Bathroom Makeover on a BudgetUpdated: Feb. 27, 2023
Expert tips that add up to big savings on your next bath remodel
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Get a new look and stay on budget
If you plan your design, shop smart and invest some sweat equity, you can have a $25,000 bathroom remodel for a fraction of the price. Don’t believe us that you can remodel bathrooms on a budget? Well, we updated this bathroom with new wall and floor tile, a new vanity and top, and new plumbing fixtures. Then we framed the mirror and added glass shelves above the toilet—all for less than $3,000. And we did it all with materials purchased at home centers. For this article, we worked with kitchen and bath designer extraordinaire Lori Jo Krengel. The following pages feature Lori Jo’s advice on how to remodel a bathroom on a budget.
Lori Jo Krengel is a Certified Master Kitchen and Bath Designer and the president of Kitchens by Krengel, Inc., an award-winning design firm in St. Paul. Lori Jo combines style and function to create bathrooms that meet specific budgets. She recommends consulting a designer before remodeling a bathroom to avoid common mistakes. Expect to pay $100 to $125 for a one-hour meeting.
Remodeled budget bathroom
The materials for this bathroom remodel came from home centers and cost less than $3,000.
Tip 1: Use extended light fixtures over medicine cabinets
Light fixtures that sit close to the wall won’t cast adequate light over a medicine cabinet. Installing a light fixture with a long neck is an easy solution. Buy one that places the light bulb above and in front of the mirror.
Cost: $20 and up
Tip 2: Check out granite vanity tops
Granite tops used to be for big-buck bathrooms only. But now you can get one for less than $200 at home centers, including an attached, under-mounted sink. (The top shown cost $465.) If you need a vanity for a corner, buy one with a backsplash along the back and one side to protect the walls from water spills. Mount the faucet in the vanity top before setting the top in place. Then you won’t have to lie on your back inside the vanity and reach up under the faucet.
(For step-by-step instructions for replacing a vanity and top type “vanity” in the search box above.)
Tip 3: Frame the mirror and side-light it
A tile or wood frame adds style to a plain mirror. Any tile will work (we used a mosaic glass tile). Apply the tile to the wall using mastic adhesive. Tape off the mirror and use unsanded grout to avoid scratching the mirror.
You can also buy a wood mirror frame at a framing store, or buy wood molding with a rabbet cut into the back and build your own frame. Paint or stain the frame before installing it. A third option is the mirror framing system from Moen.
“A frame gives the mirror a strong element of design and really dresses up the room,” Lori Jo says.
Sconces placed on both sides of a mirror will give you better illumination than overhead lights. Light cast from opposite sides eliminates shadows on your face. And two lights reflected in the mirror can brighten the entire room.
“New lights give you quick appeal and add a lot of ambience to the space,” Lori Jo says.
Cost: $30 and up for mosaic tile; $20 for wood frames you make yourself; $26 and up for two sconces.
“Light fixtures, plumbing fixtures and hardware don’t have to match, but they should have complementary finishes and styles.”
Tip 4: Install a curved curtain rod
Besides giving the bathroom a sleek look with its gentle radius, a curved curtain rod gives you more elbow room in the shower. You can use your current shower curtain, or buy a new curtain and new rings in the same finish as the curtain rod to complete the new look.
“Installing a shower rod instead of glass doors is a great way to save money,” Lori Jo says. “If you really want doors, you can always add them later when you have the budget.”
Cost: $40 and up, depending on the finish
Tip 5: Crown the room
Crown molding makes a big impact in bathrooms. And since bathrooms are small, you can add a lot of elegance for $50 to $100. For painted crown, urethane is a good choice because unlike wood, it won’t expand and contract with changes in humidity. Urethane molding is lightweight and easy to install with adhesive caulk and nails. Available at home centers, 8-ft. sections are $3 to $15 less expensive than wood the same length.
If you want to use wood, make sure the bathroom is well ventilated. Also seal the back side with a wood conditioner if you’re staining the wood, or a primer if you’re painting it. Sealing the back side reduces warping. Cost: $13.50 and up per 8-ft. section of urethane molding.
(For step-by-step instructions on how to install crown molding, type “crown molding” in the search box above.
To learn more about urethane molding, type “urethane” in the search box above.)
“Choose your vanity first, then the top. Next, choose your flooring and any tile. Then pick your plumbing fixtures and finally your wall paint. It’s easier to match paint to the vanity and tile than the other way around.”
Tip 6: Add a shower shelf
Home centers and tile stores sell shelves that you adhere to tile walls with all-purpose construction adhesive (Loctite Power Grab is one brand). Apply adhesive to the shelf back, tape the shelf in place and then let the adhesive set for 24 hours. This only works for tile walls, not fiberglass surrounds.
Or buy shelving that sticks with suction cups or tension bars.
Cost: $15 and up per tile shelf
Tip 7: Give old faucets a new look
New plumbing fixtures give the shower a fast and easy face-lift. Use a shower trim kit when you replace your single-handle shower faucet. These remodeling kits have all the necessary parts—a new handle and wall plate—to update the look of your faucet while leaving the old valve in place. That means no hassling with any in-the-wall plumbing. Make sure to buy the same brand as your existing faucet. Some models are available at home centers. If you don’t see your brand, contact your faucet manufacturer to find out where to buy one.
Trim kits are available for single-handle faucets only. To convert from a two-handle faucet to a one-handle, install a shower cover plate (also called a “remodeling” cover plate). The wide plate covers the handle openings so you don’t have to install any tile to patch the hole.
Cost: $25 and up
Tip 8: Measure your vanity footprint
When bathrooms are built, vanities are installed before the flooring. That means your flooring ends at your vanity. If you’re replacing the vanity, buy one that’s the same length and width as your existing vanity (or larger). Otherwise, you’ll end up with gaps between the vanity and the flooring. Or replace the flooring too. Then you can install a new vanity (any size!) and butt the flooring against it. “Vanities take a beating from water spills, bathroom humidity and everyday use, so new cabinetry can make a dramatic improvement,” Lori Jo says.
Cost: $100 and up.
Tip 9: Install hardware from this century
If you’re keeping your vanity, give it a subtle update with new handles. Replace any visible hinges too. To change from knobs to handles, or vice versa, install back plates under the hardware to cover the existing holes. Home centers carry a limited selection, but you can special-order them or buy them online. (topknobsusa.com is one source)
“Back plates cover up the sins of hardware past,” Lori Jo says.
Cost: $1 and up for knobs; $4 and up for handles
Tip 10: Test the paint colors
A new coat of paint can make a world of difference by brightening up the room or adding color. Stick with white for the ceiling—it makes the room appear bigger. Satin and eggshell finishes are good choices for bathrooms. They’re easy to clean and don’t show every imperfection in the wall. Paint stores and home centers sell paint samples, so you can test out a color before painting your entire bathroom. A test sample lets you see the true color on your walls so you won’t have to guess.
Tip 11: Splurge on the faucet
The sink faucet is one item it’s OK to splurge on (it’s even recommended!). You want your faucet to last and look good. One way to judge faucet quality is by weight. Heavier ones are better—they’re solid metal. For optimal durability, buy a fixture that uses a ceramic disc valve (it’ll say so on the packaging) instead of rubber washers (the washers wear out). And be sure to buy a faucet that fits the hole pattern in your sink.
“The faucet is the most frequently used thing in the house, but it’s where people don’t want to spend money. When you think about it, it’s where you should spend money,” Lori Jo says. “Buy a quality faucet and look for a lifetime warranty.”
Cost: $90 and up for a quality fixture
Tip 12: Toss the bar—hook your towels instead
Installing hooks instead of towel bars helps you keep your bathroom organized. That’s because they’re super simple to use, especially for kids, so the towels don’t end up on the floor. Plus, you can fit in several hooks—and hang more towels—in the same space a towel bar would take. Don’t worry; your towels will still get dry. The hooks are called utility hooks or robe hooks in home centers.
Cost: $1.20 and up per hook
“Find colors you like to punch up the bathroom, then add those colors with new dispensers and new towels. Those things can make a huge difference.”
Tip 13: Mix in mosaic
Mosaic tile accents give shower surrounds a custom look while letting you use mostly inexpensive tile. Plan the layout on paper first to identify any design problems.
Shopping around for tile can save you a fortune. We bought this blue tile on clearance for 80¢ per tile and mixed in mosaic glass tile ($10 per sheet).