5 biggest bathroom renovation rip-offs

A bathroom renovation can add significant value to your home, as long as you avoid these five renovation traps.

How to avoid a renovation nightmare

Bathrooms are often one of the smallest rooms in the house and yet the most expensive to renovate. 

When done well and with proper planning and expertise, a bathroom renovation can be an excellent investment, adding up to 10% to the value of your home over time. More importantly, it can make a huge difference to your enjoyment of your home.

But make the wrong call or fall into a renovation trap and it could see your budget spiral out of control and a bathroom that adds no value to your property at all.

Here are five potential bathroom renovation rip-offs to watch out for.

TRAP 1: Spending too much – or not enough

How much you spend on your bathroom renovation will vary depending on your individual needs, the overall value of the property, the style of your home and the bathroom space.

In a family home there's more demand on bathrooms, so they need a more practical design than, say, a bathroom for a retired couple in a small, one bedroom apartment.

The style of your home will also be a factor. Perhaps investing in a more opulent bathroom may still be necessary to complement a home's luxury appeal.

"Some people might like to show off their bathroom, make it a centrepiece, have a bath underneath the window overlooking a view, for example," says Ray Brown, immediate past national president of the Building Designers Association of Australia (BDAA). (See more about bathroom styles in Trap 4: Trendy vs functional.)

Archicentre Australia recommends you allow between $12,000 and $27,000 to fit out a bathroom or ensuite

But ultimately, he says, it comes down to how much you can afford. "There's extremes in the level of income people have that dictates what you're going to end up with."

You can minimise your costs by contracting tradespeople at the best price possible.

"You've got to do some homework," Brown says. "In the building industry, we've always maintained that we get three quotes for anything, and that starts from basically the fundamentals – the renovating, waterproofing, tiling and then all your prime cost items."

And while overcapitalising is a mistake, it's just as important to not under-capitalise, which has the potential to devalue your property in the eyes of potential buyers.

TRAP 2: Doing a full renovation when a cosmetic one would do

Renovation expert Cherie Barber says in her book, Renovating for Profit, that it's a common renovator mistake to rip out and replace a perfectly good bathroom, when a new look could have been achieved with just a few cosmetic changes.

"There are lots of hideous bathrooms out there with wild and wacky tiles but, once you take a closer look, you'll see that structurally you might have one in great condition," she says.

A major renovation may require changing the layout of your plumbing, which is costly and time-consuming but a design that uses existing plumbing, where you might just replace the vanity, tapware and wall tiles, can potentially save you thousands of dollars.

"You can take the shower recess out and put a new shower recess in. All the fittings can be taken out and it might lift [the look] completely," says Brown.

"If you just need to replace a couple of tiles on the wall, you could probably put a band in [if you can't find the matching tile] or you can even paint tiles these days, and do it very, very economically without a major renovation cost."

retro pink bathroom before renovation
A dated bathroom doesn't always need a major re-haul – you might only need to replace the tiles and fittings.

But a word of caution – any cosmetic work that affects the floor may cost you more than you bargained for.

"Some patchwork can be done, but the main thing is the floor area, which is the most expensive and vulnerable area with regard to the waterproofing," Brown says.

"If you have to take the tiles up on the floor, then it starts to become the full renovation because you may end up damaging the waterproofing membrane or the underlay. You might not even know you've damaged it but it can lead to a whole lot of other problems down the track."

Brown advises homeowners to contract a trusted, experienced and specialised tradesperson to advise on how to most effectively renovate your bathroom and whether the waterproofing will need replacing to avoid any future issues.

TRAP 3: Contracting dodgy tradespeople

Although you may want to save money wherever possible on a bathroom renovation, there are some things that should not be scrimped on – and one of those things, according to Brown, is the people doing the work.

"Experience is the mother of all knowledge," he says.

Select tradespeople who are licensed, insured and experienced in renovating bathrooms. Plumbing and electrical works should be done by specialised professionals.

RELATED: Find a tradie websites

You can choose to coordinate those tradespeople yourself to save money or pay to have a specialised company or builder project manage them for you – but if you go down this path, make sure your project manager is experienced in bathroom renovations and connected with experienced and high quality tradespeople.

Check with your state, territory or local government authority that your chosen tradespeople have a current licence. Getting a fully qualified waterproofer to install your bathroom waterproof membrane is absolutely essential to ensure it's done correctly – waterproofing tops the list of the most common building defects in every state and territory in Australia, according to the Master Builders Association of NSW. 

Waterproofing requirements vary state-by-state, so it's important to check what's required for your renovation. Depending on the circumstance waterproofers may need to have a licence, or certification of the job might be required.

"The main thing is, if you're ripping your bathroom out completely, is to get certification on the waterproofing side of things to really cover yourself," Brown says.

Sydneysider Mathew, 50, tells CHOICE his recent bathroom renovation turned into a nightmare.

"Our new bathrooms were designed by architects as part of an overall renovation," he says. 

"We used the architects as the project managers and this turned out to be a mistake as the individual architect was not experienced enough to deal with the tricks the builder used."

Mathew says the most significant issue he had was with the floor tiles.

"The architect specified large, rectangular tiles paired with a circular waste drain. Unfortunately, the combination of large porous tiles with a small, circular waste drain and poor tradesmanship resulted in a shower area that didn't drain properly. This ate away the grout and caused the floor tiles to move. Essentially, it was poorly designed and implemented.

"It amazes me that a highly experienced architectural firm would allow the wrong tiles to be used. Having said that, the workmanship was poor so maybe their original design may have been fine if it had been executed properly."

Mathew says it was very difficult to get the builder and tiler to take responsibility for their shonky work.

"In the end, they just wouldn't accept any responsibility so we parted company and didn't pay their final payment, which didn't cover the re-tiling of both bathrooms, unfortunately. There was no point pursuing the builder legally as the cost may have been greater than the money outstanding and would have just extended a bad situation."

In hindsight, Mathew says he would have done things differently.

"I've realised that kitchens and bathrooms are highly specialised areas within the home and require specialists to design and work on them. If I had my time over, I'd consult directly with specialists in these two areas to ensure that the design and trades used were consistent with a top quality outcome."

TRAP 4: Choosing trendy over functional

Bathroom styles and trends come and go, so it's important to select a style that will age reasonably well with an emphasis on functionality.

"Bathrooms can date very easily so sometimes less is more, by which I mean not being overly pretentious with regards to your selection of materials and tiles," Brown says.

Your choice in bathroom style should be dictated by the style of the home itself and remain consistent with that.

"If you're working with a historical building, that's completely different to a modernist-style house. So unless the whole building can be renovated to a new, different style, then you've really got to maintain the style that the house has been built [in]," he says.

You've really got to maintain the style that the house has been built [in]

Renovating a bathroom in an older house, in particular, may not increase the property's value if the rest of the house looks dated.

"You don't want to just do the bathroom and make it completely different to the rest of the house, unless you've got a full renovation in mind for the whole lot."

A major cost in a bathroom renovation comes down to style and subsequent fittings, which is why it's important to do your research to ensure you're getting the best price on what you want. 

If a desired brand or item is out of your price range, seek out similar alternatives to achieve the same look at a fraction of the cost. If you're looking at buying imported fittings, make sure they comply with Australian standards.

TRAP 5: Doing it all yourself

So, you don't have trade qualifications, but you're feeling confident enough to tackle your bathroom renovation on your own? 

For cosmetic renovations, such as replacing wall tiles and grout, building storage shelves or painting, DIY is possible. But renovations become more complicated when plumbing, electrical and waterproofing work is involved, and these require skilled and experienced tradespeople.

"If you've got some sort of practical background in the industry, I would say it's a no brainer ... you can save a lot of money doing it yourself," Brown says.

There's every chance something will go wrong, which could cost you even more money to fix

"But if you don't have that experience, and you're really money conscious and want to do it cheaply ... there are dangers that you've got to be careful of."

Installing your own wiring and plumbing is illegal and can be dangerous, not to mention the essential care to be taken for the floor waterproof membrane to avoid serious problems down the track. 

If you DIY, Brown says there's every chance something will go wrong, which could potentially cost you even more money to fix or repair.

"If you have trades that are registered and licensed and have the insurances, you've got comeback on them. You've got Fair Trading to go to as well. But if you do it yourself, and you stuff up, you've got nobody else to blame but yourself."

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The costs of renovating a bathroom

The Housing Industry Association (HIA) estimates there are around 233,188 bathroom renovation jobs in 2018–19. The average cost of a bathroom installed in new homes in this period is $16,430, and  $17,522 as part of a renovation.

The actual cost of a bathroom renovation can vary dramatically from the average, of course. Archicentre Australia recommends you allow between $12,000 and $27,000 to fit out a bathroom or ensuite.

Barber suggests a formula to determine your bathroom renovation budget is to attribute two percent of your current property value to the job.

"For example, if you have a house worth $700,000, your fully furnished budget is $14,000 dollars," she says in her blog Renovating for Profit.

What to do when things go awry

If you've been let down, are in financial dispute or disappointed with the quality of the workmanship of an Australian tradesperson, the consumer agency in your state can point you in the right direction for getting a resolution. 

If the agency can't help you come to a resolution, or you're not satisfied with the outcome, you can take your complaint to the appropriate tribunal or court in your state or territory. These have the power to make a trader (or you) pay money, rectify services or excuse you from having to pay the full amount. 

You may also have rights under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), which applies to all businesses and may cover your situation.

Services up to $40,000 are covered by ACL irrespective of the type of work done, while costs greater than that are also covered as long as they are normally bought for personal or household use. 

The ACL requires that the services provided by tradespeople are done with due care and skill, fit for a particular purpose and completed within a reasonable amount of time.

For further information, visit the ACCC website and for specific advice relating to your situation, seek appropriate legal advice.

Resources for renovators

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