Homeowners often imagine that remodeling a small bathroom—about 50 square feet or less—will be much quicker, easier, and less expensive than remodeling a large bathroom. The reality is you may not shave off as much time and money as you had hoped since a small bathroom requires installing a lot of the same amenities and hiring the same professionals—only to work in a tighter space. Find out what parts of a remodel you might be able to do on your own and where you can potentially save some money.
Smaller bathrooms will challenge you to get creative by doing more with less space. Dip into interior design trade tricks of the trade and see how color choices, lighting, and mirrors can make a room feel larger. Approach your bathroom remodel project as a challenging puzzle and have fun solving it without breaking the bank.
About This Term: Primary Bathroom
Many real estate associations, including the National Association of Home Builders, have classified the term “Master Bedroom” (or “Master Bathroom”) as discriminatory. “Primary Bedroom” is the name now widely used among the real estate community and better reflects the purpose of the room.
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Bathrooms are usually categorized by their function, regardless of size. These definitions are based on where the bathroom is located in the home, its primary users, and if it includes a tub or shower.
Powder Room or Half Bath
Larger homes often have a powder room or half-bath with little more than a sink, toilet, or door for privacy. It is a convenient extra bathroom for homes with multiple floors or larger families. The small size and a limited number of fixtures means that you can remodel a powder room reasonably quickly, but since it is a secondary bathroom, you can take your time if you have to. Being pressed for time also brings up the expense.
This term refers to any bathroom with a full range of amenities—toilet, vanity, sink, and tub/shower. It can be a primary or en suite bathroom, a guest bathroom, or a children’s bathroom. What differentiates it from a half bathroom is that it has a tub or shower. Small bathrooms for children may endure decades of use and abuse. You will want a bathtub for small children, and be mindful of the flooring; you can expect that water will be spilling out or trailing behind them. Durable fixtures and waterproof floors and walls are essential for bathrooms used by kids. Good storage is necessary.
A primary bathroom is a full bathroom. The term “primary” usually designates it is used by the home’s owner daily; often, an en suite bathroom is considered the primary bathroom. This room is a relatively important room, where you might want to spend more on high quality, durable, and attractive fixtures and materials.
A guest bathroom is a full bathroom that includes a shower, tub, or both. It is used sporadically, mostly when guests visit. You might convert a kids’ full bathroom to a guest bath in empty-nest homes. Because guest baths get only occasional use, many people choose to use economy fixtures and materials, significantly cutting costs. And because this is a secondary bathroom, you can take your time remodeling it, saving costs. Another way you save: You usually do not need extra storage space in this bathroom. Take note, if you expect elderly guests or family often, you might want to include some special add-ons, like grab bars, lower counters, no-slip flooring, or a walk-in bathtub.
What Does It Cost to Remodel a Bathroom?
The costs to remodel a small bathroom, which usually means reframing, new drywall, flooring, lighting, vanity, and tiling, can average about $5,000 to $30,000. Most average about $10,000. If you plan on including the highest-end tub, sink, toilet, and fixtures, you start hitting the $30,000 range. As you add square footage and make multiple appointments with professional installers, the costs go up. If the home’s plumbing pipes or an electrical system need an overhaul, the costs can skyrocket.
The good news is if you plan to renovate and leave the walls in place and the general footprint of the bathroom stays the same, the median cost of a bathroom remodel was $3,300 in 2019, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey of homeowners.
Better yet, if all you need is a quick paint job and a new sink and toilet, you can handle those hookups on your own and forego professional assistance, saving yourself hundreds of dollars.
Smaller bathrooms require less material and therefore are usually less costly to remodel—but because they are smaller spaces, you are likely buying standard-sized construction materials and leaving behind a lot of cut-off material waste. A 3-foot by 5-foot powder room will cost about $1,500 to $2,250 to renovate, while an oversized 9-foot by 10-foot bathroom can cost as much as $13,500 to renovate.
You can do the job of a general contractor—interviewing, hiring, supervising, and paying individual professionals to do their work. Hiring subcontractors can save you quite a bit of money, as you eliminate the time and overhead of the general contractor. Below is the breakdown of bathroom remodeling costs:
- The average cost range for faucets and plumbing is between $250 and $1,450.
- Fixtures range from $200 to $1,800 for specialty options.
- A bathroom counter cost $200 to $1,000.
- Cabinetry can cost $250 to $3,000, depending on the size of the space and the style.
- Flooring is about 10 percent to 15 percent of the budget, or $200 to $1,350.
- Painting costs run between $150 and $550, depending on the paint and the size of the room.
- Replacement light fixtures cost between $100 and $400.
- Ventilation fans cost between $50 and $300.
If you’re a DIYer with prior construction skills, you can save considerable money doing some of these tasks. The labor to remodel the bathroom is 40% to 60%, usually running from $50 to $75 an hour. General contractors can cost $300 to $400 per day, and an electrician will charge about $50 to $100 per hour, while a plumber can charge as much as $2,000 per day.
Pro vs. DIY, or Both
Cost savings on a bathroom remodel project depends on what—if any—work you plan to do on your own. Most DIYers are safe bets for being able to tackle the demolition, painting, or finishing work. You can do some of the more intricate work, but it all boils down to your skills. You can divide the project; some for you, and leave some for the professionals. Contractors will split work with enthusiastic homeowners; however, if your leisurely pace interferes with their scheduled time to do their job, that can sour the working relationship and potentially drive up your costs.
How fast do you need the work done? Is this your primary or only full bath? If so, you may need the remodel turned around quickly. You might be able to go at a leisurely pace if it’s a side project like a secondary bathroom or half bath, but not if it’s your only full bath. The quicker you need it done, the more it usually will cost.
Hiring a certified bathroom designer is another way to make your project more efficient. Designers often work with contractors they’ve used on multiple projects and with whom they have a good working relationship, so you’ll have a clear plan created by the designer and a reliable contractor able to bring it to life.
The steps to remodeling a bathroom are exhaustive. It depends on how far you go, but if you’re doing a complete remodel, the process starts with a solid, drawn-out plan, building permits, scheduling skilled workers, and sourcing materials. You can save considerable money and do all this legwork, or you can hire a general contractor to handle all the fine details.
Demolition and Framing
All remodeling jobs start with tearing out and removing elements you will replace. Many homeowners do this work to save money. Some remove only fixtures or flooring. Others get rid of everything down to the wall studs and floor joists. It can be hard work but is not difficult. You can do most demolition on the weekend—plan on renting a dumpster or arrange for a disposal company to take away the demolition debris.
Most remodeling jobs will involve opening up some of the walls and ceilings. If you need structural framing work, like framing in a new shower stall, it helps to have prior experience or basic carpentry skills to get this right. The framing work may require an inspection to ensure the job is done correctly.
Plumbing, Wiring, and Drywalling
Plumbing and electrical wiring are two areas where you should get professional help. Many skilled remodelers will hire plumbing and electrical experts because faulty wiring and lousy plumbing can lead to disastrous results. Inspections are required at the start of the plumbing and electrical rough-in and at the end after final installation.
A licensed electrician will run new circuits where required, install lighting and vent fans, and arrange for the work to be inspected. Later, after the inspection is complete and the walls and ceilings are finished, the plumber and electrician will return to make plumbing connections and hook-up outlets, light fixtures, and fans.
Once the plumbing and wiring rough-ins have been inspected and passed; a drywall pro or DIYer can then install and finish the drywall. It’s tedious work, but most DIYers can handle it. The savings are minimal since professional drywall installation is not pricey.
Tile and Flooring
Tiling a bathroom can be one of the higher costs for a bathroom, both in terms of time and materials costs. Tiling for the showers and floors are premium materials. Many homeowners choose to leave the installation to the pros since it is labor-intensive and requires precision. But, if you read up on how to do it right and have patience and sheer will, the cost-savings can be substantial. Flooring options and materials vary greatly from ceramic, stone, vinyl, or laminate. Tile and flooring is one area where you can save money by researching and buying materials online or when product lines are being discontinued.
Cabinetry and Finishing Touches
In most instances, the vanities, wall cabinets, light fixtures, and mirrors are the last to go in once the electrical work and plumbing are installed, the drywall has been sealed, and the room has been painted. Most homeowners can handle this part.
Top Design Tips for Small Bathrooms
You may be limited by space but not by creativity. These tips for a small bathroom can make you adore your little bathroom oasis.
- Trick the eye and make a room feel taller: Whenever you can blur the line between the ceiling and wall, you raise the room, tricking the eye to think you are in a space larger than you are. Replace thick crown molding with narrow strips, matching the ceiling. Replace pendant lighting or hanging light fixtures with recessed lighting or wall sconces that direct light up, giving the illusion that the wall is elongated.
- Lighten up a small space: Avoid dark colors and contrasting hues in a small area. Light shades within a single color family will help a small room feel larger. Match the floor tile to the wall, which will elongate the room and give the sense of more space. Avoid putting color on the ceiling, white works best. Saturate the room with natural light, if possible.
- Play With Color. You can keep your bathroom light and airy while still adding a pop of color to breathe life or personality into the room. Go for a fun towel color and a nubby or shaggy textured bath mat to jazz up your comfort zone.
- Use large-scale patterns. Large squares, wide stripes, and other large patterns can fool the eye and make spaces seem larger.
- Use a shower curtain or sliding shower door: Shower doors that pivot on hinges may not work for small bathrooms. Instead, use a glass shower door that slides on tracks or a shower curtain. And, if you get a shower curtain, consider getting a curved curtain rod. The rod will keep the shower curtain from sticking to your body if you have tight quarters. Most curved shower curtain rods can provide up to 33% more room in the shower.
- Choose a vanity with rounded corners. In tight spaces, vanities with sharp corners can bruise hips. A rounded vanity will also free up a few extra inches to maneuver around the bathroom.
- Extend the counter over the toilet. A little extra counter space created when the vanity counter extends over the adjacent toilet can be surprisingly effective. Open shelves offer storage without swinging doors that can get in the way in a small bathroom. Only keep the essentials for your morning and evening bathroom routine. Move spare towels, cleaning supplies, additional toilet paper, and extra tissue boxes to another storage area or closet.
- Mirror the wall. A mirror along an entire wall can help two people get ready at once in tight spaces. Mirrors also lighten the room by reflecting the light, brightening walls, and deceptively enlarging the feel of the room. Shiny fixtures and gleaming white tubs, sinks, and showers also bounce the light.
- Mount the towel bar on the door. When space is limited, mounting a towel bar on the shower door or the back of the entry door keeps towels at easy reach.
- Get creative with the sink and faucet. When mounted on a wall, the low profile of a trough sink frees up floor space for storage. Also, you can use a wall-mounted faucet, significantly reducing the depth of your vanity and freeing up space in a small bathroom. Another space-saving sink idea for a tiny bathroom is a corner sink. Beware of using pedestal sinks; they can be challenging to fit in little bathrooms.
Article written by: Lee Wallender, published 04/05/22