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 6

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.

Oct 4

Kitchen counter tops: so many choices, so much confusion.

In the beginning there was wood. And it was good for thousands of years and it still is. For some people there’s nothing better than a butcher block counter top in at least part of their kitchen. It’s warm, beautiful, can be used to knead dough or cut meat and vegetables. They do require maintenance. You have to keep them really clean, which might require some scraping or sanding, and you have to season the butcher block with a food safe oil like mineral oil..

And then in 1912, two engineers working for Westinghouse invented laminate. And they named it Formica. They immediately left the company and presumably got very rich. This much maligned material is familiar to everyone and wanted by no one. It’s the least expensive countertop and is easy to clean. Its worst feature is that it is very heat sensitive, so it’s relatively easy to ruin.

Stainless steel made the jump from restaurant kitchens to homes in the 1960s and is again somewhat popular. The good; no need to worry about heat or food stains. The bad; it’s easy to scratch and dent so either you don’t mind that look or you have to be very careful.

Sometimes you will see tile counter tops. I hate these because I think they’re ugly, the tile can chip, and the grout between the tiles easily stains and can mildew, even if it’s sealed.

Starting in the 1960s granite was the most desirable counter top material.. While its reign as the champion of counter tops is over, there’s a lot to like about it. It’s very durable, hard to stain, easy to maintain and can withstand heat.. Nowadays there are signs on the side of the street promoting granite at $24 a square foot (not accurate because they charge extra for every cut), so granite is seen today as a low end commodity by lots of homeowners. But there are good reasons it was the most desired material for fifty years.

About ten years ago designers started using marble in the kitchen . There’s no doubt that there are some stunning marbles. Colors like Calcutta Gold and Statuary, with lots of white and distinctive veining, command premium prices. I’ve used it in four homes that sold for well over a million dollars each. My theory is that the more people pay for a house, the less cooking they do. I say that because marble is soft and permeable, so it’s easy to chip or stain and almost impossible to remove the stains. Don’t put your water glass on your new marble counters!

Of all the choices, people are most confused by quartz. It’s a man made material, but it’s made from 93% quartz, a natural mineral. People who like it praise its low maintenance- it doesn’t require any sealing like natural stone does- and they like the fact that the color usually goes all the way through the material.. Because it’s manmade, what you see is what you get, there’s no variation in the look of the material between the sample you see and the delivery you get. People who don’t like it point out that it can chip more easily than granite and that it doesn’t look natural. To make things more confusing, there are dozens of quartz manufacturers, with conflicting marketing claims. Some of the better known brands are Zodiaq, Cambria, Caesarstone, and Silestone.

Concrete has moved out of your driveway and in to your kitchen. A few years ago there was lots of hype in the trade magazines about concrete counters, but I think it will always have a very limited market. A good installer can dye or texture your counters to give them almost any look. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you are really at the mercy of your installer because everything depends on the quality of your installation. Also, concrete tends to crack over time and it needs to be sealed. The penetrating sealers that are needed to provide heat resistance have to be reapplied regularly. A material that’s not for everyone.

By far the best known solid surface counter top is Corian. This was considered a premium counter top material in the seventies and eighties. I could say enough said, but I won’t. Corian, I think, is really much better in the bathroom than the kitchen because it can be made with a seamless appearance. For kitchens the good news is that, until you get to the wood core, the solid surface material is the same color thoughout and requires no maintenance. The bad news is that it’s not heat resistant and it’s been my experience that it discolors over time.

Porcelain counter tops are quite popular in Europe, but rarely used here. These are basically a very thin layer of porcelain veneer over a sandwich of fiberglass, MDF, and wood. They are lightweight and offer lots of looks and colors. But they are easy to break when installing them and difficult to find. I only know of one distributor in Chicago and they bring them in from Europe.

I didn’t mention glass, bamboo, recycled glass, lava stone, and recycled countertops. These are such a small part of the market that they don’t warrant devoting space to them, but they might appeal to you.

Sep 5

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.