Beginning contractors often make the mistake of pumping up a
customer’s early expectations, only to discover
unresolved issues and problems later that cause the cost of the
job to change, most often in a northerly direction. This is
especially true of bathroom remodels, where much of the work is
hidden behind walls and under floors, and where the number and
variety of product choices is overwhelming.
To avoid problems, it’s important that during the
initial site visit you work through a of the common problems
that typically plague bathroom remodels, especially when it
comes to investigating existing piping and fixtures. Until
you’re comfortable with this kind of detective work,
ask your plumbing sub to visit the site with you.
You’ll look like a hero to your client if you
underpromise and overdeliver, and your plumber will be a lot
happier if, before saying "No problem, my plumber can do that,"
you actually talk to your plumber about "that."
This article deals with those bathroom remodeling pitfalls
that, if overlooked at the outset, are most likely to rear
their ugly heads before the job is finished.
Delay Pricing Discussions
In the desire to get the work, many contractors will readily
quote a price or price range for a bathroom remodel without
knowing any of the details. In most cases, the homeowner
envisions a Ferrari while the contractor is pricing a Fiat, and
once these unrealistic expectations are set, they are hard to
undo. As negotiations grow more serious and the job specs begin
to take shape, contractors start backpedaling with excuses
about "hidden conditions" or expensive fixture "upgrades."
Alternatively, they wait until the job has started and try to
make up the shortfall by overcharging for change orders. In the
worst cases, the contractor simply walks away from the work.
All of these options leave the homeowner with a low regard for
contractors — all contractors.
To avoid being lumped in with "all contractors," never
provide a quote or give an estimate of any sort unless you are
sure that you can and will do the work for that amount. Save
your ballpark estimates until after you have thoroughly
inspected the job and you know all of the specifics.
Old Pipes Never Die
age of the existing plumbing will greatly affect the cost of
the upgrade work. Many cast-iron drain systems are on their
last legs, but because cast iron comes in varying grades, its
deteriorated condition may not be obvious. Cast iron rots from
the inside out, so it may look okay but actually have very thin
walls that could fail at any time. Tap the pipe somewhere other
than the hubs with a steel wrench or heavy screwdriver: A
change in tone frequently indicates either a buildup of solids
within the pipe or thin walls caused by corrosion. In either
case, the pipe may need to be repaired or replaced.
Galvanized pipes are usually ready for replacement when the
bathroom is ready for updating. Plan on replacing the entire
pipe run, because old threaded galvanized pipe joints are
usually frozen tight from corrosion and can’t be
disassembled without breaking. If the customer insists on tying
into the old galvanized pipe, strongly consider passing up the
job: The potential problems can far outweigh the benefits of
saving the pipe.
Copper supply lines can also fool you. In some areas of the
country, mineral deposits from hard water will cause copper
lines to corrode from the inside out, much like cast iron and
galvanized pipe. This is especially true if thin-wall (type-M)
copper tubing was used. Corrosion may, however, be visible at
Plastic water-supply pipe presents different problems.
Polybutylene pipe has been banned for years in most areas of
the country, but you may find existing installations that are
still in use. In this case, your plumber will know whether code
requires this piping to be replaced. Newer systems plumbed with
cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) should pass muster, but make
sure your plumber has the tools and expertise needed to work
with this relatively new material.
of the kind of piping you discover, keep in mind your potential
liabilities. Obviously, when you replace the entire system, you
are responsible for any leaks in the pipe. But when you tie
into an existing plumbing system, your potential liability
escalates substantially. Heating joints and twisting fittings
may well cause problems upstream or downstream, problems which
may not be readily apparent and that could cause leaks to turn
up long after you’ve left the job. If any of those
leaks cause damage, you’ll be the first one the
homeowner turns to for compensation.
Pressure-testing new piping will provide you with some peace
of mind, but testing is far from foolproof, especially when new
plumbing ties into old. When you’ve got doubts about
the condition of the existing plumbing, the best solution is
not to do the work. Since that may not always be possible,
include a clause in your contract that generally limits your
liability for damage resulting from a leak or other piping
problem not immediately adjacent to your work. You should also
prepare and have your client sign a separate document clearly
stating that, where you are tying into existing work at the
request of the customer and you have advised against such
action, you will not be liable for any leaks or damage not
occurring at your work points. Hire a lawyer to draft these
provisions for you; not every state allows for such clauses,
nor does every state allow you to limit your damages without
some other restrictive or informative language. A good lawyer
can advise you on the proper course of action, and the cost
will be less than the cost of defending a lawsuit.
Remember, though, that all the paper in the world will not
enhance your professional reputation or endear you to an
unhappy customer when a fixture leaks or a joint fails. You
need to be clear with customers about the risks of using old
pipes. Seeing is believing: The most convincing argument is to
show them the built-up corrosion and sediment from a section of
corroded pipe that you’ve removed from a home similar
If a tub unit is
to be replaced, the major trouble spots will be access to the
drain and supply lines; the tub itself shouldn’t
present many problems. Remember, though, that a cast-iron tub
is very heavy. Breaking it up may be the only practical way to
get the old tub out of the bathroom. Fiberglass and steel tubs
can often be removed in one piece, unless they are
Occasionally, the homeowner wants to save the tub, either
because of its antique value, or because cousin Bob wants it
for his own remodeling project. Even if the tub can be moved in
one piece, make sure it will fit through the doorway and down
the hall and stairs. It’s not unusual for tubs,
particularly modern whirlpool units, to have been surrounded by
framing after the tub was set; sometimes tubs are lifted into
place with a crane or boom along with upper-story framing
materials. Where this has happened, be sure that the customer
accepts the risk that the tub may have to be destroyed to be
Getting the old tub out is one thing; getting the new tub in
means making sure it will fit into the existing space and that
it will clear all obstacles. The only way to know is to have
your client decide on the specific tub before you agree to the
work. In fact, you should have the correct measurements for the
tub they want in hand as you make your initial site review. If
you have to remove the door trim and frame to gain necessary
inches, it could get expensive, and somebody (preferably the
homeowner) has to pay for the work.
Sinks and vanities.
Removing existing sinks and vanities is generally
straightforward. You may run into problems with pipe sizes and
corroded fittings that require different or extra fittings than
are called for "by the book." You may also find that the
necessary vent is missing, a problem when the original scope of
work does not involve gutting the space.
Another problem to look out for is a sink, either purchased
or specced by the homeowner, that might not fit into an
existing cabinet. This can happen whether the sink comes from a
home improvement center or a specialty shop. Whether the
solution is a different sink or a new cabinet, the cost should
be included in your estimate.
Also inspect the supply tubes and fittings under the sink.
Often, the shutoffs are frozen open, making replacement more
difficult, especially if there is no primary shutoff for the
whole fixture group. Again, remember that disturbing old and
corroded fittings can cause problems down the line. When in
doubt, plan on replacing the supplies.
Color match. One nice
thing about white fixtures is that you can always match the
color. Designer colors, on the other hand, seem to change about
every five years or so, and matching a five-year-old color may
be difficult at best and impossible at worst. Be sure that
customers who are concerned about consistent fixture color are
willing to replace all of the fixtures. If you can’t
be sure of the need or desire to replace the fixtures before
the job starts, use a fixture allowance and explain that the
final cost will be determined by the fixture selection.
problem here is subsurface water damage. Leaking shower valves
and pans can cause tremendous damage to the structure, almost
all of which may be hidden until the fixture is removed. You
need to be clear with your customer about the potential for
extra costs in the event structural repairs are needed.
If the shower is going to be rebuilt, be sure that the
homeowner has selected the finish material for the shower floor
and walls. This is especially important with tile, because
variations in thickness will affect rough openings and the
stub-outs for faucets and diverters.
Finally, if the shower plumbing is being replaced,
don’t make the mistake of assuming your customers will
be happy with "standard" rough-in heights. Instead, have them
stand in the tub or shower space and tell you at what height
they want the shower valve and head located. This is especially
useful with taller people, or with couples who differ greatly
in height. Be sure that they are standing at the floor level of
the tub or shower, not directly on the subfloor, since the
difference can be 3 or 4 inches.
inspect the crawlspace can lead to significant problems and
additional expense. Most crawlspaces are dark and damp, and are
accessible only with difficulty.
Headroom. While most
codes require a minimum of 18 inches of crawlspace headroom, in
practice many crawlspaces are much smaller. You may be willing
to put up with this if you have to work only at one corner of a
building, but if you have to run lines from one end of the
building to the other, you may have to increase your working
room with shallow trenches. Hand-digging a crawlspace is hard
work, so you need to be sure that the customer understands that
the prep work is part of the bill.
Access. While you are
inspecting the crawlspace, also determine if you can gain
access to each of the areas where you need to work. In many
cases, grade beams, retaining walls, and retrofitted support
walls impede or close off large areas of a crawlspace, and you
will have to cut access holes in the floor to reach these
areas. Include the cost of this work in your price, and be sure
to specify who will repair the floor once you are done with
Water and light. A damp
crawlspace is an uncomfortable place to work. You may need to
lay down plastic sheeting or even build wooden catwalks to keep
yourself and your materials and tools dry. More than one
plumber, working a very dark crawlspace, has found himself 80
feet from the entrance when he tugged on his work light and
disconnected it. Some plumbers find it useful to install
"string lights" or other types of temporary lighting when they
plan to work in a crawlspace for more than a few hours.
factor in any remodeling project is the joist depth of upper
floors. Many older buildings have relatively shallow floor
joists into which pipe, many times old lead pipes, have been
tightly stuffed. These "creative" configurations may be
difficult to disassemble. Moreover, getting new drain lines
into the same cramped space may be difficult or impossible. To
complicate the problem, modern codes — not to mention
good sense — may restrict your ability to cut away or
modify joists sufficiently to allow for easy installations.
Similarly, concealed supply and drain lines can be counted
on to throw a wrench into the works, directly affecting the
budget. You need to look at places where notching and drilling
may be necessary to determine what is in the way and how you
can perform your work with minimal waste and damage. You might
consider purchasing one of the new electronic testers to locate
concealed piping and wiring. These devices are readily
available and are now reasonably priced; if you do a lot of
remodeling, they are a worthwhile investment.
Walls and Floors
sizing requirements may have changed since the structure was
built, or the vents may have to be upgraded due to the addition
of new fixtures and appliances. Similarly, code restrictions
against cutting top and bottom plates may make it impossible to
run a 3-inch stack in a 3-1/2-inch wall, and furring out the
wall may not be feasible.
Also, remember that while it may be easier to run supply
lines straight up an exterior wall cavity, the presence of
existing insulation or the need for added insulation may
preclude using that route. This is more of a problem in the
northern states and other areas where energy conservation is
Be sure to verify the floor joist spacing. If a tile floor
is being considered, include the expense of having to add
joists to strengthen the floor. If it appears necessary to
build up the subfloor, figure out how you will handle the
threshold, which can be both ugly and dangerous if
it’s too high.
Thanks to plumber Randy Teets and builder Carl Hagstrom,
both of Montrose, Pa., for help with this article.