Feb 26

Part Two; your bathroom

It’s been a long time since I last wrote this blog.  I started to write about bathroom renovations and got as far as commenting on toilets.  Perhaps our most intimate household fixture, but far from the most glamorous.

So now I’ll move on to sexier design choices in the bathroom. Probably the biggest change one can make to a bathroom is converting a tub to a shower.  Ten or twenty years ago your realtor would tell you that doing this was an absolute disaster for resale.  Not only should you leave the tub, but also you should install a whirlpool.  The thinking was that women loved taking baths, and having a tub in the master bedroom was a necessity.

That thinking seems to be changing dramatically.  The clients with whom I deal, if they’re thinking about improving their master bath, almost always want to take out the tub and build a big shower. (Of course the best option is a big tub and big shower, but few homes have enough space.)   I think the reason for this is simple.  Most people shower every day, and might take a bath once a month.  And anyone with more than one bathroom does have another tub.  And it’s so much nicer to step over four inches than twenty inches and to have room to move around in the shower.

Here’s what you have to know if you’re thinking about changing your tub to a shower.  First, there are basically three choices for the base.  The most economical is precast fiberglass.  These cost $200 to $500 depending on size and you can buy them at Home Depot.  You’re limited by the sizes offered, and most of them are only available in white.  Next, there are some vendors who make custom cultured marble bases.  These look nothing like traditional cheap and ugly cultured marble sinks.  There are probably fifty choices of colors and patterns, and you can order absolutely any size or shape you want.  These cost between $500 and $1,000 in general, depending on size and finish.  One nice advantage to these for the installer; they come with a lip that extends up from the base so it’s very easy to install tile in a way that virtually guarantees no leaks.  Finally, there’s the traditional site installed custom tile base.  The installer builds a wood frame around the shower base and fills it with concrete.  Tile is installed over the concrete. This technique is a lot more difficult than I’m making it sound.  Because there are a number of steps required both to install the base and to make the shower waterproof, a custom base costs thousands, not hundreds of dollars.  I can’t give you a range because there are too many variables, but this approach is the nicest and most expensive.  It’s also most prone to leaks and water problems if it’s not done perfectly.

Here’s the next thing you have to know about converting from a tub to a shower.  You have to change the plumbing in the wall.  Your tub usually has a valve located about 34 inches above the floor, a foot or so above the tub spout.  The water automatically comes out of the tub faucet until you pull up on the diverter and send it to the shower.  Once you get rid of the tub, you won’t feel like bending down to turn on the water, and the tub spout would look pretty stupid without a tub.  So one of the first steps we take when converting a tub to a shower is to open up the wall, take out the valve that’s in the wall, and remove the tub spout.  Then we put in a new valve.  And there’s more choices here.  Do you want just a showerhead or would you like two of them, so you and your partner can shower together?  Do you want  body sprays, a hand held wand, a rain shower head?  Do you want to install a steam unit? 

What kind of valve do you want?  There are two basic choices; thermostatic and pressure balanced.  Pressure balanced is what you normally think of when you picture a shower or tub control.  You turn it on and choose the temperature by moving it from cold to hot.  Thermostatic valves have two components.  You select the temperature and can leave the control set there.  When you turn on the water you’re only choosing the volume or water pressure.  If you choose to put in a number of different body sprays and showerheads, the thermostatic valve is the best choice, because you leave it constant and just turn the control for the water you want. 

I feel like a guest who’s overstayed his welcome.  My wife told me when I started writing these posts to limit them to one page.  So just call me at 312 543 6915 if you have questions about showers because I could easily write another five pages on the subject, and almost all of you would either not read it or be really bored if you did.

Oct 06

Bathrooms, part one of many

Here’s a quiz for you; how much does a toilet cost?  If you said $69 you’re right and if you said $1,000, you’re right too.  The bathroom probably has the widest variety of costs of any room in the house.  You can spend as little as $2,000 and as much as $50,000 redoing a small bathroom.   This blog was going to cover all the costs of renovating a bathroom, and then I was going to trim it down to only the design decisions.  Finally, I decided to just start with toilets and divide bathrooms into however many posts it takes to cover.  I know you love reading what I send out, but I doubt many of you want to read a 20-page blog about bathrooms.  So I’m starting with what may be your most basic decision; your toilet.

There are a huge number of choices in every category that go into finishing a bathroom and they all have a corresponding variety of costs.  Starting with toilets, you have to decide if you want a two-piece or a sleeker one piece.  Do you want the traditional tank or a power flush, where the interior of the tank is sealed, and as you flush the air pressure increases the flushing power?  Do you need what they call comfort height, a slightly taller toilet that means you don’t have to squat quite as low as a traditional one? Do you dream of one of the Japanese computerized toilets that shoot out warm water and air?  Two-piece toilets start at under $60 and cost up to about $500, one-piece toilets cost between $300 and $1,000, and the computerized toilets cost between $3,000 and $7,000. 

Before talking about what I like, here’s what I don’t like. My opinion is somewhat subjective and based on seeing real life toilet problems.  Three types of toilets I would avoid: the super cheap big box toilets, the power flush, and any toilet that has a lot of internal pipes.  The latter looks like there’s a snake sitting in the base.  The super cheap toilets use super cheap parts, so you can be pretty sure they’ll need repair within a couple of years.  The power flush toilets are very good, and can be a good option if you have kids.  I don’t like them because if you have a problem with them, the average homeowner can’t fix them.  You have to call a plumber because the interior, sealed tank hides all the parts.  Finally, the toilets that have internal pipes are easily clogged and are very difficult to clear.

I personally like one-piece toilets.  I think they look better.  Expect to pay somewhere between $400 and $600 for a nice one-piece. Functionally, there’s no difference between one and two piece; it’s only design and appearance.  The Kohler two-piece toilet you pay $300 for will work just as well as the $1,000 Toto.  The difference is purely esthetic.  

Of course, if you really love them, the do everything toilets are fun.  The seats heat up, they blow warm air on you, and will also shoot warm water.  Be prepared to spend extra for installation, however.  They require electric to be wired in to the toilet.  But if you’re spending $5,000 for a toilet, an extra $500 shouldn’t deter you.

The bottom line here is the same as I say about all your design decisions.  Spend money on what matters to you.  If you could care less about how your toilet looks, buy a good quality two-piece toilet for $200 to $400.  You may want a taller toilet, you may want a round rather than elongated bowl, or you may want the option to have a half flush for liquids.  Decide what’s important to you and direct your designer or contractor on what you like.  Don’t leave it up to them to tell you what you need.  Most of them are going to push for a fancier, more expensive choice. Let them enumerate all the choices you have to make. You’re the one who’s going to spend time living with this purchase.  Make it a comfortable decision, or you’ll spend lots of time sitting and thinking you should have made a different one.

Sep 05

It’s not what you know; it’s who you know!

Almost every client with whom I work has a preconceived idea of how much things should cost and what rooms in their home should be improved, and the basis for their opinion comes mostly from their peers.  Everyone listens to their friends.

Two interesting things arise from this reliance on friends.  Based on geography and socio economic circumstances, people’s perception of what things should cost vary wildly.  When I talk to friends or clients in an affluent suburb, they believe it’s impossible to do a kitchen renovation for less than $100,000.  When I talk with clients in less affluent neighborhoods, their perceptions for a kitchen renovation range from $10,000 (unrealistically low, but possible) to $50,000 (a nice kitchen, but not fancy enough for my ritzy friends).

Whether you’re renovating or building a new house, here’s my first and most important advice for you.  Spend money on what’s important to you.  Don’t worry about what your friends think is important.  And, in general, don’t worry about ‘investing’ for a future sale.  Your best investment is making your home a better place for you to live. Very few people have unlimited resources, you have to decide where to allocate yours.

Here’s more unsolicited advice from me.  First spend your money on maintenance and fundamental structural issues.  I’ve worked on several homes in the last year in which I was called in to address esthetic issues.  When I looked at the homes, I quickly advised my prospective clients to forget about design and worry about structure.

And one final bit of advice; don’t worry about what your friends tell you.  It’s your house and your money.  I always suggest thinking about the things you’d most like to change and starting with those.  And with starting with spending the least money you can to get the most change.

Coming up in future posts; exactly what you will have to spend for various improvements.

May 05

I hate my kitchen, now what?

Perhaps the most common room in the house that people really hate, for esthetic or functional reasons, or both, is their kitchen.  In the city there are loads of condominiums with thirty year old galley kitchens.  In the suburbs there are a multitude of kitchens that just are not set up the way people want to live today.  Of course, it’s in the interest of everyone in the industry to tell you to gut everything and start over to create your dream kitchen.  I’m going to give you the opposite advice.   Here is some advice, in no particular order, based on experience with dozens of renovations.

  • Unless money is absolutely no object, start with trying to figure out what is the least you can do to change your kitchen that will give you what you want.  My father and his wife had a truly ugly kitchen.  When their house was built thirty years ago the developer installed light caramel glaze hickory cabinets with grey corian counter tops.  For five years they talked to me about a gut renovation, but I knew that they didn’t really want to spend the money or go through the hassle of a months long project.  And their kitchen layout was good..  I suggested they throw away the corian and replace them with granite that better matched the cabinets.  The work took a day, they spent about a fifth of what a total renovation would have cost, and their kitchen is beautiful.
  • Get expert advice first.  If you cannot stand the way your kitchen looks, but especially if you hate the way it’s laid out, find a great kitchen designer.  There are not that many of them, so if you are not thrilled with the design the first person gives you, go see another designer.  This is a specialized field, and the design is going to make or break your renovation, so demand satisfaction.
  • You get what you pay for.  Two weeks ago I went to see a brand new condo.  It was owned by the fiancé of the woman who called me.  She hated his kitchen cabinets, which were a medium brown stain, so they paid a friend to paint them ebony. He used a brush so you could see all the strokes on the doors.  For some inexplicable reason, he painted the doors a matte color and on the boxes (the cabinets themselves) he applied a high gloss polyurethane boat sealer, so the sheen was completely different than the doors.
  • Do what makes you happy and makes your home better for you.  It always surprises me when I talk to people who tell me they’ve lived in a house with a kitchen they hated for the last twenty years, and now they want to sell the house so they want to improve it.  Your house is not an investment per se.  You should not expect to make a profit on the money you put in.  The best investment you can make is in creating an environment that improves your life.  If you do that, you’ll find someone who appreciates what you’ve done and the house will sell faster.
  • Make your decisions in advance.  Whether you act as your own general contractor or hire an architect, think through everything and realize that everything should go together; the cabinets, countertop, hardware, sink, faucet, etc.  Most people are surprised to learn how many decisions have to be made.  It’s much better to make them in advance.  If you don’t, it will cost time, money or both.
  • Use the internet.  There are wonderful sites like Houzz that have hundred of thousands of photos.  These are today’s versions of House Beautiful magazine.  People create ideabooks online instead of clippings.  It’s a really easy way to communicate to your designer or builder what looks you like.
  • Stick to a classic look.  Right now it’s in vogue to mix light color cabinets with a darker color island.  Glass mosaic tiles are very popular for backsplashes.  If you love that look, install it.  But don’t be persuaded by anyone to do the currently popular look.  Your designer is going to renovate many more kitchens in the next few years, and they’ll be on to the next trend, but you will live with your kitchen for the next ten or twenty years.