Renovate a bathroom and still make money? Of course!

Tired design, bad layout, damp smells, frightening colours and rattling tiles can make for a tenant's worst nightmare, and aren't much fun for a landlord either, but you can renovate a bathroom to add value to your rental property.

A bathroom is the true "wet area" of any house. People use far more water here than anywhere else, and that water has a long-term effect on the structure of a property if something isn't right.

Over time, tiles become loose and grout becomes mouldy. Bad ventilation and heating can mean the ceiling becomes mouldy, spreading to other parts of the house in some cases. Water membranes can lose their seal over time, and water can start to seep into foundations and support timbers. It can even cause damage to electrics if the regulations weren't adhered to or they were done a long time ago.

Water spray from the shower or bath can cause doors and bathroom cabinets to swell and become rotten as well, so it is best to renovate a bathroom in a way that considers all of these factors so that it will last as long as possible.

See, you can actually renovate a bathroom to save money over the long term.

When buying a property

There are bathroom watch points to look out for when buying any property, that should apply especially to one you plan to rent out.

  1. Start by ignoring the colour. That comes later.
  2. When was the bathroom last renovated (approximately)? Was it done in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or 1990s? This will affect wether you decide to renovate a bathroom and keep its existing form, or start afresh. A 1950s or earlier ceramic pedestal sink - for example - might be able to be kept, while a 1960-1990 laminex one can be so dated and/or rotten that you know you will have to remove and replace it. Some can be updated with a change of doors, colour and handles. Go look at some bathroom showrooms before you visit the property so you know what is current, then think outside the box to see how you can get an old-but-sound bathroom cabinet to look the same as something new. Hardware stores can help you renovate a bathroom by providing special paints and iron-on laminex, as well as modern tap fixtures.
  3. Look at the layout of the room - is it practical?
  4. If the layout is practical and there is little wrong with the appearance of the tiles (no cracks, square tiles without nasty impressed patterns in the glaze, or at least nicely propotioned tiles on walls and floor), are the tiles sound? Don't be shy to tap all around the tiled areas to see if any or many are loose because this is what will cost you if you have to remove them. An odd loose tile on the wall or floor can sometimes be carefully removed and re-stuck. Many loose tiles may require you to strip them out and replace, and it will not be easy (or sometimes even possible) to save the old tiles to re-use.
  5. Is the bath good but scratched and chipped? If it is an enamel bath, you can renovate a bathroom by having it resurfaced, if it is plastic, you might have to consider fitting a replacement. You can also now have exactly-fitting liners made which mold to the old bath. When buying a replacement, buy something deep and preferably without a dip in the side. Remember to ask yourself: Can you afford to do this? Cost ranges from $500 to buy and fit a new plastic model or re-spray the enamel surface, to $1000 for a fitted liner. At the high end of the market, you may need to consider spa fittings, but remember that these cost more to maintain as well as replace, so don't install when you renovate a bathroom, unless you know you are going to get a good rental return for the money.
  6. Check the condition of the toilet all around, and look for cracks on the inside. Will you need to replace the bowl, the cistern, or the whole suite?
  7. Is there a shower screen or is there room for one? Shower curtains may be cheaper when you renovate a bathroom, but cause more long-term damage to the cabinets if the shower is close by, while also making a bathroom feel much smaller. Shower screens with brown or coloured glass are ugly, reduce any feeling of space, and should be replaced if you are doing a proper update. Replace them with something that is flat and either clear or frosted to enhance the feeling of space.
  8. Is there storage and a power point in the bathroom? Few people are without an electric shaver these days, so it's an advantage (but not a necessity) to have a power point in the bathroom. Storage is another matter. As a parent, I know it's important to have a bathroom cabinet up high on a wall out of reach of little children who can get to medicines. It may not cost very much to install one when you renovate a bathroom, but think about where you can put it if there is nothing or if something is badly placed. I have seen big cabinets jutting out of the wall directly over where someone will have to stand up in the bath, and that is an insurance liability for you as a landlord that can easily be rectified.
  9. Bathroom heating and ventilation. Here in Australia, probably the most efficient way to heat a bathroom is to get a light fitting with a ventilation fan and heat lamps built in. Note whether there is a separate heater and extraction fan in the bathroom already, and budget this in. If there is already an extraction fan, make sure it has some way to vent right out of the roof cavity to the open air, as the steam from your showers simply venting into the roof of your property can cause serious damp problems.
  10. Finally, you're going to have to paint anyway. Now is the time to consider the colour of the paint and how it can be improved from the lurid pink, green, yellow or blue that someone thought was a good idea. Paint is the easy bit! Just remember to add a mould-inhibitor to any paint you decide to use in a bathroom, and make sure it is a semi-gloss or gloss to make it easier to wipe clean.

    Phew! That's a long list!

    Having to renovate a bathroom in any property can become a major exercise very quickly if you don't consider all of these points before you buy.

    One of my earliest clients, and a very good friend, made the mistake of buying a flat, knowing that she had to do something with the kitchen because it was visibly falling apart.

    Unfortunately, she didn't check the stability of the tiles in the bathroom. We initially thought we could get away with some cosmetic work on the tiles, bath and walls, but closer inspection (unfortunately, after settlement...) showed us that we would have to rip out the lot and start again. The only thing we could save was the layout of the bathroom and the actual bath, toilet, and sink, with some clever work to save them. This realisation that she had to renovate a bathroom as well as a kitchen blew her budget to double what she could afford overnight, even with some really quick thinking and a lot of help from friends.

    The good news is that when we finished the job, the rental return on the property increased beyond our wildest dreams (I'd told her she might achieve $200 per week, up from $150 - and she was offered $240!). For a few weeks, this little apartment was the most chic and expensive two-bedroom apartment to rent in the suburb, until the other real-estate agents cottoned on and raised other (less renovated) apartments to match.

    What can I do if my rental property's bathroom turns out to be a disaster?

    There are plenty of things you can do to renovate a bathroom on a tight budget, as long as you are prepared to shop around, find bargains and ask for discounts.

    This doesn't mean you have to compromise on the appearance, or even the quality of the finish, if you are prepared to be a bit creative.

    In the case of my friend above, all the tiles had to go. So we bought simple white tiles (always classic) with a rippled surface for around $12.50 per square metre and put those on the walls. The ripple effect was a tip I got from the builder who worked on our own house and it's served me well. It looks really lovely, while hiding the fact that you might not have got all your tiles laid perfectly flat on the wall - and that wall was not even remotely flat, because it was all roughly cemented bricks underneath!

    If the floor tiles are sound, but simply too ugly to go with your new tiles, you can paint a new membrane over them and then tile right over the top, requiring only a small adjustment to the bottom of the door to fit over the new level. Floor tiles (with a non-slip surface for safety and your insurance) start at around $25 per square metre. If you shop around, you may be able to find enough tiles to suit the job in the remainder boxes at your tile supplier. Don't forget to keep an eye out for bargain items like an eyecatching detail tile either. We were able to put a stylish strip of pebbles down the side of the bath for only $5!

    If everything is sound, but it's just a horrible colour, talk to a tile and bath re-enamelling specialist about how much it will cost to have everything sprayed white or another suitable colour using waterproof bathroom enamel paint. Make sure you have the number of square metres of tiles they will need to cover with you when you call them up. The average cost to re-spray an entire bathroom is between $1000-1500, which is cheap when you consider that a complete re-tile by a tradesman can cost anything from $6000+.

    Floor wastes for water should be blocked gently with paper until you're finished, to prevent rubble and grout from filling them up, and a new waste can cost as little as $3.

    When it comes to taps and faucetts (or any other bathroom fittings - even the toilet seat), choose carefully for a balance between budget and style when your renovate a bathroom. There are some really nice designs for just about anything from plumbing fittings to towel rails and toilet roll holders if you're prepared to look at all the prices on the shelf (or online).

    Make sure that cheap doesn't equal nasty and outdated, or likely to break quickly. This kind of false economy when you renovate a bathroom can destroy the lovely work you do elsewhere, and cost you money in the long run in repairs. Taps and fittings are the shining crowning glory of bathroom design, so look at a showroom for something really stylish and then try to get as close as you can to that look with a cheaper alternative at the hardware store or trade suppliers.

    Shopping around can find you cabinets and shelves for as little as $10-25, which is fine if you can check them for sturdiness and install them yourselves.

    Finally, remember that a mirror is almost essential in any bathroom. Remove one which is losing its foil backing and replace it with something new. Extend it as far as you can along a wall to enhance both the design and the feeling of space in your smallest room.

    You can check thrift stores and two-dollar shops as well as hardware and homewares shops for something cheap and simple, but sizes can be a problem and size does count if it looks out of proportion to the place where you are mounting the mirror. The simplest and cheapest solution we have found is to go to your local glaziers and have a custom-sized mirror cut without a frame, and ask them to suggest fitting options (such as screws with a dome-nut, or special almost-invisible mirror mounts) to hold it in place. It's not as expensive as you may think.

    Approached with the right attitude and knowledge, you can renovate a bathroom on a very tight budget and end up with an extremely professional result. Don't let your investment dream turn into a nightmare because of a few loose tiles: muck in and have ago!

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