Spend an hour reading through my Budgeting and Savings category, and you’d probably consider me frugal if you are a nice person. If you are a nasty person, you probably think I’m a cheap bastard. I find no joy in spending money on fancy cars or designer labels. In fact, I feel stupid whenever I purchase an item with high profit margins. As an investor who has pored through financial statements of luxury goods companies in the past, it’s just shocking how much they make off people. I’d much rather spend money on experiences.
Despite my frugal nature, there is one area where I feel no guilt spending a large amount of money: everything housing related! We spend roughly half our lives in our house. Why shouldn’t we buy the best mattress to sleep on or pay up to rent a beautiful house with a balcony overlooking the water? After going through an unpleasant roommate situation when I first moved to San Francisco in 2001, I decided to “live it up” by getting my own $1,800 a month one bedroom in a nice part of town.
Living in a craptastic place for years in order to save money to one day live a better life seems a little backwards. You don’t have to spend $100,000+ a year to rent a nice place. But if you’re over 30 years old, perhaps the days of living like a college student are over!
This post highlights the true cost of constructing a dream master bathroom. Mine was really an expansion instead of a remodel, since the bathroom went from 36 square feet to roughly 170 square feet.
After purchasing my fixer in Golden Gate Heights I had a choice between finally buying a nice car to replace Moose, my decrepit 14 year old Land Rover with a lit up dashboard full of warning lights or upgrade my incredibly shitty 6 feet X 6 feet bathroom from the 1950s and own a cheaper new car instead.
Oh, the curse of not having an endless amount of money to spend!
Instead of spending ~$66,000 out the door for a sweet new Range Rover Black Series Evoque, I decided to lease a sexy 2015 Honda Fit for $235 a month after trading in Moose for $1,000. Moose wouldn’t be able to pass the smog inspection if I didn’t spend at least $500, so he had to go.
Given I had “saved” roughly $57,000 ($66,000 Range Rover – $8,460 lease cost over three years of a Honda Fit) by not buying a Range Rover Evoque, I mentally budgeted spending around $57,000 for my master bathroom expansion.
Here was my rationale for spending money on a cheaper car and expanding a bathroom vs. just spending it all on a luxury car:
1) Cars are guaranteed to depreciate, housing is not. Therefore, spend the least amount possible on a depreciating asset, and the most amount possible on a potentially appreciating asset. This is the principle of the ONIG Financial Blog Fiscal Responsibility Ratio.
2) Building more livable square footage is one of the best ways to make money in real estate. Don’t confuse remodeling with expansion. Always look for property that has expansion potential. Many people have trouble visualizing how awesome things could be.
3) After remodeling the upstairs with a new kitchen, bathroom, paint, windows, and hardwood floors, the downstairs needed to be updated in order to match the overall quality of the house.
4) At my former residence, I spent 1-3 hours every other day in the jacuzzi working online. It was the best home office possible! I spend way less time in a car, especially now that I don’t have to commute M-F to a day job downtown.
5) I found a “capable” licensed contractor who bid a reasonable price of $15,500 for the rough, and $8,500 for the finishings over a two month period. We all know that initial bids are low in order to gain business, but even a 50% overage to $38,000 was OK since I was adding 140 square feet that is valued at ~$120,000 (neighborhood is going for ~$850/sqft X 140 sqft).
My old bathroom had a small sink, an old toilet, and a shower that was so tiny you could barely turn around or bend over. It was also on a weird one foot raised platform, a short cut way to install the plumbing so the builder didn’t have to break concrete. The total size was only 36 sq ft.
As you can see from the third picture, there really wasn’t any room to maneuver in my old bathroom. The L-shaped pipes hugged the outer border of the walls. This was a bathroom where you wanted to do your business and get out as quickly as possible.
What I wanted to create was a place where I could hang out for hours. Maybe I could host a hot tub party with some wine and cheese? Or maybe we could have a Wet N’ Wild shower adventure? Having a private toilet stall with a heated seat is a newspaper reading man’s dream! Let’s see if I could make this dream a reality.
The plan was to start the bathroom demolition and construction on Feb 1 and finish by April 1. To meet this estimated time frame, my contractor would employ two helpers and work with them for most of the time. Unfortunately, my contractor would disappear for a week at a time, busy chasing other business while his helpers would do some things wrong and have to correct.
San Francisco code requires there to be 18 feet of distance between the garage entrance and a back wall. If there wasn’t such a code, I’d probably expand by another foot closer to the garage door for 10-15 more livable feet since even a Chevy Suburban is not longer than 16 feet and I’ve got a 13.3 feet Honda Fit.
After five months (three months LONGER than expected), the master bathroom finally passed plumbing, electrical, and final building inspection on June 30, 2015!
Not bad huh? I literally created everything I wanted in a master bathroom: double wide rain showers, deep soaking jacuzzi for two, a private toilet stall with Toto washlet/bidet that has a seat warmer, double vanity, and a custom closet with a pull out shelve for double laundry baskets. Obviously you need that right?
I used Spanish porcelain tiles for the floors that look like wood, and similar color porcelain tiles with a different pattern for the wall to create the spa-like feeling at a luxury resort I visited. The main landing area is large enough to put a queen size bed if I suddenly have massive amounts of children.
All recessed lights are dimable in order to create different moods. I chose translucent doors to bring in more natural light. The translucent window over the hot tub was strategically positioned for ventilation and natural light as well. The bathroom has two electrical vents, one in the main area with a heater and one in the toilet stall.
It was an incredible amount of fun coming up with the design and picking out the fixtures. If you’re a creative person, home remodeling can be quite a rewarding experience as you go from concept to finished product.
Now on to the cost of construction. Will I stay within my mental budget of $57,000 given my contractor went over by 90 days? Let’s see!
At 170 square feet, the master bathroom is relatively large. Most master bathrooms I see are under 120 square feet and don’t have tile all the way up to 9 foot ceilings. Since it cost the same to install a $500 shower head vs a $100 shower head, I decided to get the best finishes possible at the local home supply store. The custom cabinetry for the double vanity and closet took a lot more time than expected.
As you can see from the meticulous spreadsheet, I actually stayed within budget with a total cost of $55,214.32!
With such a long delay in construction, I thought surely I’d be on the hook for more. In fact, my contractor used the classic line that all contractors use, “If I start calculating how much money I’ve lost on your project…….” to try and guilt me into paying more. Don’t fall for this line folks. Stand strong!
I had no sympathy because he and his crew hardly did any work for the entire 3.5 weeks I was in Asia. Instead, the contractor let slip one day that he ended up building a whole restaurant during the time he was supposed to build my bathroom, even though he told me he had no other projects he was working on. WTF. He used the excuse that his helpers were injured as the reason why they didn’t work. What was daily work became visiting once a week for a couple hours at a time.
The good thing about my contractor is that he didn’t argue when I told him we would be sticking to the budget in the contract. He knows that I’ve got other potential projects for him to do, like building a couple decks, and maybe expanding my rental house, so he has to stay relatively honest. Dangling future projects is one of the best ways to keep a contractor from taking advantage of you.
There are two items I didn’t highlight in my main spreadsheet, but that are in my “Side Projects” tab I should mention. The first is spending $2,150 to upgrade my main water line from the street to a 1.5 inch pipe from 3/4 inches given my new bathroom has so many more pipes. A 1.5 inch pipe is there so I can build another full bathroom in the future if I’m crazy. Might as well prep the house for expansion potential.
I also spent $1,050 to create a new drain in my garage while they were already trenching. The drain is there in case the washer pipes burst, or any of the bathroom pipes burst and leaks into the garage. If I add these two costs together, then my total bathroom cost is roughly $58,414.32, $1,414.32 over my mental budget of $57,000.
Value Is In The Eye Of The Beholder
Spending $58,414 on a new master bathroom might sound ridiculous to you, but for me, I think it’s one of the greatest values ever. $58,000 is the out-the-door cost of a BMW 3.35 series or an Audi A4 3.0 sedan, neither of which bring me any value. Although, if I try and think how many awesome vacations for two $58,000 could buy, then the bathroom seems more expensive. But, by building this bathroom and creating an extra 140 square feet of living space, I think I’ve easily created an extra $120,000 in value to the house.
I’ve had three realtors come by the house since the bathroom construction was finished to guesstimate how much such a bathroom construction would cost. One said $90,000. And the other two said “around $100,000.” I then had a construction foreman come over to install a new vanity and sink in my remodeled upstairs bathroom and he said his construction company would charge $70,000 for just the rough, not including the plumbing, electrical, permits, and finished materials. He estimated $150,000 – $170,000 all-in!
Although my builders were slow, they were a good deal in expensive San Francisco.
How much you spend on a construction project largely depends on how much your home is worth. A good rule of thumb is to spend no more than 5% of the market value of your house on a master bathroom remodel e.g. $300,000 house, $15,000 master bathroom, $2 million house, $100,000 bathroom max. You want to spend within the scope of your neighborhood. Building the fanciest home on the block doesn’t bring the best financial return if you ever sell.
If you’ve ever taught a loved one how to drive stick shift, take that feeling and multiply it by three to get an idea of the stress involved in building or remodeling anything in your home!
For some reason, contractors will seldom come on time, do things wrong, and ask you for more money. You’re constantly feeling cheated, unless you really know your stuff. The process always costs more and takes longer than expected! Even if you are rich enough to hire a project manager to deal with the contractor and sub-contractors, you will still run into a lot of headaches.
If you’re in a relationship where your finances are not rock solid, your relationship will be severely tested because your frustrations will spill over to the ones you love the most. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you are being taken advantage of, and then having to part with more money because you’re held hostage.
Please give your loved ones multiple “free passes” to vent. All that anger will pass once you get your project approved!
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Updated for 2021 and beyond.