Bathroom Upgrade: Get the Most for Your Money

Kristin Luna

Everywhere you look there's another cool tile, converted dresser, or repainted claw-foot tub being featured by a design blogger or national magazine promoting the existential and tangible benefits of upgrading an outdated bathroom. But is it really a smart investment that will increase property value -- or a vanity project (pun intended) tailored to show off your designer skills to your Instagram followers? Should you gut your '80s bathroom and start from scratch, or paint a few things and replace the faucets? How about that tile: Carrara or subway?


We've interviewed Chris Koch, owner of Cumberland Property Investments in Nashville and an expert in home restoration and flips, to find out the answers so you can make an informed decision about whether the upgrade is right for you.

 Which bathroom upgrades are worth doing and which aren't?

Chris Koch: "When it comes to a bathroom remodel, essentially all upgrades are worth it in my opinion. As long as you make smart choices that appeal to people in general, you will get your investment back when you sell your home. A bathroom is a challenging and costly room to remodel when compared to living spaces and bedrooms, and home buyers prefer to have bathrooms and kitchens already updated when they purchase a home."

"However, if you can't afford to gut your bathroom and renovate it all at once, start by updating items that give you the biggest bang for your buck. I generally start with items that you notice first, which are the vanity, countertop, mirror, and sink faucet. These items can be updated relatively inexpensively if you keep the same bathroom layout, and you can scour the internet for the best prices for each item. If your shower tile is decades old and you can't afford to change it, look into glazing the tile in a crisp white paint made especially for tile."

Speaking of tile, what's your opinion on the best kind to buy?

Koch: "If you can manage to install new tile, you don't always have to buy expensive marble. It's hard to beat the clean and timeless look of white, 3x6 subway tile. It gives a bathroom a classic, clean-lined look and it's also inexpensive. If you want to add some additional interest, use a dark gray grout with white subway tiles to make them pop. A word of advice about making choices in a bathroom remodel: Always choose white for sinks, toilets and bathtubs. You may love a unique, brightly-colored sink and toilet, but it's likely that the next person who looks at buying your house will not!"

How much do these upgrades run—everything from a fixture upgrade to a completely new bath and counter?

Koch: "The cost of a bathroom remodel can vary greatly due to the wide range of material choices and labor costs for installation. For example, if you're using marble throughout your bathroom, the cost of your remodel will be much higher than if you choose to use a classic porcelain tile. Including the cost of professional installation, I would estimate that a typical bathroom remodel would cost in the range of $3,000 for a big-box store, in-stock materials and around $10,000 for a more custom remodel with upgrades that includes marble tile and countertops."

Which upgrades are just for looks and which are more functional?

Koch: "Let's be honest, most upgrades are for looks rather than function. As long as there is no damage present, you can functionally take a shower just as well in an ugly brown tile-surround from the 1970s as you can a beautiful new marble-surround shower with a seamless glass door. But which would you rather shower in? Just like we keep up with clothing fashion trends, we update our home fashion as well, though certainly not as often.

Everyone wants a clean, beautiful bathroom. That's why it's important to make timeless, classic choices for materials in bathrooms. If you want to design your bathroom to reflect more of your personal style, you can always put your stamp on a room with paint and accessories. But keep the hard-to-change items, like tile and large fixtures, white and classic. When you put your house on the market to sell, you'll be glad you did!"

Nashville-based journalist Kristin Luna has penned more than a dozen guidebooks for Frommer's, and contributed to countless magazines. A lifelong globetrotter, Kristin shares her adventures and travel photography on her award-winning blog Camels & Chocolate. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @lunaticatlarge.