Room for Improvement

What not to skimp on when renovating your NYC bathroom

Mimi headsht
By Mimi OConnor  |
December 17, 2018 - 4:00PM

Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean you shouldn't spend on it. 


Thinking about finally tackling that bathroom renovation? Congratulations! Now, be prepared to make a lot of decisions, about the tiniest of tiles to toilet paper holders—plus, a lot of even more practical stuff that you won’t even see.

In a perfect world, cost is no object during a renovation project: You pick what you love and hire the best people for your project. But for most of us, that’s just not reality, which leads to some tough choices regarding where to spend and where to save.

In many cases that’s a matter of preference, but in others, taking the cheap route is at best, not advisable, and at worst, catastrophic and costly. (Think we’re being hyperbolic? Have you ever had a pipe burst?)

We talked to pros who’ve seen how cutting costs in a bathroom renovation can come back to bite you. Here’s where they advise you spend instead of save.

Don’t skimp on help

Enlisting the services of qualified, experienced professionals—from architects, to contractors, plumbers, and electricians—is key. And yes, the people with more knowledge and jobs under their belt typically charge more.

“Before you hammer a nail into anything, hire an architect or designer to create a layout so everything is mapped out on paper. You can then use the set of plans as your blueprint for the renovations. Spending a little extra time at the beginning will avoid hours of headaches down the road,” says Barbara Kovovit, CEO of Evergreen Construction, who also advises renovators to vet professionals thoroughly. “If you don’t take the time to research a good contractor and check their credibility, a lot of wasted time and money can be spent on correcting their mistakes.”

Make sure your contractor has a home improvement contractor license issued by the Department of Consumer Affairs, and that they are properly insured. “Don’t be afraid to call their insurance company to make sure the policy is enforced. This way if there’s an accident on the job, you won’t be held accountable," Kovovit says.

“Especially in a bathroom, you do not want to cut corners on the contractor. If you go cheap here you will pay, and a low bid will cost you somewhere,” says Jennifer Morris, principal at JMorris Design. “The waterproofing and properly plumbed and framed work that goes in before anything ‘fun’ is so important. I have seen contractors not use rust proof screws and they stain through stone material. I have seen poor waterproofing trap water behind tiles and pop them off. You can buy the most expensive tile but it won’t matter if it always looks stained from water you can’t find.”

Beyond the nitty gritty of plumbing, electrical, and waterproofing work, getting the bathroom of your dreams could very well require the expertise of a design professional.

“Never underestimate the value of good design. Pinterest and the rest of the Internet have made amateur designers out of all us, but picking out bathroom tile or a vanity mirror is one thing,” says Dan DiClerico, Home Expert & Smart Home Strategist at Home Advisor. “It’s another to come up with a holistic design that combines style, functionality, and efficiency. That’s what a professional designer brings to a remodeling project...It’s money well spent, since the professional oversight will help avoid costly mistakes, and the finished result will be so much better, no matter how good an eye you might have. ”

Where to invest

More than one expert suggested that if you use or touch something every day, it’s worth spending a little extra on it.

“I really can’t say how important, and what a difference well-made fixtures make. You touch and use them regularly so well-made and working items are a must,” says Morris.

Jeff Streich of Prime Renovations agrees, saying that quality shower bodies and shower heads will both feel and look better. (He likes Speakman products.) “You shower every day,” he says.

And both count a quality medicine cabinet from a brand such as Robern as a place to spend some cash. “Cabinets like Robern help this extra space really work for you by adding outlets in the cabinet to hide electric shavers or toothbrushes and magnets to organize annoying tiny clippers or miscellaneous [items],” says Morris.

“Lighting is also a great place to put your money,” says Morris. “A special light fixture does a lot but always have a few sources of light.”

Little splurges you’ll appreciate later

Streich makes the point that there are a number of places where you can spend a little bit more and make a big difference. For one, the tile for the floor of your standup shower, a small area that won’t break the bank if you go with an option that’s a notch or two above basic.

He’s also a strong advocate for going for the nicer shower drain. “They’re not expensive, and they’re way nicer looking,” he says.

And finally, do yourself a favor and get some nice vent covers. “You can go to Home Depot and get a $7 vent cover, or you can go to Home Depot and get a $50 one and the bathroom looks completely different.”

Mimi headsht

Mimi OConnor

Contributing Writer

Mimi O’Connor has written about New York City real estate for publications that include Brick Underground, Refinery29, and Thrillist. She is the recipient of two awards from the National Association of Real Estate Editors for interior design and service journalism. Her writing on New York City, parenting, events, and culture has also appeared in Parents, Red Tricycle, BizBash, and Time Out New York.

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