How to renovate a bathroom

What to know about doing up your bathroomBathrooms are a bit like high-waisted jeans. What looked good a decade ago stands out like a sore thumb when trends move on. No one ever has the heart to tell Nana that her crocheted toilet-roll dolls and mauve mosaic tiled bathroom were way out-of-date even in the 1970s.

Renovation trends now dictate that people upgrade their bathroom every 17.9 years. We used to wait more than 30 years, according to the Housing Industry Association.

The renovation industry should be grateful. The HIA’s Simon Tennent says “aesthetics, lifestyle and visual appeal” are the key drivers of our urge to renovate bathrooms.

Bathroom makeovers are still among the top five priorities for people who want to improve their house, ahead of kitchen renovations.

Just where do you start when it comes to renovating? Do you mean a refurbish kind of renovating? Or the whole-hog rebuild kind? Or does your bathroom only need a few simple repairs?


Take a hard look at your bathroom, calculate how many hours a day it is used and what you are prepared to spend. If it’s a second bathroom that you spend less than a half-hour in each day, is it worth blowing $15,000?

Alternatively, if it’s the family’s main bathroom used by four people, $30,000 for an upgrade might be worth it. No architect, bathroom designer or builder can make that decision for you.

Archicentre’s August 2005 building cost guide says bathrooms cost anything between $7900 and $21,000 to build or renovate.

Domayne’s franchisee for kitchen and bathroom renovation design, Len Nucifora, says a relatively inexpensive bathroom can cost as little as $18,000 but the average renovator spends between $30,000 and $40,000. Decide what to spend on your bathroom and then have an extra 10 or 15 per cent for the oops-I-went-over moments.


The bathroom is usually a teensy-tiny room used by several family members for all manner of tasks – bathing, grooming, relaxing and storage. Careful design and planning can make even the most cramped bathroom seem positively day spa-ish.

Arm yourself with a tape measure and a piece of graph paper to draw your bathroom to scale, noting the placement of toilets, baths and so forth. Cut out little bits of paper to scale to represent the bath, toilet and vanity and play around to see whether your bathroom can be reconfigured to make it more practical.

Moving a bathtub or changing the vanity unit to a pedestal basin and overhead storage cabinet can create more floor space, as does putting the shower over the bathtub.

If the room can’t be reconfigured, is there any point in going ahead with a full renovation? Can you just replace a shower screen or vanity to update the room rather than tear it all apart?


Architect Yvonne Haber says architects charge fees of up to 20 per cent of the construction cost to design a bathroom tailored to your family’s needs. And they can do something super swanky.

I’ve seen an architect-designed bathroom with built-in shelves customised to the cosmetics of the home owner and a bathroom cupboard with a slide-out floor drawer for a cat litter tray.

If you have the budget and want a bathroom that will impress, an architect can also oversee sub-contracting of the trades. Bathroom renovation centres such as Domayne have a free design service – take in your measurements and receive elevations and drawings. They do this in the hope that you’ll buy your taps, bathware, toilets or tiles from them and also sign a full-service contract to oversee the entire job, from strip-out to fit-off.

There are plenty of design-and-construct bathroom companies handling “Do-It-For-Me” bathroom renovations and they usually charge a margin of anything between 10 and 20 per cent on top of costs. It’s a valuable deal for time-poor renovators who want someone to handle the process.

Bathroom builder Mark Annesley, who runs Just Bathroom Renovations, warns that renovators hoping for a fuss-free bathroom renovation need to know that it takes at least four weeks to do the work – even longer if there are customised vanity units or stone benchtops, which can only be measured and ordered once tiling is complete.

“Anyone who thinks a bathroom renovation can be done in less than two weeks is just crazy. If you have rendered walls and waterproofing, there’s at least a week in curing time,” he says.


The real art of saving money on a bathroom renovation is not skimping on parts of the renovation that matter. There are plenty of bathroom resurfacing companies that can put a new surface over lairy coloured tiles or chipped and dated bathtubs.

If your bathroom needs an overhaul, there is no choice but to strip it back to the floors and walls and rebuild from new. The cheapest way to tackle a full bathroom renovation is not necessarily to DIY (also pronounced: stupid), but rather DIT: Do-It-Together with skilled tradespeople.

“The Do-It-Together renovator might do the demolition or have a crack at the tiling but they engage electricians and plumbers and oversee the project,” Tennent says.

“It can save them some money. Unless you’re a really skilled renovator, you wouldn’t do the whole thing yourself.”

Annesley warns that unless renovators understand the intricacies of engaging tilers, electricians and plumbers, they are just taking “pot luck” by hiring someone to do a job.

The NSW Department of Fair Trading says renovators can check tradespeople’s licences on Most builders would recommend that an inexperienced renovator check a sub-contractor’s work or ask for references.


If there is one thing a bathroom renovator needs to make sure is right it’s waterproofing.

“Most bathroom renovation complaints are either about no waterproofing or failed waterproofing,” says a spokesman for the Department of Fair Trading. “It can be very expensive to fix, because it means the tiles have to come off.”

Annesley says waterproofing costs between $600 and $1000. The building code requires only the shower area to be waterproofed, but plenty of builders recommend spending more money and waterproofing a large portion of a bathroom.


Armed with an owner-builder licence and some good DIY repair books, TV camera operator Ron Foley oversaw the renovation of the bathroom in his Randwick semi.

“I did the demolition myself. I hired good plumbers. They weren’t cheap, but they are worth every penny. I was going to attempt the tiling, but the whole idea of trying to do a sloping floor in a three-inch bed of mortar looked too hard,” he says.

The renovation took four weeks from strip-out to completion – and cost no more than $12,000. “You definitely save money doing [parts of] it yourself, but you have to put the time into it.

“We ordered a custom vanity in wenge. It was $1600 and when it arrived, my wife¬† gave me one of those looks of disappointment that made me feel like a failure. It was too big, and though I’d measured it before we ordered it, it didn’t look right,” he says.

“I got out my circular saw and cut off the drawers on the end. Those drawers are in my shed now. If I had ordered the vanity without them in the first place, then it probably would have only cost me $1300.”

Mistakes are part of the learning process, and co-ordinating a bathroom renovation is one of the most challenging tasks a renovator can tackle.

“It’s worth having a go. I’ve seen plenty of professionals do a job that’s no better than amateurs. And if you’ve done it yourself, at least you know what went wrong if there’s a problem in the future.

“Some professionals cover up their mistakes so you don’t find out until it’s all too late.”

Bathroom basics

PC items

These aren’t at all politically correct – they are prime-cost items. Most builders’ quotes don’t include PC items, which are things such as toilets, bathtubs, tiles, shower screens, vanity units, basins and towel rails.

Fan club

Building codes don’t require bathrooms to have a window, but natural ventilation is best. If you have to rely on an extractor fan for ventilation, make sure it ducts outside of the house rather than into a ceiling cavity.


This is the thin layer of membrane that goes underneath tiles around a shower area to stop water permeating the walls and floors. Get it wrong at your peril.

The big tile

Selecting large tiles – anything larger than 200mm square – might make your tiler tell you off, especially if you want to use them on the floor. Bathroom floors need to slope towards a central drain, and large tiles often need unsightly triangular cuts to be laid correctly.

Plastic not-so-fantastic

Acrylic bathtubs are cheaper than cast-steel tubs – but don’t necessarily save you money, according to architect Yvonne Haber. “They wear out more quickly, scratch easily and often end up cracking near the tiling joins,” she says.

Well, well, well

The Australian Government has implemented new water-efficient plumbing guidelines that prohibit retailers from selling water-guzzling taps, toilets and showerheads.

Emergency, emergency

Shower screens, bathroom and toilet doors need to open outwards, in case someone collapses in a bathroom and falls in front of a door.


Those swanky wall-hung toilets and vanity units look great, but don’t use them without first telling your builder. They often require wall reinforcement before installation.

Join the gym

That’s what most people do when their bathroom is out of action. Or they learn to love their next-door neighbours. Hopefully your house has a second toilet, otherwise you might have to rent a Portaloo.

Yes sir, no sir

You generally don’t need council approval to renovate a bathroom, but if you are creating wider windows, or new windows, then you may be required to lodge a development application. Any building work worth more than $12,000 requires home warranty insurance.

The sequence

Bathrooms are complex, but the general sequence of work starts with strip-out (with all pipes correctly sealed); rough-in of plumbing and electrics; render walls; waterproof; fit-out shower, bathtub and toilet; tile; showerscreens; fit-out of electrics and plumbing; install any customised vanity and bench tops; and then paint

MAKE IT FIT: a bathroom renovation case study

Nicola Reindorf spent less than $7000 to create an upstairs bathroom in her terrace house.

Co-ordinating the builder, plumber and tiling herself saved a bundle, as did inheriting enough white tiles left over from her mother’s renovation to do the walls.

“Sometimes I look at it and wish we’d done something a bit more special or designer-y, but it would have cost more,” says the Redfern mother of two, who runs a fashion agency.

“The room is tiny and we didn’t have to worry about the layout because this was the only way everything would fit in.”

Renovation & DIY