Light Touch-Ups

Tips for when a total bathroom remodel isn’t in the budget.

By William Hirsch, author of The Perfect House

Sure, bathroom remodeling is easy if you have a big budget. Just rip out everything and start over. But what’s a person to do if they have limited funds and a bathroom that is in dire need of a facelift? Well, there are several highly effective, but low-cost changes you can make that can produce impressive results. Here are some suggestions, listed from least costly to most costly.

PaintbrushThe least costly bathroom remodeling upgrade is to change the cabinet hardware, towel bars and paper holder. Although these are small items, they say a lot about the condition of the bathroom, especially if the ones you have are broken or missing. Be sure to coordinate the color and finish with the faucet and shower fixtures for the best look. Unless you are changing your cabinets, you will need to pick cabinet hardware that matches the screw holes of the old hardware to avoid having to patch old holes.

Next in order of cost is paint. This may be the single most effective thing to do when doing a bathroom remodel on a budget. A fresh coat of paint in a new and uplifting color can make a huge difference in a bathroom and does not cost much. But no matter what your budget is, please don’t go too cheap on the quality of the paint. Low-quality paint is a waste of time and money. You want to use a paint that is durable, washable and covers well. I usually advise my clients away from glossy paints because they will show every blemish in the surface and they are impossible to touch up. If you need to touch up a spot, you will be doomed to recoat the entire wall to get it to look right.

I mentioned blemishes in the surface of the walls. Fixing these is a critical part of painting. Most of your work should be in the preparation. Not even the best paint will hide lumps and dents in the wall surface. Be sure to spend enough time spackling and sanding to get a super smooth surface before painting. Consider applying one coat, then check for more blemishes and spackle those spots again before applying the final coat. You’ll thank yourself in the end.

If you’re changing the cabinet hardware, you might want to change those plumbing fixtures, too. The faucets are the easiest to change and can have a dramatic aesthetic effect on your bathroom. Just be sure to select faucets that fit in the holes you already have in the countertop. They aren’t all the same. Some have one hole, some have three holes, and the holes might be spaced differently for different faucets.

For a few hundred dollars more, you can replace the toilet. This is the fixture that gets the most use and can look the worst. Consider a comfort height model. They are becoming more and more popular. And never get a round bowl toilet unless nothing else fits in the room. They look cheap and they are uncomfortable to use. Always choose the elongated bowl variety for more comfort and style.pic-2_zab54422_rgb_1

Replacing the vanity cabinet can be a bit more costly and may not fit into a budget bathroom remodel. Sometimes it’s possible to just change the doors on existing cabinets. But often the cabinet needs more repair than that. The drawers may not work right or the hinges are shot. However, if the cabinet is functionally sound, replacing it just to change the look may not be worth the cost. Try cleaning it up and possibly painting it with a good alkyd (oil-based) paint to get a hard, smooth finish that’s almost as good as a factory finish. Here again, the prep work is the key. Fill blemishes with Bondo auto body putty and then sand, sand, sand until smooth.

Although it’s a more involved bathroom improvement, you might think about replacing the countertop and possibly the sink. The sink will be the smaller cost of the two. A simple oval under-mount sink is less than $100. Solid countertop surfaces like granite, quartz or Corian are expensive. However, the countertop in a bathroom is not nearly as large as in a kitchen. Since these products are sold by the square foot, a new top might just fit into your budget. Try looking through the “off-cuts” or remnants at the stone countertop company. These are leftover pieces cut from large slabs they used for bigger projects. Chances are you can find a piece you like that will fit your bathroom and come at a discount of up to 20 percent.

Cultured marble is a less costly countertop and sink replacement option. This is a synthetic stone-like material that is made with the sink bowl molded right in. there are more color options with these than in the past and they are custom made so they will even easily fit an irregular-shaped top.

If you do all of the things listed here, you would still “qualify” as doing a bathroom remodel on a budget. And the aesthetic effect and your personal enjoyment will be dramatic. 

William Hirsch, author of Designing Your Perfect House, is a member of the American Institute of Architects.  He was the former president of the Delaware Society of Architects and is a member of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.


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