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Your Home: Kitchen & Bath

Bath renovations that wow

Know where to spend your budget for the biggest boost to your property value.

Bathroom renovations (American Standard photo)
By Elizabeth Gehrman
September 26, 2010

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If you’re one of the millions of Americans who have hunkered down over the past few years, saving instead of spending, making do with what you have rather than going after what you really want, now may be the time to rethink that position – especially if you’re tired of living with an old bathroom.

“After the economic catastrophe,” says Stephen Melman, the director of economic services for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C., “a lot of remodeling was focused on repairs – if there’s a leak, fix it. That psychology has softened now, and people are starting to see what they actually need and going back to larger projects.” Mortgage rates are staying low, Melman points out, and many people are refinancing not to get cash out of their homes but to lower their monthly payments. And with the extra money, some of them are sprucing up the place.

“Bathrooms are a more manageable job than kitchens,” says Sal Alfano, editorial director of Remodeling, a Washington, D.C.-based trade magazine for building professionals. “But they have a big impact.”

According to Remodeling’s Cost vs. Value Report for 2009-2010, a “midrange” bathroom renovation done in New England and priced at $17,018 can net you $11,677, or 69 percent of its cost, in added value to your home. An “upscale” project of $54,454 can give you a return of 62 percent of its cost.

So don’t feel bad if you can’t put up with cracked ceramic tiles or a rusty medicine cabinet for another minute. “It’s partly a rational decision to remodel and partly emotional,” says Alfano. “You can hold off on the rational stuff for awhile, but eventually the emotion takes over and you want to get it done.”

So what will give you the best bang for your bathroom-reno buck? The experts to whom we spoke made two points again and again.

First, before remodeling an existing bath, consider adding a new one instead. In a 2006 analysis of HUD/Census Bureau American Housing Survey data, researcher Paul Emrath of the National Association of Home Builders figured that an extra half bath adds up to 12.5 percent to a home’s value, and a second full bath as much as 20 percent. “The greater the disparity between beds and baths,” he says, “the more there is to gain by adding another bath.”

Though carving out another bathroom may seem impossible in an older home where space is at a premium, realtors agree that in a two-story house or condo it’s important to have, at minimum, one full bath on the bedroom floor and one half bath on the main living level. “Otherwise it’s a huge negative,” says Frank Celeste of Gibson Sotheby’s in Charlestown. “I would suggest taking a closet for a half bath and throwing an armoire in the hallway. People use the lack of a half bath to negotiate the price down.”

Second, if you do decide to remodel your existing bath, keep in mind that the room is increasingly being seen as an in-home spa, and luxury is the watchword. “The bathroom is much more tied to ritual these days,” says Robin Brenner, owner of Billie Brenner Ltd., which sells bathroom fixtures and fittings at the Boston Design Center. “It’s a place where you can relax for 10 minutes before running out to work, or unwind when you come home.”

Replicating the spa experience at home takes space, of course, but if you have it – or can steal some from a nearby closet or other spot – there are several features that are increasingly seen as must-haves:

Separate Tub and Shower Among the top 10 features that builders most likely would include in new houses in 2010, according to a National Association of Home Builders report released in January, were a separate tub and shower in the master – but if there’s not space for both, the bathtub gets left out. “I have a client who just bought a place that was renovated in 2008,” says Ryan Persac, a realtor with Prudential Unlimited in Brookline, “and he’s gutting the bathroom and putting in a huge shower with multiple heads. How many grown men take baths?”

Unlike in the master, realtors and builders usually recommend keeping the tub in a shared bathroom. “Most of the time our advice is there should be at least one bathtub in the house, both for resale and if you have little kids and want to give them a bath,” says Paul Sullivan, president of The Sullivan Co., a builder and remodeler in Newton.

Deluxe Shower “One of the things that people are looking at with their showers,” says Brenner, “is lots of functionality – water coming at them in multiple directions.” Steam showers and multiple shower heads complicate the plumbing and cost more, she admits, but are worth it if you have the space and money to install them. She recommends using a thermostatic shower valve, which allows you to program the temperature for all heads.

Curbless, roll-in showers are becoming more popular, too, partly because, as Persac points out, “people want to emulate the higher-end bathrooms they see in boutique hotels, which are often more open.” But they’re also more popular, Melman notes, because the population is aging and more people are thinking about growing older in their houses. “Not having to step over the tub can help you avoid injury,” he says, calling a curbless shower “probably one of the best investments you can make.”

Most of the experts we consulted also mentioned putting a seat in the shower. “Nobody ever sits there,” says Jeff Swanson, president of Renovation Planning in the South End, “but women need it to shave their legs.” In-wall niches for holding soaps and shampoos are also popular.

Jason Sevinor, vice president of Designer Bath and Salem Plumbing Supply in Beverly, says you can take the spa idea a step further by choosing products that employ aromatherapy – offered as an option in certain steam systems – and chromotherapy, in which colored lights are placed in the shower head or tub.

Alfano, though, cautions consumers not to go overboard. “My guess is that a lot of people put in double showers that they never use,” he says.

Soaking Tub “Nobody uses a Jacuzzi,” maintains Celeste. “And they always break. Ninety-nine percent of them fail home inspections if they’ve been in more than five years.” Tony Giacalone, owner of Tony’s Realty in East Boston, points out that the jets get discolored after a few years and make the room look unclean. Brenner concurs with the two realtors. “Most customers looking for hydrotherapy these days prefer air tubs, which have little holes all the way around rather than fewer large jets,” she says. “They break less often, clean themselves, and provide gentler, more even turbulence.”

As for the style of soaking tub, our experts agreed that freestanding is the most popular. “They have a more sculptured look,” Brenner says. “They’re a modern take on the old claw foot, and can be very contemporary or very traditional.” (For examples, see our gallery of soaking tubs at boston.com/magazine.)

Double Vanity Whether in the master or in the hall bath, which is often shared by two or more children, double vanities are seen as close to imperative these days. “We all live busy lives,” says Persac, “and if you can avoid the morning argument of ‘Hey, can you hurry up? I’ve got to brush my teeth,’ that’s huge.” In some cases, this translates to two separate vanities or, in larger homes, separate bathrooms.

The only time a double vanity might not be appropriate is if bathroom space is limited. Though two sinks can be squeezed into a 48-inch-wide space – IKEA even makes a wall-hung model that’s just over 39 inches wide – most require 55 inches or more, and you have to consider whether there will be sufficient counter space for hair dryers and toiletries. “Go with one sink if you have limited surface space,” says Celeste. “You need a place to put things down.” Pedestal sinks, he adds, are the least popular option, because they have such a small flat area surrounding the bowl.

* * *

Once you’ve settled on the configuration of your new or remodeled bathroom, it’s time to choose the finishes. “The finishes are where an appraiser can really see a difference from one house to another,” says Celeste. Stick-on flooring and Formica countertops just don’t cut it anymore.

Vanities have gone beyond the simple espresso and black wood cabinets that have become so popular in recent years to pricey exotics like ebony and zebrawood and previously kitchen-only materials such as stainless steel. Many of the newer units are wall-hung, which can create an illusion of spaciousness in a smaller bathroom, or appear to be freestanding, like a piece of furniture rather than “a box sitting in the bathroom,” according to Swanson. Often, he adds, these airier-looking units include drawers and perhaps a shelf along the bottom for towels and storage baskets.

Undermount sinks remain popular, but vessel sinks, for the most part, have had their day. “Once in awhile I’ll still do one in the powder room,” says Swanson, “but they’re not easy to use. Definitely don’t do it in any kind of working bathroom.” Trough sinks have replaced vessel bowls in cutting-edge design, while popular faucet finishes are chrome and brushed nickel. “Some people have been going back to the polished chrome lately,” Swanson says, “but I don’t see anyone going to brass.”

Countertop materials are usually the same as those used in kitchens – granites, marbles, manufactured quartz, and recycled-glass composites. If you’re looking for high tech, check out RM Global (rmgloballlc.com) for countertops consisting of computer-generated art sandwiched between pieces of glass, some with LED lighting built in. If your primary concern is sustainability, PaperStone (paperstoneproducts.com) offers a countertop made from recycled paper and a non-petroleum resin.

Medicine cabinets are invaluable for stashing prescriptions and unattractively packaged toiletries. “People think of the old 1950s ones,” Swanson says, “but they’re very nice these days.” Many recessed cabinets are tucked behind fashionable frameless mirrors, with the hinges hidden; among the new features available are anti-fog mirrors, concealed electrical outlets, and locking refrigerated cabinets.

Lighting is crucial, too. “People tend to cheap out on lighting fixtures,” says Celeste, “but a bathroom will look a lot more expensive than it is if you use a good-quality lighting fixture.” You may or may not want a light over your mirror, but make sure to illuminate the sides. “You should always have a light at chin height,” says Alfano. “You need it for shaving or putting on makeup.” Designers occasionally show pendant lights doing face-framing duty, but Alfano points out that if your chin is, say, 5 feet off the ground and you have 9-foot ceilings, “it can look weird.”

Though Giacalone concedes that “the toilet isn’t really the opportunity to make your bathroom beautiful,” there are a couple trends for the workhorse fixture. Wall-mounted toilets are more contemporary and easier to clean than the traditional style, but they do need a bit of in-wall space for the concealed tank, are more expensive, and can be more trouble if they need fixing.

Another trend is automatic toilet seats, which got their start in Japan. Costing as much as $1,500, they can have every kind of gadget imaginable, from hands-free flushing and sensor-activated lids that lower when you depart to bidet-like water features and self-cleaning capabilities. “I think they’re ugly,” says Sullivan, “but my cousin thinks hers are the best thing ever.”

The most visible real estate in the bathroom, of course, is usually taken up by tile. “A fiberglass tub or shower just doesn’t fly when it’s time to resell,” says Giacalone. For a budget renovation, there are paints available now that freshen existing tiles. Sullivan tried it in his own bathroom and “it looked pretty darn good,” he says. Until, that is, “the cleaning lady scrubbed the paint right off the tile.” If you’re careful, however, the paint can last a few years and be a quick fix or interim solution for a do-it-yourself makeover. “At least you’re not waking up to pink and green anymore,” says Sullivan.

For those looking for longer-term solutions, there’s a huge variety of tile out there. During the recession, says Melman, “builders have stopped building as much. But the building product manufacturers, makers of tile and hardwood floors and carpeting, have continued to spend a lot of money on research and development to improve their product. There’s been an explosion of choices.”

Glass tile is still “all the rage,” according to Alfano, “but it’s a fairly pricey item.” He and other experts suggested using glass tile on an accent wall or as a decorative strip around the shower. “Whereas in 2005 you might have said, ‘Give me the best tile you have,’ ” says Alfano, “today, if you can get tile for $4 or $40, you’ll probably pick something in between.” Smaller tiles – an inch or a half inch – remain popular, but larger porcelain tiles that look like linen or grass cloth in the shower are also appealing. “You can drive a truck over them and not hurt them,” he says, “and they’re extremely inexpensive, like $12 to $15 a square foot.”

Carrara marble and subway tiles remain timeless, according to Celeste, who advocates neutral colors if you plan to sell someday. “If it’s maintained,” he says, “you don’t know if it was done 10 years ago or yesterday.”

Any of these tile options can work for flooring, too, though bamboo and other sustainable woods, cork, and eco-friendly real linoleum (as opposed to vinyl) are showing up in bathrooms these days as well. But no matter what materials you decide on, “make sure there’s a ‘wow’ factor,” says Giacalone. He recalls one homeowner who reclaimed a window that had been boarded up, making her bathroom stand out among the competition, and another who situated his shower to give it a view of the Boston skyline. “Plain and simple, light and airy; that’s what people are looking for.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is a freelance writer in East Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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  • Sept. 26 Globe Magazine: Your Home

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