? Lack of tools? Difficulty choosing materials? Uncertainty how to proceed? Cost problems? Use the internet and local resources to your best advantage in these situations. Talk to the folks at the home improvement store. Ask questions on DIY forums. If totally stuck, consider hiring some help. Don't leave half-finished work sitting for long periods of time. It's depressing and demotivating. The longer it sits, the less likely it is to get finished. It's tough to recover from a major loss of momentum.

Be honest with yourself

It's easy to confuse reality with fanciful aspirations. Take the time to assess your personal skill level and real experience before taking on a complicated project. Never touched wiring before in your life? Don't start pulling apart an electrical circuit with the assumption that you can figure it out once it's already dysfunctional.  If you do not already have the skill set to tackle something, take the time to educate yourself about it first.  Many areas of home improvement are straightforward enough to learn from the internet, or from a class offered at a local hardware store. YouTube contains an amazing amount of useful information.

Most importantly, take your lifestyle and personality into account before deciding to start a complex DIY project. If you are always busy, can't tolerate mess, get frustrated easily, or require work to be done on a tight schedule, DIY projects can be very upsetting.  If, on the other hand, you enjoy the opportunity to learn new skills, want to produce tangible results with your own efforts, have a flexible approach toward time management, and the ability to tolerate temporary disarray, DIY work can be quite satisfying.  

Our personal progress

We approached our to-do list in three phases based on time and cost constraints.  The first phase was targeted at functional essentials (items 1-3 on the list).  Phase 2 efforts were intended to add cosmetic appeal and improved function (items 4-8).  The final phase is strictly cosmetic, intended to make the bathroom look finished and aesthetically pleasing.  

We spent approximately 4 months accomplishing the first phase, then put the project on hold due to other things going on in our lives.  We began the second phase nearly a year later, and took about 3 months to complete it. We are just entering the final phase.

In the coming weeks, I will post more details and photos of the work. For now, suffice to say that I'm happy to have a fully functional and more attractive bathroom, and thrilled that we didn't have to spend a fortune on it! 

1 comment:

  1. See, that’s what leaks can do – damage your property! This could’ve been avoided if you had the leak repaired from the start, but I’m glad that you still acted upon it. Leaks and other concerns about plumbing are serious matters that need to be given attention. And with that in mind, I agree with you that we should accept our limitations and know when to seek professional service.

    -Darryl Iorio