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Complete Bathroom remodeling

Updated on December 30, 2012

How to do a complete bathroom remodel

Ask any remodeling contractor and they’ll probably tell you that a complete bathroom gut-remodel is one of the toughest remodeling projects there is. Even when you’re taking a room all the way back to the studs, it’s not that any single element of re-building it is that difficult: most of us can lay out plates, install studs, tile, cut out the back of a vanity cabinet. The challenge is that you have to do it all in a very small space, on time and on budget. And you usually have to manage plumbers, electricians, cabinets and 3,000 pounds of debris along the way—as well as any other surprise a house can throw at you.

Instead of pounding on claddings to get them off, insert the jaw of a demolition bar behind and pull.

Protect stairs treads and floors ‒ from the exterior door to the bathroom you’re worked on ‒ with cardboard taped to the floor.

Find all the plumbing shut-offs between the main and the bathroom.

The keys to success in a bathroom remodel are planning, scheduling and communication. And the earlier in the game you get control of these things, the better control you’ll have of the project details and the profit you make from it. Step 1 of organization starts with a client meeting with several goals:

Plumber and electrician. I try to start the meeting by having my subs walk the job with the homeowner and me. In the estimate I give the client an “allowance” of how much I think their portion of the project will cost, however, I want the plumber to see every inch of visible pipe possible between water main and bathroom drain to find any surprises—anything from weird drain assemblies to corroded fittings to code issues from previous work. Same deal with the electrician. If they see something, I can adjust the client’s expectations before there is a surprise—all clients like this. I also check for all shut-offs between the main and the bathroom in case I need them in an emergency.

Checklist. Next, I hand off a checklist to the customer and we go through it together. It only takes a few minutes. It includes items like:

  • Parking. Where can I park? Where can my guys park? Are there parking permits required? Is there a security code or gate code Are there zones or sides of the street I need to know about to prevent getting tickets, etc.?
  • Trash. Can I put a dumpster in the driveway or street? If I am allowed to, can I get a dumpster truck in there anyway?
  • Pets. Client’s pet is client’s responsibility. Remind them that windows and doors will be open.
  • Egress. Can I use the front door or should I use the back door or garage entrance? Is there a fancy rug that needs to be rolled up, etc.?
  • Dust. There will be dust in the house. My estimate includes a line item for a maid service. If they want to clean their own house, I remove the line item.
  • Finishes. I want to store vanity cabinets, sinks, toilet, etc. in a bedroom adjacent to the bathroom being worked on. Is that possible? Where else can I store these things indoors?
  • Building materials. Whenever possible I store my materials on “bunks” or saw horses in the order I need them. If I can do that in a garage, that’s great. If not, can I set up a line in the yard where I can store studs and drywall, etc? Is there a vegetable garden or flowers I risk ruining if I do that?


Cast iron is hard, but brittle and can be broken with solid strikes from a sledge hammer.

Take precautions to protect the house from dust and damage while you demolish. Beyond the basic dust protection of draping/taping sheet plastic, I shut off the HVAC (if possible) during demolition to prevent dust-filled air getting sucked into the system. I also tape all vents and returns during demo and drywall sanding.

I employ a method I call “pierce and pry.” I don’t pound through wall claddings, rather I pierce them with a bar, get the jaw behind the cladding and pull. Stuff comes off easier in the opposite direction it’s fastened to the framing. If there is smashing and pounding (like for a cast iron tub, sometimes the only way to get them out is to break them in the room). Be careful not to shake pictures off the walls or dislodge plaster in other rooms. As for the debris, the safest way to get rid of it is also the fastest: Bag it and drop it out a window into a “drop zone” before taking it to the trailer or dumpster.

Plumber and electrician

Add blocking (as for the diverter in this shower supply wall) before drywall goes up.

As soon as the room is empty it’s time for the plumber. I don’t do any plumbing; instead I’ve worked hard to find a sub who understands their work is an important part of a larger project. A bad plumber will cost you money and kill your schedule. I like to be on the job with the plumber to work through any carpentry details—everything from heading off floor joists when moving a drain line to making sure blocking is fastened in a way that works for both of us.

When the plumber is completing his rough-in, I get the electrician busy with his rough-in. The electrician goes second because it’s easier to pull wire around pipe than pipe around wire.

New framing

I use the most premium studs possible in a bathroom because I want as flat a surface as possible for tile and other finishes.

Once the plumber is done and the electrician is working, I can start framing. I use the most premium studs possible in a bathroom myself—because I want as flat a surface as possible for tile and other finishes.

In old houses, framing can settle or be different sizes. I pull a string across the joists to see if there are major dips. This is easily fixed by packing the ceiling down with 2×4 “sisters.” Add 2×12 blocking where you think the toilet paper roll, towel bars, shower diverter and any grab bars will be. Take this opportunity to insulate as much as possible.

Between adding tile, cement backer board, or sub-floor it is easy for this to grow to an inch or more. Take care to keep it as smooth and gentle as possible.

One of the most important trim details in any bathroom remodel is the threshold between the hall and the bathroom. It’s easy to overlook the combined thickness of subfloor, cementitious underlayment, thinset and tile. And if there’s any existing flooring you’ve suddenly got 1 inch or more of material to deal with—and one ugly transition. From design to trim layout to detailing the door, keeping the threshold transition into the bathroom as gentle as possible is the best practice and will leave your customers happiest.

The payoff

Most of the chaos of a bathroom remodel happens between the client meeting and getting your subs through rough-in. This is when you risk filling your client’s house with dust, come out of the house to find your truck covered with parking tickets or the plumber doesn’t show up for two days and ruins the schedule.

If you can manage the process up to framing, you can more easily maximize profit and customer satisfaction.


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