Lessons Learned From a Bathroom Renovation

Now that Laura and I have renovated each of the bathrooms in our townhouse, we’ve joined an esteemed group:

Lambs. Led to slaughter.

Whoops! Did I just say that? That was my inside voice. I meant to say: homeowners who have completed a major renovation project.

I’m trying my hardest to be diplomatic here, but the best I can say about our bathroom renovation was that it was an experience. One that ultimately took double the money and quadruple the time we expected. Good times. Remember my recent post about getting your big-ticket decisions right? This was a big-ticket decision we got wrong.

The important question now is: what did we learn from this project gone awry, and how can we use that knowledge in the future? Laura and I did a post-mortem on our bathroom renovation project, we went over our mistakes, and we came up with a list of rules, questions and meta-questions to think through before our next home repair project (and we may have another big one if we decide to fix our home’s flawed HVAC system).

A warning: These aren't recommendations on tile, toilets or countertops. Not at all. They are generalized meta-rules to help think through what can (and will!) go wrong with any construction or renovation project. Once Laura and I had written them out, we realized our rules might be useful to CK readers planning their own major home projects.

With any luck, a few readers out there might be able to learn vicariously from our experience and avoid the complications we faced. I hope so.

Six Lessons and Takeaways From Our Bathroom Renovation Project

1) Assume all renovation projects will have scope creep: they’ll grow to be bigger and more involved than you think. When you start your next one, tell yourself, "You have already bitten off more than you can chew… you just don't know it yet." Try and manage the initial scope of the next project with this in mind.

2) All projects will have cost overruns. Budget for them. And then budget for them again. And again. They will be bigger than you expect them to be.
      2a) All projects have time overruns. See above.

3) Always ask more questions and get more information before proceeding. Repeat this mantra: "I do not know enough, what more can I learn? "I do not know enough, what more can I learn? "I do not know enough, what more can I learn?"

4) The contractor we hire is not on our team, he is on the other team. The contractor is not our friend, the contractor is a businessperson who happens to be paid to be nice to us. We are the clients: we will be nice too, but “being nice” cannot interfere with being firm, clear and direct when articulating our expectations on a job.

5) Ask the following meta-questions at the start of any major project or undertaking:
      a) How humble am I being about knowing how this project will go?
      b) What am I getting wrong that I haven't thought about yet?
      c) What assumptions have I made that may not be rational or reasonable?
      d) What extra measures can I take to protect myself from the risks of a) b) and c), now that I’m more mindful of them?

Note: Keep an eye on what’s embedded in question 5: With this question, notice that you actually can't know the answers, really. The point is to let the question answer itself by encouraging you to think about things you haven’t yet thought about.

Finally, ask this question after the project is done:

6) Did we enjoy this project? Why or why not? What aspects of the project did we assume would bring happiness--that actually didn't? How did our assumptions differ from reality, and what does this suggest for future major projects?

Readers, I want to know: what have you learned from your past renovation projects or major home projects? What ideas or rules would YOU share?

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chacha1 said...

Oh dear! "Scope creep," a.k.a. "while we're at it" syndrome. You have my sympathies.

I am totally addicted to HGTV (and DIY when I can get it) and I do see these things over and over again.

Mi esposo and I do expect to have to renovate when we finally stop renting ... and my estimate is that our purchase price should be no more than 40% of the total that we can afford to spend.

Daniel said...

I hear it Chacha. You'll be going into it with more context and self-awareness than we had, that's for sure!


Lisa said...

Having been remodeling any one of three houses over the last decade, I have a few things I'd like to share.

1) Pre-plan your improvements and be willing to take more time on them. There's a saying that applies here: "Good, fast, and cheap. Pick two." If you are in a rush to get something done by a certain time...well first you should plan on missing the deadline -- as stated above it's just the nature of these things. Second, the luxury of time can add up to real, big-time savings. I'll illustrate...

2) Supplemental question: "How much of this project am I willing to do myself?" There are SO many YouTube tutorial videos available now you can take on many things yourself if you have time and are willing to get a little frustrated. BE DISCERNING: Don't attempt to add new electrical conduit and risk putting too much voltage load on your breakers, but consider attempting to install a new sink where the worst that can happen is you make a mess on the floor and curse a lot. Always have a contractor as backup if you get in a jam. (note: never pay for demolition! Ripping out walls is fun!) DIY comes down to one thing and one thing only: problem-solving. Are you willing to put on your McGyver hat and take it on?

3. Supplemental question: "Am I willing to spend time researching and sourcing different materials options?" If you are, your bottom line just got much more manageable. Seriously, you can find a perfectly new pedestal sink on craigslist for $50, or a brand new set of cabinets at the Habitat for Humanity Re-store for $100 (they get new overstock from big-name stores!). If you pick everything out of a catalog, that's fine, but that convenience comes at a price. Again, if you're not in a rush you can find reasonably priced materials that look top-of-the line in quality and beauty. (Some of this is a matter of personal aesthetics and taste, but you can always get ideas online and advice from artsy friends if you feel this isn't your strong suit.)

So to quote Mick Jagger, "Time, time, time...is on my side. Yes it is." You will not only save money, but if you both design and do something yourself (even part of it) you get the immense reward of learning something new and a sense of empowerment for conquering something outside of your comfort zone.

Daniel said...

Lisa, thank you. That is some true comment gold right there. Much obliged for your thoughts and insights.


Marcia said...

Well, we redid our kitchen, and it took FOREVER. ANd by "we", I mean "my husband" as I was busy being pregnant and having a baby.

The important things got done fast enough that we were only doing dishes in the laundry room for a week or two.

But we had plywood counters for months before the tile got put in.

We are going through the same thing with the bathroom right now. We recently (last Christmas) painted the walls and replaced the toilet and pedestal sink (with a cabinet).

Left on the list: replace the tile in the shower. Replace the showerhead and handles (there are 3 - hot/ cold/ shower, but we want to go to a single handle for the controls (in the center instead of the bottom). We'd like to remove the tile along the back of the toilet/ cabinet and put in wainscoting.

Problem: we only have one bathroom. So we will have to plan very carefully or move out for a "certain period of time" or ?? Shower at the gym?

Ronda said...

Oh, I'm sorry! That sounds like a bad experience. It's kind of making me realize why people gush over my contractor husband so much! He explains all that up front: that you will very possibly discover something that you didn't know about, which will probably make it cost more and take longer than you plan, and that if you keep changing your mind, it will definitely cost more and take longer. He usually has very happy customers, so I guess you could always import him from Michigan. :)

Ronda said...

My husband did an extensive master suite remodel for us in a couple weeks (excluding flooring, which was backordered.) It helps when he is VERY motivated to get back into his own bed and shower. ;)

This winter will be the kitchen, which I am sort of dreading.

Lida Swisher said...

I definitely agree with these points. These should be a lesson to homeowners out there who are planning a renovation: Murphy's Law. Set up contingencies as much as possible, whether it's an alternate bathroom blueprint, a supplemental budget on the side, or a professional renovator's number standing by.

Lida @ Waddle Exteriors

Fredrik said...

It is a good thing to see those lesson cause this year we are planning to renovation our bathroom in our house in Finland and we want to consider everything before we go for renovation.

Hope Underwood said...

These are great tips to consider, especially for those who are planning on renovating their bathrooms. I like how you pointed out that all projects will have cost overruns. Most people encounter this problem that often leads to their projects not meeting their expected outcome, or being delayed due to budget oversight. Anyway, thanks for sharing these tips! Good luck with your future projects and renovations!

Hope Underwood @ Level and Square Construction

Jesica Smith said...

nice post

Lauren said...

When we moved 18 months ago we needed a new kitchen (in Europe you BYO, and the old one wouldn't fit). I plan, my husband pays. He set a budget based on what he was willing to spend (fair!) and then had a FIT when the kitchen planner's first quote was double that. Turns out one should expect to pay 1000 Euros per linear metre of installed kitchen, including appliances. There is a market in second-hand kitchens but none materialised that would fit our space (this is where the time factor comes into play but, after our most stressful move EVER and 3 months with hotplates on plywood, we just didn't have any more to give). So we got free marriage training by slugging out whether his budget or my desire to have more than a motel kitchenette in my house would win. And yes, I sold the old kitchen, DIY'd as much as I could and sourced scratch-and dent stuff etc. Point being, sometimes "creep" isn't due to something during the process but rather of not knowing what the marketplace has been up to in the last 10 years.

Anonymous said...

We just finished a major reno (I was tripping over the buckled vinyl flooring in the kitchen) where we found rotting subfloor ("Nothing dramatic" the contractor said, "just 60 years of condensation" patting the bathroom's five-inch wide iron pipe), furnace spewing deadly gasses, kitchen window stuck in Wichita over the American "holiday season" (November thru New Years!) and so forth. Three to four weeks turned into three to four months, 30 grand to 54.

Now we are adding an in-law suite to our two-bedroom/one bath, making it a three bedroom/two bath house. A relatively large laundry room can host a microwave and bar fridge for her convenience and independence; the master bedroom is large enough for a chair or two and electric fireplace, with a south-facing patio to soak up the sun and read outdoors in fine weather.

I am thinking that if we want to end up with a 70-grand bill, we should aim for 40. If we aim for 70, we will get beyond our max of 92.

I'm sad the mudroom/laundry room addition from 17 years ago needs to be torn down. Started with $6,000, ended up at $10,000. Here;s the pattern: almost double.

Kitchen & Bath said...

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