Fancy a steamy, relaxing bathing experience after a tough day in your home? Bubbles, bubbly, or water jets can be part of your plans to remodel or build a new small bathroom. Space constraints can be limiting in some cases, but you can still get a sumptuous, spa-like tub. Don't settle for a shallow, narrow, uncomfortable standard tub. You have options in many non-standard sizes and shapes specially designed for maximum comfort in minimal space. Tubs also come in different materials and may have special features.
Finding the right one for your budget and layout requires planning, and this guide can help you understand more about types available, average costs, and other considerations you need to know before you buy.
What Is a Soaker Bathtub?
A soaking tub allows you to submerge your body in water and soak. These tubs are typically deeper or contoured to provide a spa-like, relaxing bathing experience.
Before Buying a New Soaker Tub
If relieving stress and soaking your aching muscles and joints is high on your priority list, get out your measuring tape and figure out what space you have to work with. Also, consult with an architect, general contractor, plumber, or home improvement expert to determine if the house can hold the load of the tub filled with water and review plumbing needs. Moving a drain adds to the expense and may be difficult, so keep that consideration in the back of your mind.
Also, think about who will be enjoying your new tub. Will the primary users be adults, or will you also bathe small children? Do you plan to soak solo, or would you like a tub that's big enough for two? Is there anyone in the household with physical issues that may require accessible features, such as grab rails and non-slip bottoms? If so, you'll want to choose a tub that is ADA compliant.
Buying Considerations for a New Soaker Tub
Take your time with planning out the space. In a tight area, you have little margin for error. Using duct tape, plot out some tub dimensions on your bathroom floor. Is there clearance for the door to open? Do you have space under a window for a corner tub? Could you possibly squeeze in a tub of 32 or even 34 inches wide? Practice moving around your new tub by positioning a small table or a couple of chairs in its place for a few days.
Also, shapes vary widely, giving you options to play around within your space, such as round, square, rectangular, oval, slipper (or double slipper), or clawfoot.
Porcelain, Ceramic, and Acrylic
The least expensive soaker tubs are porcelain-enameled steel, ceramic tiles, and acrylic. Porcelain-enameled steel is a very common tub material. It's not as heavy as cast iron and is non-porous, but it can chip easily. However, its maintenance is challenging, requiring re-grouting between tiles and vigorous cleaning to keep mold and mildew at bay. Ceramic tiles are porous and rough to lay on, although it is one of the more versatile options since they can be molded into the shape you need.
Acrylic is a hard non-porous material that is sturdy, retains heat, and is easy to keep clean since its mildew resistant. It is prone to warping over time, will get scratched, and can get stained (if you ever dye your hair at home). Fiberglass is a budget option for three-walled alcove tubs (not usually used in soaker tubs); it can get brittle quickly and crack easily, it's not recommended. Acrylic is a better economical choice.
Stone Resin, Cast Iron, Copper
On the higher-end, stone resin, cast iron, and copper are sturdier and non-porous. They retain heat better, potentially giving you a better bathing experience. When it comes to stone resin or cast iron, most stains and mildew will wash away with warm water or a light abrasive cleaner. Stone resin is the best bathtub material overall for the price and quality. Cast iron is the most durable and the heaviest of all the options. Copper is beautiful but also makes for a heavier tub.
The most expensive choices are cultured marble and wood. Marble is luxurious looking but is heavy, prone to staining, and needs a lot of maintenance to keep it mildew-free. Wood is aesthetically pleasing but will inevitably wear down in a short time with use.
Generally, many soaking tubs are shorter length-wise and usually deeper. According to the National Kitchen & Bath Association, a standard bathtub is a minimum of 60 inches long and 30 to 32 inches wide. Within the scaled-down category, you'll come across 30-inch-wide tubs that are as short as 48 inches. Keep in mind, however, that these are exterior dimensions. No matter how perfectly it may fit within your space, make sure you sit in the tub before buying it to make sure it fits you.
Another misstep to avoid is a too-skinny tub. If you're stuck with a narrow room, choosing the slimmest tub you can find might seem like an obvious solution. Consider the 32-inch-wide range, which will expand your available options and offer you a more comfortable choice. Unfortunately, any tub less than 32 inches is usually very shallow, making it unsuitable for a deep and relaxing soak.
Spa-like soakers can be decked out to include pillows, shelves, armrests, mood lighting aromatherapy, a heater to keep the water warm, a sound system, and jets. Each additional feature adds to the cost, but for the full spa experience at home—every day if you want—go for it if you can afford it.
Types of Soaker Tubs
Feel free to think outside the three-walled alcove space that's used to hold most rectangular bathtubs. When you're shopping for a downsized tub, some other shapes and installations could be a way better fit in your bathroom.
Square or Corner
If your current bath is on the square side, you might consider a corner tub designed especially for tight spaces. Considered one of the more luxurious tub options, it generally offers more room, making it feel more like a hot tub. Spa-like and stylish, corner tubs leave more space near the sink and for traffic in and out of the room. Generally, corner tubs either come with a built-in "apron" or are sold as inserts that you can lower into a separate surround—which, of course, adds extra inches onto the final dimensions.
Freestanding or Pedestal
A petite pedestal tub is another smart, if pricey, option for a compact bathroom. Because they appear to "float" within the room, these freestanding models take up less visual space. Flexibility is another big plus offered by a pedestal tub. Depending upon your plumbing position, you can place your tub wherever it fits best in the room. Shapes vary from oval, circular, rectangular, and clawfoot.
In Japan, an important part of an ancient bathing tradition is the "ofuro," a deep tub, often with a seat, that allows bathers to immerse themselves in hot water comfortably. Deep (usually about 27 inches) rather than long or wide requires a small footprint and uses far less water than a standard tub. These Asian-style traditional tubs are ideal for small bath owners who love a long, relaxing soak.
The high sides of a Japanese tub may make it impractical for bathing children who need to climb in or out and require adults to reach deeply in. Modern-day versions of the Japanese tub may be sunken, freestanding, or inset into a raised platform. Some of these tubs feature a swing-out door for easy access, which works wonders for those with physical impairments or mobility issues.
When buying or replacing a tub, you are pretty much working from scratch. If you're lucky, your plumbing can stay where it is, and the pipes are in good shape.
When factoring overall costs, you must include the purchase of the tub—usually a hefty price depending on the material and features—and the professional installation fees. This project can be time-consuming and labor-intensive. You'll likely need to hire a professional unless you are a plumber or general contractor.
In general, in the U.S., installing a new tub can cost from $1,500 to $7,500; the price variation depends on if the tub needs a surround, has unique requirements, or needs reconfiguration of the plumbing. The national average is about $5,000. Then, consider the price for the new soaker tub, which can run from $600 for a freestanding acrylic tub to $13,000 for a marble tub. Additional add-ons bring the costs up more.
Other costs to consider include the old tub removal, disposal of old hardware and demolished materials, fixing and preparing the surface, buying new faucets, and plumbing installation. You can expect to pay from $5,000 to $20,000 for everything; the price deviation depends on how high-end you go.
How to Choose a Soaker Tub
The final decision for getting a soaker tub should include several variables in the thought process. First and foremost: Does it fit in your space? Do you fit in it? Does the layout of your bathroom work? If you answer "no" to any of those considerations, then move on to another option. The tub size, your bathroom space, the tub material, and add-on features will dictate all of these answers.
How Durable Will the Tub Be?
The durability of a tub depends on its materials. Cast iron tubs are the most durable tubs. They are made by pouring molten iron into a mold of the desired shape, smoothing it, and coating it with a thick enamel layer. The finish is resistant to chipping, scratching, denting, and chemicals.
Porcelain-enameled steel tubs are also durable, although the enamel can chip with a lot of sheer force. Copper is rust-proof, mildew-resistant, and antibacterial—as well as recyclable. Stone resin is made from a blend of resin and crushed natural stone. The resin makes stone resin bathtubs impervious to stains and discolorations, resistant to mildew and bacteria, and if it gets an occasional scratch or crack, it can be repaired.
Is Installation Easy?
The installation of a tub depends on the condition of the existing plumbing, the foundation or flooring, and if you need additional joists to strengthen the floor. Also, do you need to create a surround or tiling? Don't forget to factor in all the costs to rip out the old tub and haul it all away. This project is not for a casual do-it-yourselfer.
Is It Energy- and Water-Efficient?
Energy efficiency depends on how well the material retains heat. Most metal and stone tubs will retain heat the best. Although, cast iron and copper keep the water warmer than porcelain-enameled steel. Water efficiency will be dependent on the faucets and the reliability of the plumbing. A jetted tub or heater add-on will drive up energy costs, as will sauna lights, an aromatherapy system, or a music system.
Where to Shop
When you're ready to buy a soaker tub, you have several options: big box home improvement stores, bathroom supply stores, and the online marketplace. If possible, try before you buy. Closely read the descriptions for dimensions as well as warranty information. Most manufacturers have at the very minimum a 1-year warranty, and others have a lifetime warranty.
Buying a soaker tub from a bathroom supply store like a Kohler showroom is perhaps the most straightforward option since you go, try, buy, and schedule the installation. It cuts the hassle of doing all the legwork. The downside is you usually pay a little more. However, the time saved by leaving it up to professionals might be worth the slightly higher cost.
Home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowes often offer return policies, and a consultant can assist with installation and care advice. Although the floor supply is limited, they have some floor models to try. Big box stores like Costco also have floor models you can try and buy.
Buying online makes the supply of bathtubs seem limitless. Unless you're buying from a bathroom supply outlet online with clearly stated return policies, many online return policies are limited or non-existent, including Amazon, Wayfair, and Overstock. Some may only have 30-day return policies, and others may not allow returns at all. You can find great bargains at these online sources, but if you receive a tub that doesn't fit or you don't fit, you might be stuck with your purchase. Read the fine print before you buy.
If buying through a bathroom supply online shop, most have toll-free customer service representatives who answer your questions. Take advantage of this service. The primary questions to ask are if they can do the installation or have service partners they recommend for installation? When they deliver, do they leave it at your front door? Or will they unbox it and deliver it to a spot in your home? Also, ask if they will haul away your old tub.
Where to Buy a Soaker Tub
If you are ready to get started looking at a few soaker tubs made for a smaller space, these are some of the best smaller-sized bathtubs to choose from.
Are soaker tubs worth it?
Soaking tubs are a great add-on to a bathroom if a person in the house enjoys taking baths. If someone in the home longs for relaxation time, spa dates, and "me time," then a soaker spa can be an everyday escape and pay off huge dividends in stress relief and overall self-care benefits. Also, a nice bathroom home improvement can increase the resale value of your home and make it more attractive for sale if you install a high-quality soaker tub with nice features and the construction is sound and tastefully done.
How deep is a standard soaker tub?
Soaking tubs are designed for long, comfortable soaks. Since you want to submerge your body, plan for at least 14 inches of water.
Does a floor need to be reinforced for a bathtub?
Traditionally, bathroom floors are built to withstand the pressure of an average full bathtub with 40 to 60 gallons of water. Building codes requirements usually account for a full cast iron tub (one of the heaviest types of tubs) in their minimum standards; however, look into it before you install it.
Will a soaker tub be a luxurious experience?
The comfort factor depends on your height and your relaxation style. What is your ideal spa experience, and can it be replicated in the space you have? It depends on you. Some freestanding or pedestal tubs are gorgeous and may fit the bill size-wise, but the rim around them may be too narrow or thin to lay your arms out comfortably. Some tubs have armrests built into the body of the tub. Others have curves molded or contoured into the tub. Before you make the significant investment, visit a showroom, physically try it out, then you can make an informed decision before you buy.
NKBA Bath Planning Guidelines. National Kitchen and Bath Association