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The Pitfalls of Remodeling Your Own Bathroom

My wife Rachel and I live in a home built in the early 1900s. It has a character and warmth that no other “new home” can match. We have watched more than our share of the cable shows where the “Ordinary Joe” gets a house, and fixes it up all by himself. Oh, and they make it look like ANYONE can do it.

Our house only has one bathroom, and my wife had wanted to redo it since we moved in. To describe it fully, it had a grey carpet, from the floor to about 5 feet up was an undetermined tile that was painted green, and then from there to the 9 foot ceiling was flowered wallpaper that looked atrocious. The trim around the door and the shower was a color of blue that I guess could be found within the flowers on the wallpaper. Due to the age of the house, the plaster in a few places was bulging for unknown reasons, but was held in place thanks to the lovely wallpaper.

Rachel finally decided one day she had enough of our bathroom, and it was time to pull the trigger and get the job started. She investigated everything we wanted to do, and how we could do it all ourselves. The primary goals we hoped to achieve were as follows: get rid of that carpet that contained God-knows-how-many bodily fluids from God-knows-how-many people. The plaster was coming down and being replaced with drywall and then textured and painted. All the trim around the door and shower was getting tossed and replaced with fresh woodwork that did not have gobs of dripped and dried paint on it. The old bathroom vanity was history, as was the sink on top of it. The mirrored cabinet above the sink was also being upgraded. The big project was going to be the floor. Rachel decided it was going to be a good durable tile that could withstand the traffic and trauma a bathroom floor can take. The best part was she was going to do it herself-mortar, grout, and tile placement.

The only things we were not replacing was the tub/shower stall as it was implanted in the house, and fortunately was newer and fit into our design scheme, and the toilet. That was replaced a year or two prior due to this author’s inability to remove a rusty bolted toilet seat without cracking the porcelain. You can now fully imagine what sort of brilliance we are dealing with here.

Weeks of planning, measuring, and finally buying the products we think we will need to start and complete our bathroom remodel. Estimated timeframe turnaround: 5 days tops.

Day 1 we wake up and are ready to rock. First task: Plaster tear down. I was looking forward to putting a hammer into the wall repeatedly again and again. Needless to say, the demolition went well. We brought down all the plaster and tile on the walls clear down to the lathe. We then shoveled the remains into bags and I transported them outside for later landfill disposal. After cleaning up our mess, we felt like we’d made major progress. Additionally, Rachel changed out and slightly moved the light switches and outlets to where we wanted them. As it was our only bathroom, we had to put it “back together” in some formation so the toilet and shower were at least usable. Our son who was at daycare needed to be picked up soon, so we actually cleaned up the bathroom, vacuumed the carpet, and returned it to its usable state.

Day 2 arrived and we thought we’d put up some drywall just to say we did. We put up some pieces up close to the ceiling, and were feeling good about our progress. Then it was time to tear out the vanity and sink. I made sure the water lines were shut of and disconnected, and unfastened everything from the wall. What we saw when we pulled everything out left us speechless. There was an immense hole in the floor where the water lines and drain pipes went. We could see fully right down into our basement. What it looked like was at one time there may have been a tub in that spot, as there were spots on the wall over the hole similar to a water spout, and hot/cold water knobs. We decided then and there that minor patching would need to be done prior to putting in the new vanity.

Then we decided to hit the rest of the floor. First, we had to remove the toilet from the sewer line, and get it out of the way. Then we pulled up the carpet, and uncovered more surprises. The area in which the toilet sat on was a bunch of water damaged and rotting floor boards. The rest of the floor had a layer of old and yellowed linoleum tile, some form of tar paper, and then the hardwood oak floors we knew to be underneath it all. For some reason, the wood was painted an odd shade of blue. It became clear that previous owners of our home had all had different ideas on how to decorate that bathroom. Pulling up the rug also showed that many areas of the floor were shimmed, or propped up with boards to level the floor. The entire floor of the bathroom had a hump in it.

We decided that we needed to repair the wood floor under the toilet. We went to the lumber yard and obtained some good planking we could put in that would rest on the floor joists, and become a good solid sub-floor. The problem was making it fit neatly around the flange of the toilet main, and into and around corners of the bathroom without doing a sloppy job. This part took hours longer than we had intended.

My own Dad who can be somewhat handyman stopped by to see how we were doing. He entered the bathroom to find me sitting over a hole in the floor, and exposed toilet flange, and me sweating like a madman and trying to cut out the necessary pattern in the plank to make it fit. My Dad surmised that if he hung around much longer, he was going to get sucked in to help. He uttered the words “Well, looks like you have quite a project going on here. You’ll figure it out. See you later.” And he left.

Finally after hours of cutting, sweating, and swearing, we got the sub-floor back in place. However it was time to pick up our son from daycare again, so we needed to replace the toilet as it is our only one. We quickly did that and declared the floor good for the day. We decided we needed to hang as much dry wall as we could so we could get to work on the floor itself the next day and prepare it for tiling. When we ended that night, we were both exhausted and sick of looking at this disaster we had created.

Day 3, we decided we needed a day off.

Day 4, we attacked the floor and tried to determine what we needed to do to level the floor. We went to the local Menard’s, and saw various epoxy materials that could be used to poured onto the floor to help level it out. However we decided that would be too costly and time consuming. Rachel then had a genius idea. We bought boxes of the cheapest 1X1 foot vinyl tile we could find. We decided to use those to create a level floor by finding the areas that were sagging, and shoring them up with the vinyl tile. In many places, the stacks of tile were 10-15 high. We then measured the plywood we were using for the underlayment, cut it and placed into the bathroom. It was perfect. We cut a hole for the toilet main and were in business. I fastened the plywood down with about 50 3-inch screws and we were set. We brought in the backer-board that the tile would sit on, caulked it, and laid that down. By this time, it again was time to get our son and end our day. However we needed to let the backer-board dry properly so it stayed bonded to the floor. So we waited a few hours to yet again re-install the toilet.

Then things began to take more of a precedent than the bathroom project. We had taken vacation days from work to start the job, but now had to go back to our real day jobs. Some nights we worked on it, but a lot of nights we didn’t. We needed to mud the drywall, and sand it before we could do much more. Due to various activities in the family, the time to do this stuff became minimal. Or if we had the time, we just couldn’t face doing it. It was not like we didn’t have a constant daily reminder either. Our bathroom had no sink or mirror. So any hand washing had to take place in the kitchen. All of Rachel’s make-up and hair styling had to be done in front of a little mirror and desk light in our dining room. Sometimes one of us would get a wild hair, and tackle a minor part of the bigger project.

Finally, 5 or 6 months later we found ourselves with completed drywall, and it had been textured and painted in the color we wanted. The room was finally coming together. One weekend we decided the time was right to tile the floor. We had to be creative with it, because the tile had to stand for over 24 hours so the mortar and grout would set properly. This meant no toilet or shower for at least a whole day. Thankfully my parents lived not very far away, so any necessary bathroom needs were a short drive away. Rachel took to the floor, and did an amazing job. My only responsibility here was running the wet saw we purchased to cut the tile pieces where it was needed. I enjoyed that part.

A good day later, we entered the bathroom, and decided it was time to put the toilet back in. It was getting close to being done. As we were getting ready to set it down, we realized we had brought the level of the floor up about 1 ½ inches from what it previously was. The toilet was no longer going to be sitting on the main, and we had to figure out a way to bring the main up. A trip to Menard’s again, and we found a series of spacers we could put between everything. When all fastened together, and topped with the wax ring between the spacers and the toilet, we were in business.

We had a toilet, we had walls, and we had floors. The last major obstacle was putting the vanity, sink and mirror cabinet. Thankfully, there were no major issues with that. It was amazing. We had a sink in our bathroom again for the first time in about 6 months.

Eventually over the next 3 or 4 months, we installed the wood trim around the door and shower, and added a new shower faucet to match the one we installed in the sink. So after almost a whole year, we more or less finished our bathroom. The job we thought we could plow through in 5 days, turned into a nightmare that lasted an eternity.

We also learned a few things about ourselves in doing the project. If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish almost anything. AND we learned that nothing in our house is ever an easy fix.

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