Tips for Estimating Your Next Bathroom Renovation

By   |     |  Design Feature

In the last issue of Upstate House, I wrote that few phrases can generate more anxiety for homeowners than “We need to hire a contractor.” Shortly fter my wife read the article, she pointed out that the phrase “Honey, I can do this. We don’t need a contractor!” produces far more anxiety for anyone on the less handy side of the matrimonial aisle. Fair point!

Perhaps the more considered question then might be: Should you do the project yourself? Is it worth it for you?

For most people who feel they possess the skills (and the YouTube account) to do that bathroom renovation, the answer is often yes because it comes down to their budget. DIY is supposed to be a less expensive way of getting the same or similar work as you would get from a contractor, right? Just about every show on cable makes it look so easy and affordable, so why not?

Possibly. But that’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it? How do you know for sure that it would be worth it? I suggest that you become your own estimator. Yes, that’s a real job in the construction business—and a certification that can be earned by professionals—and a skill that anyone can bootstrap with a few simple tools.  Here’s exactly how to go about defining and costing (AKA estimating) a small bathroom project for yourself.

Quantify Everything You Need for the Project

I learned early in life that the more planning you do, the less “doing” there is. Pre-construction is no exception. The more you plan, the less the construction costs in cash and time. A solid budget where the entire project is laid out on paper is where everything comes together.

Step one: Quantify what exists right now. Measure and calculate the current size and total area of all existing features: everything from the walls to the ceiling, floor, windows, bathtub, shower, toilet, vanity, medicine cabinet, lighting fixtures, sinks, and even exhaust vents. Note the number of each, and be sure to record any special features that will need to be matched. Drawing a simple floor plan and creating a few sketches of each ‘view’ in the room is also very helpful.

Now you have a complete list of everything you need to replace. The next step is to start a new list with what you want to upgrade from the original. This is an actual inventory of the products you want to use for your renovation, so note sources, possible alternatives, and costs as you go. Don’t forget the surfaces you may want to upgrade, like tile, paint, and wallcoverings. It’s all observation and list-making, so let’s use a spreadsheet—it’s what I use to build homes every day. It’s automated, simple to use, and, importantly, breaks down the project into four parts: materials, labor, subcontractors, and equipment. It then applies an overhead and a profit percentage that you assign and gives an itemized total for the project. Use as many different versions of the spreadsheet as you need to figure out each set of items—like a vanity, sink, and faucet—then combine them all into one. Will this be 100 percent accurate? No, but it should get you within 10 percent of total costs fairly painlessly, and that’s better than the educated guess a DIY project normally gets.

Hunt Down the Hidden Costs

Many products like tile and other flooring need special substrates or conditions to be installed correctly. A working relationship with a knowledgeable sales rep at a big box home store is something all homeowners that do their own projects should have. They can be invaluable for revealing hidden requirements and costs and help you nail down every detail of the project in the beginning. No one wants to discover something major they didn’t account for after they are already committed to a project, or worse—halfway done with something that isn’t working and now has to be redone.

Other hidden costs to look out for might be specialty tools, a dumpster or other means of disposing of demolition and construction debris, final inspections, and peripheral costs such as drywall repair to run an electrical line inside walls or ceilings to your breaker box in another part of the house, or additional insulation for an outside wall.

Start Securing Building Permits

Yes, you need a building permit, but it’s not as difficult or scary of a proposition as you might think. Fees are modest, usually by the square foot with minimums (one Mid-Hudson town states .75 cent per square foot and a $50 min) and posted on most town websites.  A bathroom remodel will need a permit in every jurisdiction in New York that I know of, but a clearly worded scope of work, a basic drawing, and having the correct information for your subcontractors is all that’s usually required to apply for the permit.

Be ready to be pleasantly surprised when the building inspector thanks you for filing! They are there to help us as homeowners understand the requirements of and help with anything under their jurisdiction. Nearly all the building inspectors I’ve ever met enjoy that part of their job, so utilize that resource.

Identify Subcontracting Needs

Even if you’re going the DIY route, it’s likely you will need to use subcontractors for electrical work at the very least. The current building code has a lot of specific requirements, especially when it comes to places that see a lot of water, like a bathroom. In the past, many counties in upstate New York allowed a homeowner to do their own electrical work if they had the skills, and if they were able to pass the same inspection as an electrician. That is no longer the case in many localities, so check with your town’s building inspector for the definitive word on that and any other questions you might have.

A trusted electrician is someone every homeowner should have on their side. Many electricians will be happy to answer questions about the requirements of any project you might be considering. If you make one exception to hiring a contractor, make it an electrician (a plumber would be a close second). It’s that important to get right. Even after 45 years in construction, I usually use a professional for all but the smallest of projects in the jurisdictions that still allow me to do my own electrical work.

If there are any other skills that you lack, you can find subcontractors for that too. Send them a request for quote (RFQ) with your scope of work for as complete a picture of your project as possible, and make sure to do all that in writing. It’s better to work with a subcontractor to get your project right than to live with an undesirable result—or worse, to redo part or all of the project to pass an inspection.

Get Quotes from Professionals

The great thing about estimating your project like this and taking the time to commit everything to paper is the ability to get comparable quotes for the project from multiple professionals.

You have already done the work that a good remodeler would do to quantify your project prior to pricing it, so why not submit an RFQ to a few for comparison? Include all of the materials you plan to use and make sure they visit the actual site. Have them quote your written scope “only and completely” for the closest pricing comparison.  Listen to suggestions on what you might have missed in your scope, then research it to confirm, and include it in an updated scope if it’s good advice.

To DIY or Not to DIY

With your estimate in hand, now you have all the information you need to make a truly informed decision about whether to DIY that bathroom renovation or hire a professional.

Can you see that you will save money by doing it yourself? If so, how much? Is it enough for your investment in time and energy? If the answer is yes, does that value hold true if the costs rose by 10 percent? What about 20 percent? It’s good to include a contingency budget for any unknowns you can’t predict or might have missed.

You should also weigh the intangible questions like, whether you actually have the stretch of open schedule to complete the project in a reasonable length of time, and whether your relationship with your significant other might turn constantly seething as a result of your foolhardy decisions.

Only you can decide whether it’s worth it for you to do a project yourself or hire a professional. But a confident and complete estimate of all the costs and challenges that a renovation presents will put you in the best place to make an educated decision. This system for costing a project with as much detail as possible is tried and true in the construction industry—whether it’s for something as simple as replacing a sink to as complicated as building an entire custom home.

Jeff Eckes is the CEO of LDR Group, a Passive House design/build/renovate contractor in the Mid-Hudson Valley.

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