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There comes a time in any homeowner's life when they realize (in my case, with a mixture of joy and trepidation) they will have to completely redo their bathroom.
For me, that time came within the first week my husband and I moved into our Harlem co-op. We had always known we would like to completely overhaul the bathroom eventually, but we didn’t know we would really have to undertake the remodel so soon.
We thought we'd have another few months to settle in and "get to know the space" as so many designers advise before undertaking a major renovation.
Then the toilet broke--I should say, broke completely--within the first week, and we decided there was no point in delaying the inevitable.
The first thing I did was write an email to friends who might know a good contractor for a standard 5' x 7' full bathroom remodel on a budget. A few recommendations trickled in.
One of those didn't bother to return my call. Another told me he’d do it, but he would only take cash. He also didn’t think we should “complicate" matters with paperwork and suggested I shouldn’t tell the building we were planning on opening any walls during the remodel. He quoted me $6,000 for three weeks of work, plus materials.
I couldn’t get him out of my house fast enough. It’s not that I necessarily thought he would do a bad job on the bathroom. It’s that I (a) felt it would be a mistake to go behind the building’s back and (b) was sure he would drop me and my project the minute a bigger, better paying job came up.
Another guy quoted us $11,000--not bad. But he did not call back or write back. Ever. Getting rejected by somebody you’re offering to pay really stings.
Still another guy offered to do the job for $3,000, and he’d have it done in two weeks. He said I’d have a bathroom “like new” in no time, and with no fuss. He’d simply slather mastic (a ceramic tile adhesive) over the existing tile and then slap on new tile on top of that. New sink, new toilet, et voila! A “like new” bath. Never mind the grossness festering underneath decades of grime and grout. Never mind the cracked surface of our century old tub or that the tile would end up 3 inches thick.
One gentleman was so nice, but just seemed horrified at the idea of tiling a full bathroom. He insisted (almost begged) I consider using large tiles--the largest possible tiles. Very clean and modern, he said. He was right. But that’s not why he was suggesting I use large tile. I figured I would do him a favor and just not work with him. As nice (and I’m sure, honest!) as he was.
Next, I called a large full-service design and remodeling company. As part of the full-service process, they strongly encourage you to sit down with their designers, and let them sell you all the rough materials and bathroom elements (tile, medicine cabinet, etc.).
One-stop-shopping may be the way to go for some, but I was not about to pay a premium for the convenience. For the labor only, their quoted price was $14,618. Their consultant estimated at least another $5,000 - $10,000 in materials depending the finishes we ended up with. And this was not including a new tub! (Labor included re-glazing the tub for $786.12)
Then, one afternoon, I stumbled across a thread in the renovation forum on StreetEasy. It was an old thread discussing the costs of a bathroom remodel. One commenter mentioned an affordable bathroom renovation she had just completed. She had done a modest renovation, without changing the layout of the bathroom at all. This was exactly what we needed. We weren’t really looking for a re-designed bath, just a spruced up version of what we had bought in the first place. In other words: basic white, but clean and bright.
One conversation later with the contractor mentioned on the thread, and I knew we had found our guy. He talked me through a typical renovation: 1-2 days to demo the walls, they carry out and haul away all the debris and rubble in their truck everyday, and they could reinstall the toilet after the work day so that we could actually stay in our apartment during the renovation if we had to.
During our meeting he was genuinely interested in the apartment, but unlike the others who had visited, he did not criticize the space to try and make me see all the other things I should hire them to fix. He seemed to want to work on the project, and not just because he happened to not have anything better to do than work in Harlem. (I remember one contractor actually told me he usually did “Manhattan type” jobs, but he wouldn’t mind coming to Harlem. Oh, lucky me…)
Two days after the meeting, I got a quote from them for $13,850. Very reasonable for a gut reno'd bathroom n in NYC. But still a bit higher than what I was hoping for, since it didn’t yet include tile, fixtures, etc. The price included labor and rough materials.
We also liked that he did not insist on buying all materials for us. We hoped that sourcing our materials ourselves would give us the most control over the costs.
Next, our journey through internet, space, time and Bensonhurst to find the bathroom of our dreams...and budget.
NYC Renovation Chronicles is a bi-weekly column focused (obviously) on renovation, NYC style. Helmed in the past by an architect, a kitchen and bath designer, and a general contractor, the column's new steward is co-op renovator, real estate porn addict and Harlem resident Mayra David. She'll focus on what it's like to DIY or HSI (= Hire Someone Instead) in NYC.