Renovating The Arbolodge Bathroom

When we bought this house nearly seven years ago, one of the main items we waffled over (remember when you could waffle over buying a house in the Lower Mainland?) was the fact there was only a single bathroom, and it was small. We decided to go ahead with the purchase regardless, and assumed we could install a second bathroom in the basement a few months down the road. We also planned for a one bedroom basement suite as a mortgage helper.

After a few months unpacking and living we started calling up contractors and doing our research and the short answer was: your basement is too low to put a suite in, and your sewer not low enough to install a toilet in said basement without seriously big renovation. We were told one of the few ways to resolve this would be to raise the house, and we did our research on that and eventually abandoned it. It was simply not in our cards and was hugely expensive, not to mention we’d likely not be able to live in the house while the work was done.

Fast forward to about two years ago, and our bathroom – small, poorly decorated, and plain – demonstrated it was nearing the end of its useful life when a drawer on the vanity literally broke apart in my hand when I pulled it open. The previous owners had done a full renovation last in 1998 (according to the note I recently found in the wall), and it would seem added new tile around 2003 or 2004 ish to match the kitchen tile when the kitchen was renovated.

When the drawer fell apart, Ross got out a 1″ X 6″ and some screws and tacked it together, and we started talking about budgeting for the impending renovation. We also had a mortgage refinance in our near future, and when the time came, we managed to shuffle some stuff to put some money into a renovation account.

We knocked off some smaller items first with our budget: we installed pot lights in the basement, finished the basement insulation and new drywall and trim, and just this past summer, Ross and some friends replaced the shingles on our roof. We also went to Maui. We knew the big ticket item would be the bathroom and saved it for last. We gave the bathroom a $10,000 budget, though we really wanted to stay at $8,000 if possible.

Here’s the before (you can hover over these pictures for captions or click on them to open up larger).

Prep Work and Planning

Science-y Bits

First, we needed to ascertain whether there was anything nasty in our walls, ceiling, or floors, and we spent a great deal of money having a contractor come to take a number of samples and process them for asbestos, lead, and other nasties. This was a pretty big expense ($787.50), but the results were great news. None of the samples had asbestos or lead in them. Phew. You can do this cheaper than we did by collecting your own samples and sending them in. We chose to have a contractor do it because it was one more thing off our list.

Design

Ross and I also talked a lot about look, feel, must-haves, and nice-to-haves. When you’re 5’0″ and your spouse is 6’3″, well, deal breakers will be different for you both.

I wanted beauty and improved functionality. If I was going to live with only one bathroom the rest of our life in this house, it needed to be a kickass bathroom I felt happy to be in. Ross wanted improved structure (like waterproofing) and the lowest budget possible. Basically: I was all-in on luxurious touches, Ross wanted to only ever have to do this once and spend the least amount possible.

As an example, I had always dreamed of having another clawfoot tub. In my renter days, I had shared an old house with friends and we were fortunate enough to have a giant cast iron clawfoot tub in the upstairs and a separate shower downstairs. I loved it, had baths often, and would spend hours in there. Given that our house is 104 years old, it was period appropriate to consider a cast clawfoot tub for our “new” bathroom. Ross’ only concern was what would showering be like? Would it feel claustrophobic if you had to shower with a curtain all the way around you? (Answer: yes, most likely.) When I thought hard about it, the part that was important was the ability to have a deep soak, not that it was an old clawfoot. So a deep tub it would be.

I started pinning all the things I liked as I spent hours, literally, Googling. I would sit with a little glass of whiskey and just scroll. Pinterest was really helpful  in finding ideas and looks that were both modern but at least a nod to our old house. I recommend you spend a lot of time in this stage so that you aren’t making decisions with the pressures of the walls apart. Have a Plan A, and a Plan B. Almost all manufacturers have complete specs online, and it’s become much easier to do all your planning without stepping into a bathroom showroom. But, doing that can be a one stop shop, so it depends a bit on your personal preferences.

A major challenge for us in our planning work was that the cavity for the tub was smaller than the average tub, which meant finding the right tub was going to be really hard, and likely would mean a custom tub. Which meant expensive. (More on how this turned out in a moment.)

Finding Your Team

The hardest part about our preparations was actually finding a contractor willing to do what could be described as a relatively small project. Plus, it was renovation on an old house, which is nowhere near as desirable for many contractors as doing work on a brand new house in the process of being built.

Ross’ work meant he had connections to a few possible contractors. We had three separate contractors come over and look at the room. One that I had found suggested I consider tearing down my entire house after I listed off some of my dream renovations, trying to convince me it would be cheaper to just build the perfect house. Another priced much, much higher than I was hoping to pay (he quote labour alone at $10K). Another was one we were prepared to go with – we liked his forthright manner, his spitballed ideas, and his ballparked budget (it was still a bit higher than our desired $8K mark, but we were realizing that $8000 was impossible for our list of must-haves). But when it came time to a more precise written estimate, the contractor dropped off the face of the earth.

In the end, we chose a contractor some of my Twitter friends recommended – Micah Jansson, and I’m happy to give my endorsement of his work. We liked that he suggested he work for materials cost and labour rather than a flat rate for the whole job. This gave flexibility to shift gears if we discovered new information as the demolition process went along and gave us the chance to try and find better pricing on the higher ticket items. Micah liked that I had more or less already decided on the tile, fixtures, and other components. We also agreed to find a plumber and an electrician to do the parts of the work Micah felt less comfortable doing. We lucked out on both of those – I have a great electrician we have used for lots of work in this house, and another Twitter recommendation came through for the plumber who was available on really short notice and did a good job. Before we started, Micah gave us a written rough estimate of the number of hours each part should take and clarified how much the materials were likely to cost, and noted the parts that might rise depending upon what we discovered.

We had been completely stagnant on this project for more than a year, and all of a sudden it was full steam ahead – Micah had a window that was just right for this project starting the following week so we bit the bullet and jumped in.

Demolition

Demolition started fast and the portable toilet was delivered on day two just as the toilet was coming out. We learned the ugly “never looked clean” sink was actually marble, and I had it, the medicine cabinet, and the taps on Craigslist for less than an hour before they were claimed for free.

The ugly terra cotta coloured floor tiles came out and we discovered not one, but two sub floors underneath. We decided to rip them both out, because the first one had a number of holes cut into it, and the second one was made from wood so old (likely the very original wood) it was cupping and shrinking. While this meant more labour costs and some additional materials costs, a big benefit would be that the ridiculous 1 1/2″ transition from the hall to the bathroom would be reduced to 1/4″ or less – yay!

At this point I was panicking about the tub. Bathtubs come in standard lengths (54″, 60″, 66″, 72″ are the common ones, with 60″ being the standard). A 54″ tub would be the largest one we could fit into the cavity. A local manufacturer did make a 54″ tub, but didn’t keep them in stock and we’d need a week for manufacture. None of the floor work could proceed without the tub in place and the wall work needed the floors done to complete. This would have added a full week to the project, meaning another full week of using a portable toilet in our driveway while nothing happened inside. Ugh. However, things went our way when on day three of demolition, Micah discovered a false wall behind the door (complete with a fully functioning pink medicine cabinet with lead glass mirror they had just framed over). Once removed, we had a precious extra four inches, and it was all we needed to make a standard 60″ tub happen.

Another unplanned for expense was the discovery that the false ceiling was made really poorly. I wasn’t worried about height (our ceilings are a bonkers 9 or 10′) but when Micah removed the old ceiling drywall we discovered the framing of the false ceiling was not secure and the drywall had been affixed with only 5 screws. We also opted to replace the ceiling drywall – it hadn’t been cut to the right size and whoever had done the last reno had used a lot of tape and mud to cover up the shortcoming, and it was going to be more work than it was worth to get the old piece back in after the false ceiling frame had been appended. Plus, we moved a light fixture so there would have been a big patch.

Rebuild

This final part of the renovation was the most excruciating. I was incredibly sick of using a portable toilet outside, I was tired of showering at the gym, and I had fallen behind on some work because it was a bit distracting and consuming. Plus this part has a lot of things that need to cure and need just plain old time: the radiant floor heat takes two or three days to cure before you can tile over it, (which worked out nicely to fall over a weekend), and the floor tiles needed a full long day before they could be walked on or grouted. But it did come together with relative simplicity and no major hiccups.

Finishing

Home stretch. Things were finally coming together. It had been about three weeks at this point. I had purchased plain wooden Ikea bathroom fixtures and cabinets (on sale, some time ago) so to speed up the process I got out my handy dandy screwdriver and assembled it myself. I fancied the Ikea furniture up a bit by buying overpriced glass drawer pulls from Lee Valley but they really add something to the bathroom and to match, we bought a new door knob/lock set from the new and used place. I also took advantage of the opportunity to buy coordinating and properly sized storage containers for under the sink and in the medicine cabinets as the space was a bit more slim than before.

Both the electrician and the plumber had to come back for finishing and we were also very fortunate that the scheduling worked out again. We had to wait a bit for the silicone to set and the grout to fully cure, but we could use our bathroom again! We have been working on finishing the door trim (it needed to be redone and repainted) and then it will be totally done. The first bath I took was heavenly. Here’s a video tour of our bath, and then the final sections that follow is about our budget and some tips.

Arbolodge Bathroom Renovation from Jen Arbo on Vimeo.

Budget

Our budget going in was $10,000 which seems like a huge amount of money. Our final tally, including everything was $12,545.96. We were over by a couple thousand dollars, however I am including the $787.50 we spent on the asbestos and lead analysis and we’ll use that for other stuff. I’ve put together a spreadsheet (of course I did) of all of the costs and it’s in all its unedited glory, below.

We saved some money by taking care of the drywall and waste disposal ourselves (we borrowed a trailer and Ross did a few trips). We probably could have saved a bit more had we not decided to rip out the ceiling. Choosing to remove both subfloors was also costly – it added a full day to Micah’s time and there were materials costs but, had we opted to skip that, we would not have discovered that the toilet sewer was not connected correctly. That’s right, totally not connected properly at all, and no idea how long it had been that way, either, as we haven’t done anything to the toilet since moving in. It’s a miracle that the cavity between the floor and the basement ceiling wasn’t full of raw sewage. So, this discovery also meant more in plumbing costs than anticipated but I am totally relieved we discovered this when the floors were ripped apart rather than when the basement ceiling was discoloured and wet.

We could have also found cheaper tiles (though the ones we bought were extremely reasonably priced) and could have spent more time sourcing stuff like the lighting or tub for a lower price.

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Advice and Final Thoughts

Here’s three pieces of advice I offer you.

  1. Having almost everything pre-selected or even pre-purchased was a total win for me. I wasn’t following any special design, but I knew what I wanted the bathroom to feel like – clean, spacious, fairly timeless. Choosing easily available white subway tile and a unique but grey hexagonal tile for the floor was a really good choice. Everything else was white or wood and as colour trends change, I can change things up really easily with new decor items and a new shower curtain. Don’t worry about your fixtures all matching. Our acrylic tub has fairly sharp angles, the sink is more curvy but still boxy. The shower and tub faucet is one brand, the sink is one from Ikea. Having everything selected meant I wasn’t agonizing over a design or decor detail with the pressure of a timeline. And, if you’re curious where I sourced anything you see, please feel free to get in touch and ask. Nothing is from anywhere fancy – most of it came from Ikea or Lowe’s.
  2. If you only have one bathroom plan your renovation in the summer. The three or four days that it was raining hard were awful using a portable toilet late at night and in the early morning. Nothing like saying hi to your neighbour as you step into your turquoise plastic box. The portable toilet rental was probably the simplest part – they offer more or less next day delivery, charge a flat monthly rate and a delivery and pick up fee, and were super easy to work with. Also, the TP that comes with a portable toilet sucks. Use your own.
  3. Take your time planning. Do your research. Learn if you need permits (we didn’t), read all about the new methods and materials. Find a contractor you like – this is a person who will be in your house for a few weeks at the very least. Have a plan A, and a plan B, and put some thought into a plan C. Really think about what the must-haves are (for me, a deep tub and warm floors) and decide what you can live without (built in shelving for towels).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go have a bath!