10 Secrets of a Cheap Bathroom Remodel

Remodeled Bathroom With Frameless Shower and Tub
Remodeled Bathroom With Frameless Shower and Tub. Frank Short / Getty Images

If you say, "There is no such thing as an easy and cheap bathroom remodel," the natural response is, "You have been watching too many renovation reality shows."  Why?

Because we have become numb to mid-to-high five-figure bathroom remodels that begin by ripping everything down to the studs.  For these, everything must be tossed and replaced by the most premium materials.

The smash-and-grab bathroom remodel detailed here is a dark secret and will not make you a popular figure at cocktail party conversations.

Bathroom remodeling is second only to kitchen remodeling in terms of pain, misery, dust, cost, and unmet-timetables.  Given the sickeningly high cost of bathroom remodeling, it pays to think outside the box.

In the end, you will have a clean, bright, and functional bathroom.  And more money in your bank account than homeowners who went the expensive route.

Cover and Re-Surface Instead of Replace

This is the guiding principle of any surface-level renovation, with the caveat that you never want to cover anything because it needs to be replaced.

For example, in bathrooms there is no better way to cover up the lower potion of walls than with easy-to-install wainscot.

Wainscot is a pre-fab board that extends as high as 48" and eliminates the need to fix any unfortunate wall dings and minor holes. But should that wallboard be speckled with mold and mildew, the last thing you want to do is cover it up.

Unfortunately, you need to track down the source, stop it, and replace affected portions of wallboard.

What You Will Install Instead of That High-End Porcelain Floor...

Luxury vinyl flooring.

You only think you want that radiant-heat granite floor.  But that purchase alone will blow your entire remodel budget.


Old-school vinyl is gone; things have changed.  Vinyl now looks better than ever, with innovations such as luxury vinyl flooring (LVF) and plank vinyl that look fantastic.

Refinish Tub Instead of Replacing It

Bathtub or shower refinishing is a prime example of "cover, not replace." If the problem is mainly cosmetic--a yellowed surface and some cracks and nicks--you can refinish your shower or bathtub.

Alternatively, bathtub and shower liners--a staple of infomercials--are not as cheap as they seem.  Never a permanent fix, they will carry you through a few years. Liners require professional installation.  Refinishing, instead, is cheaper and looks better.

Pre-Fab Shower Rather Than Tiled

Have you decided that your tub or shower is beyond refinishing?  The absolutely most expensive option is hiring tradesmen to build a unit out of tile from scratch.

Instead, consider pre-fabricated shower units.

If you absolutely must have that tiled shower, fusing a poly shower pan with the tile saves some hassle and a little bit of cost.

Install Your Own Toilet

Do not call in the plumber to switch out the old toilet

Install your toilet yourself. It is much easier than you can imagine, the hardest part being physically moving the toilet into place.

For that, get a cheap hand truck or enlist the services of a friend.

Paint It Yourself

Do not use a painter. For whole-house painting, you may want to consider hiring a professional painter--due to the large scale.

But consider how little painting you need to do in bathrooms:  walls are taken up with mirrors, showers, tile, bathtubs. In the end, you only have a few square feet to paint. You can paint this by yourself in two days.

Resist the Urge to Move Major Plumbing

Do not move plumbing if at all humanly possible.

Moving water supply and/or drainage immediately drives up the cost of any remodel project.

If you want to move it, then pay close attention to the next step...

Consider Doing Some Plumbing By Yourself

If you are loathe to call upon the services of a plumber for remodel work (cha-ching!), stop for a minute and ask yourself if you possibly can do the plumbing by yourself.

Moving the sewer line:  maybe not.  Moving the sink supply and drain lines a few few:  sure.

With the advent of Tinkertoy-like PEX plumbing pipes and push-in Sharkbite fittings, even the least confident DIY plumber can do light plumbing tasks for a pittance.

If your notion of plumbing work is still rooted in the days of soldering copper pipes with an open flame (or even worse, working with galvanized pipes), give this one some extra thought.  You just might find out that PEX and push-in fittings are perfect for your needs.

Install Your Own Bathroom Vanity and Top

Because bathrooms are small, it is possible for you to buy nearly or fully assembled bathroom vanity units and vanity tops and have them in place within a couple of hours.

Vanity units come in certain sizes ranging from 24 inches to 60 inches wide. Coordinating tops (counters) can be purchased that even have sinks fused into them--no sink installation and caulking woes!

Design It Yourself

Whole-house remodels, additions, and kitchens can benefit from the expertise of a qualified designer. But what about bathrooms?

If you need to save money it is possible to design your own. One factor in your favor is that you are not moving fixtures around (see previous advice on this).

Bathroom designers are good at not just the "pretty stuff" but at powering through difficult logistical problems (door clearances, etc.).

So, half of your design burden is instantly lifted. You are left with a few of the more fun aspects of bathroom design: