How to Save on a Bathroom Renovation

Here are some tips for how to save on a bathroom renovation. Perhaps you’re wanting to simply replace a tub surround. Or maybe you’re wanting to convert a tub to a walk-in shower. Or maybe you’re taking everything to the studs and blowing out a wall or two to completely change the bathroom’s footprint.

Whether you’re doing a little or a lot, there are some basic tips and tricks you can use to get the most bang for your bathroom renovation bucks. Read on for deets!

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. Even something like a seemingly simple tub surround replacement cost can vary widely depending on material and design. So, you can save on a bathroom renovation by doing some research on your own and thinking about tile and fixture designs that would likely reduce installation labor time.

For example, the 3×6 variegated natural stone marble tile subway pattern tub surround pictured below took a full week to install correctly. In contrast, the simple stacked pattern 4×12 ceramic tile tub surround without niche pictured below only took a few days to install. Therefore, one cost twice as much as the other. Labor is the biggest reno cost, so saving labor time means saving big time on the overall reno.

Also, some contractors (like me) will offer free precise measuring and materials ordering info as part of a project cost writeup. 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 labor cost or material overage estimate.

So, it’s a really good idea to finalize your materials and design plan before you start talking to installation contractors. Otherwise, you will probably get lots of padded bids as install folks price your project for worst-case scenarios. Having a very clear low cost materials and design plan in mind from the getgo is your best way for how to save on a bathroom renovation.

The Bottom Line: Finalize your plan (what kind of tile do you want to use, what pattern do you want it installed in, and what extra features like niches you want) before you start reaching out to reno 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 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:

It minimizes uncertainty. Most contractors don’t have x-ray vision, but all fear what might be lurking unseen in walls. 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 (legacy polybutylene or steel supply-side plumbing instead of 1/2-in copper, small and corroded cast iron drain pipes instead of modern PVC piping, etc), that the wall framing might need to be repaired or redone (due to legacy water damage or just substandard 24-in on center framing), and lots of other potential hidden problems.

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

It also shows that you’re serious. All contractors have lots of experience spending lots of time costing lots of projects that never actually happen. Many 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 actually 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. 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 a grand. Bathroom demolition work isn’t brain surgery, but it does take time to actually do the demo. That’s why it costs $1,500 or more for a couple demo dudes to tear out and haul away even a basic 5×8-ft bathroom to the studs. A traditional GC has to pay the overhead for their crew, etc.

But if YOU have the time, then all you need to be a fully-equipped semi-pro demolition expert is a $15 handheld sledge (way easier to maneuver than a full-sized sledgehammer), a heavy-duty 32gal 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 two truckloads.

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

At $120 per load for landfill fee, $250-ish total for a two day truck rental (get ALL the optional insurance in case you scratch it!), and maybe $80 for some basic demo tools, you can completely demolish and haul away an entire bathroom for around $500 total.

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

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

Trying to book a reno contractor 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.

saws
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 pool you want to swim in).

Instead, plan your project in advance and plan to get contractor bids early — like 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 punched through the drywall to expose the wall framing and plumbing locations. And, you have a real clear idea for the type of tiles you’d like to use, the pattern you’re wanting, what kind of vanity and countertop and sink you’re going to want, where fixtures are going to go, etc etc etc. And, you’re not needing the work to start for at least a couple months.

That 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 eliminated almost every potential project uncertainty
  2. You’ve shown that you are definitely going to do the project
  3. You’ve shown that you know how busy contractors schedule

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 your questions. For example, it’s usually not a great idea to ask a contractor if they can just cut their install labor cost by half to meet your arbitrary budget. But, it can be a great idea to ask for tips and advice on how to achieve a nice finished appearance with less costly materials or a more simple 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 finishes and fixtures.

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 to a question like that, then it’s a really good sign that you’re talking to an actual pro! This is also a great sign that you’re well on the way to saving money on your bathroom renovation.