How to Save on a Bathroom Reno

Four Tips: Plan beforehand, Demo (some) yourself, Schedule ahead, and Be Open to Suggestions!

Here are some suggestions for getting the lowest-cost bids for typical full bathroom remodels, ones where existing wall locations and major plumbing locations are kept intact. For example: simply replacing a tub surround instead of converting the tub to a walk-in shower, or taking everything to the studs but keeping all of the existing room dimensions rather than blowing out a wall or two to completely change the bathroom’s footprint.

While it’s definitely possible to save some cash even with complicated structural renovations, this post focuses on the two most common complete bathroom renovation projects: gutting and completely replacing a tub/shower and vanity bathroom from the studs up, or completely replacing a walk-in shower and vanity bathroom from the studs up.

TIP #1: Have a CLEAR Design Plan Ready

Renovation contractors generally aren’t designers, and different materials and finish options often have very different install costs. Just for comparison, even a seemingly simple tub surround replacement cost can vary widely depending on material and design (for example, a 3×6 variegated natural marble tile subway install with contrasting grout will cost much more to install correctly than a simple 6×6 white ceramic tile stacked pattern install with matching grout).

Also, some contractors (like me) will offer free precise measuring and materials ordering info as part of a project cost writeup. But, this only works if you already have a clear design vision for the new tile install at the project estimation visit. If you can’t tell a contractor what type, size, and pattern tile you want installed when they visit, then the contractor won’t be able to give you a precise installation cost.

So, it’s a really good idea to finalize your materials and design plan before you start auditioning installation contractors. Otherwise, you will probably get lots of padded bids as install folks price your project for worst-case scenarios.

The Bottom Line: Finalize your plan (what tile do you want to use, what pattern do you want it installed in, what extras do you need) before you start reaching out to contractors. The more up-front details you can provide, the more responses (and more precise pricing) you will get!

TIP #2: Do Some Exploratory Demo Beforehand

Demolishing the existing tile, drywall, etc, yourself might seem a bit intimidating, but doing at least some exploratory demo yourself before contractors come to price your job can be a real cost-saver (sorry single-bath folks).

Here’s why punching even just a few holes in the walls before contractors visit for cost quotes can save you money:

Minimizes Uncertainty. Most contractors don’t have x-ray vision, but all fear uncertainty. Therefore, the uncertainty of what’s hidden can often raise bid prices.

When costing a potential job, most contractors assume a worst-case scenario for the things they can’t see. For a bathroom remodel, that means assuming that the plumbing might be difficult (corroded galvanized steel supply-side plumbing instead of 1/2-in copper piping, small and corroded cast iron drain pipes instead of modern code-approved 2-in PVC piping, etc), that the wall framing might need to be completely redone (due to legacy water damage or just substandard 22- or 24-in on center framing), and lots of other potential hidden problems.

If you can at least punch a few holes beforehand to remove major plumbing and framing uncertainties, then you’re in position to get the best possible bid prices.

Shows You’re Serious. All contractors have lots of experience spending time costing projects that never actually happen. Many would-be reno homeowners decide that their old bathroom isn’t so bad once they get a pricetag for how much it’d actually cost to replace.

Punching a few holes in your bathroom walls is a pretty good signal that you’re very serious about doing a renovation. Showing that this job will definitely happen actually puts you in a much better position to get a contractor’s best price. If accepted, they can ink you in as a guaranteed definite next open slot start.

Again, contractors don’t like uncertainty. So, show that you’re certain to actually do this thing!

And, doing ALL the demo yourself can also save yourself half a grand or more. It doesn’t take much time to learn how to do careful bathroom demolition work, but it does take time to actually do the demo. That’s why it can cost $1,000 or more for a traditional full-crew demo team to tear out and haul away even a basic 80-ft2 full bathroom to the studs. A traditional GC has to pay the overhead.

But if YOU have the time, then all that’s needed to be a fully-equipped semi-pro demolition expert is a $15 handheld sledge, a $30 garbage can, a full-sized crowbar, a quality claw hammer, a good pair of construction gloves, and a cheap pair of safety glasses. AND, a couple days of spare time mixed with some kool-aid energy:

For haul-away, just rent a U-Haul pickup with a full 8ft bed and get a cheap safety vest and hardhat for visiting the Travis County Landfill to drop off your loads. Demolishing a typical ~80-ft2 bathroom to the studs with a vanity and toilet and shower or shower/tub takes just one or two truckloads.

At $100 per load for landfill fee, $100-ish total for a full day truck rental (get the added insurance option), and maybe $80 for some basic demo tools, you can completely demolish and haul away an entire bathroom yourself for $400 total.

This is an entire bathroom! Pretty compact when in pieces.

The Bottom Line: Even if you don’t want to deal with hauling debris to the landfill yourself, at least doing a bit of exploratory demo before the first contractor shows up to look at your project can really help to lower those bids.

TIP #3: Call Contractors EARLY

Every week, I get calls from folks wanting quotes on bathroom reno projects who are also wanting to start immediately — like in a week or even sooner. Unfortunately though, just about any quality bath reno contractor or tile installer in a market like Austin, TX, is almost certainly scheduled out several months or more in advance.

Trying to book folks for an immediate start is not going to save you money.

At best, it’ll result in inflated prices since you’ll have to pay a premium to convince someone to push off an existing project to accommodate an immediate start for yours.

These dudes are always available to start tomorrow!

At worst, it’ll severely limit your potential contractor pool to just those folks who aren’t currently working (which is usually not a contractor pool you want to swim in).

Instead, plan your project in advance and plan to get contractor bids early — like two or three months before you’re actually needing the work to start. That’s generally enough time to get on the schedule for an actual reno pro who’s in demand.

The Bottom Line: Scheduling 3-4 months in advance will help to get a contractor that’s in demand, which is generally better than limiting yourself to contractors who aren’t in demand.

TIP #4: Be Open to Suggestions

If you’ve followed tips 1-3, then you now have at least a few exploratory demo holes to expose the wall framing and plumbing. And, you have at least a basic vision for the type of tiles you’d like to use and the pattern you’re wanting. And, you’re not needing the work to start for at least a couple months (again, sorry single bath folks).

That all now puts you in a great position to get the lowest possible renovation cost quotes. From a contractor’s point of view:

1) You’ve removed almost all the major job uncertainties for costing a precise price

2) You’ve shown that you’re definitely going to get this done with someone

3) You’re okay with firmly scheduling at least a couple months in advance for an in-demand reno contractor

So, that’s the time to turn the tables a bit and do some contractor interviewing. Ask ‘em what they think of your plans. Ask ‘em what they think of your materials and install pattern choices. Basically, ask how you can save money on your project.

Be realistic with this. For example, it’s usually not a great idea to ask a contractor if they can cut their install labor cost by half. But, it can be a great idea to ask for tips and advice on how to achieve your final finished appearance goal with less costly materials or a more efficient design.

A legit contractor won’t use materials costs for hidden markups. So, any saving on materials saves you money. This is why any legit contractor should be happy to offer lots of ideas for how to achieve the final look you want with perhaps some less expensive tile or other finish materials.

SO, explain what you want the final finished result to look like and then ask the visiting contractor “What would you do to achieve that with some cost savings?” If you get a thoughtful and detailed answer, then that’s a really good sign that you’re talking to an actual pro reno contractor!