How to Remodel your Small Bath Efficiently

How to Remodel your Small Bath Efficiently

A small bathroom remodel can be deceptive.  Worry too much and you may be delightfully surprised that you pulled it off with such ease.  Under-think it and you may get bitten in the end.

A half-bath remodel has all the fun stuff like paint, towel bars, vanity tops, and cool sinks.  Remodeling your master small bathroom however can result in weeks of showering at your neighbor's house and family feuds.

But it doesn't have to be like that.  

A small bathroom is defined as being about 50 square feet or smaller.  Widths and lengths will vary, but this translates to a rectangular space, roughly 6 feet by 8 feet, or thereabouts.

Amenities (or lack of) do not define a small bathroom.  A small bathroom can be a:

  • Power Room/ Half-bathroom:  Little more than a sink, toilet, and a door for privacy with no bathing facilities.  
  • Guest Bathroom:  Full-service bathroom, with sink, toilet, and shower or shower/tub combination.  This is a bathroom that you yourself don’t use for your daily needs.   
  • Master Bathroom:  Full-service bathroom that you use daily.  This is often the only bathroom in the house, and everyone uses it.  Because this is your "daily driver," it gets heavy use and thus may require more remodeling efforts.

A Small Bathroom Remodel is Different from a Large Remodel, But Not By Much.

It is not difficult to imagine that small bathrooms are easier and cheaper to renovate than larger ones --fewer materials, lower costs, less space.  Thirty square feet of porcelain tile is half the cost of 60 square feet.  

What is surprising is that, unless you have a half-bath, small bathrooms are not exponentially easier to renovate.  

Most costs are devoted to rehabbing your shower, tub, or shower/tub.  Bathing facilities are spatially and functionally the same in small bathrooms as in large bathrooms.  The only difference is that you may be more willing to accept lower grade, less expensive materials in a small, second bathroom than you would in your daily master bathroom.

Steps you Should Consider:

1. Define Needs:  Who Will Use This and Why?

Define who will be using the bathroom.  When you start with the "who," then the "why" usually becomes clear:

  • You:  If this is a small bathroom that happens to be your master bathroom, you use it for everything, from applying makeup, to using the toilet, to showering. You may want to splurge on a high-end vanity and quality materials. After all, you will have to look at this bathroom at least twice a day for years to come.
  • Children:  Small bathrooms for children may endure decades of use and abuse. Small kids need a bathtub; showers are useless.  Floors are most important since little kids can flood bathroom floors with water simply by stepping out of the tub.
  • Overnight Guests:  If this bathroom is for overnight guests, you can skimp on the quality of materials, and won’t need extra storage space for guests, either.
  • Day Guests:  For a powder room, you need little more than a sink, toilet, and towel bar.  The sink can even be a vanity or decorative sink--a vessel sink for example --because guests' only need is to wash their hands, not to brush teeth.  
  • Elderly or Disabled:  This is a special class of users, as additional or augmented features such as grab bars, lower counters, and no-slip flooring are needed.  If your small bath can accommodate it, a walk-in bathtub is a great aid for elderly or disabled persons.

2.  Even Small Bathrooms need Planning

Think small bathroom remodels don’t need planning?  If so, you may be confusing floor-planning with a comprehensive plan.  In most small bathrooms, the floor plan is a given.  You may be able to shift the vanity a few inches, but other elements--toilet, sink, and sink/tub--remain firmly in place.


Beyond that, small bathrooms do need planning. Considerations like cabinets, backsplash tile, wall tile, flooring, and paint color which all work together to form a unified bathroom.  You will want to consider all of these elements in the same mode of thought.

3.  Will You do it Yourself or Hire a Pro?  Or Both?

  • Do It Yourself:  A small bathroom is a great place to hone your remodeling skills.  Any kind of secondary bathroom--guest bathroom or powder room--is ripe for the DIY treatment.  With the luxury of time, you can get to the project whenever it is convenient.  But if this is a full-service bathroom and you have no alternate baths in the house, you will need to consider downtime.  Where will you bathe?  Often, this is the tipping point that forces DIYers to call in a professional remodeler.
  • Pro:  Electrical and plumbing are two trades that have a steep learning curve.  If your remodel involves re-routing wires or plumbing, you will want to call in professional remodelers.  Minor electrical and plumbing projects, like installing a faucet or adding a GFCI outlet, are homeowner-friendly.  
  • DIY/Pro Combination:  Most contractors are open to you doing some of the work yourself, but you need to stay out of their way.  Don’t expect to be working alongside them.  Schedule your work to be either before they start the entire project or after they’ve finished.  Planning your work with theirs only leads to confusion.  Classic examples of this DIY/pro combination:  you demo the bathroom before they start; you paint the walls after they have finished.

4. Demolition:  Peeling back the Layers

The degree of bathroom demolition you do depends on the scale of your project.

 If you need to fully demo to the studs, budget at least three full days for this.  It is a more involved process than you might imagine.

Rent a roll-off dumpster for your driveway.  A great alternative to losing your driveway to a roll-off is to pile debris in the driveway and have a hauling company take it all away.

5.  Plumbing and Electrical

With walls open, electrical and plumbing install first. Rough-in plumbing for the toilet, shower, and bathtub.

The electrician can work concurrently with the plumber, though schedule them for different days due to space considerations.

Permits are required for both.  Also, two inspections are done: first, at the rough-in stage; second, after the walls have been closed up.  If you hire a contractor, they will do everything permit- and inspection-related for you.

6.  Flooring, Vanity and Sink, Cabinets

For the motivated do it yourselfer, this is the time to go over the punch list with your contractor, write a check, and say goodbye.  You will take on the next tasks yourself.

If you are in a time crunch or feel uncomfortable with your abilities, the contractor will continue with:

  • Painting walls
  • Installing a floor covering
  • Installing a sink vanity or pedestal sink
  • Tiling the backsplash
  • Installing extra cabinets (space permitting)

7.  The Fun Part:  Hardware, Accessories, Decorative Items

The last stage is definitely DIY-friendly and a vast majority of homeowners take on these jobs:

  • Cabinet hardware
  • Towel racks
  • Mirror