Problem: an ugly, outdated bathroom in an old converted barn-home
Wish List: an attractive, efficient bathroom with a toilet that actually flushes
Difficulty: it costs lots of money to replace an outdated bathroom in an old home
Solution: save lots of money and replace the old bathroom by ourselves
Reality: we didn’t save any money, but at least the new toilet flushes
Once upon a time, we bought an old house that had originally been a small barn. It was a funny little house, long and narrow. Nothing really matched, architecturally. Different styles of windows punctuated the walls in odd places, floors were uneven, and door frames were warped out of alignment. The only full bathroom was upstairs, and outdated didn’t even begin to describe it.
The sink was cracked, so when you brushed your teeth, water dripped through and puddled on the wooden bottom of the vanity cabinet. Years of puddled water had rotted the wood, which in turn had created an intimidating mass of black mold. The faucet produced water when it wanted to, but sometimes got moody and shut itself completely off, no matter how much anyone wanted a drink.
The ancient plastic tub-surround walls were warped, cracked, and ugly. The tub faucet was a close friend of the sink faucet, and almost as cranky. The toilet just plain hated us and refused to flush at really inconvenient times, like when you had just finished….yeah, doing that. The mirror over the sink was chipped, the light fixtures were dim, and wiring to the entire room was suspect, because when you flicked the light switch on the wall up or down, it sizzled.
We decided the merciful thing to do was put the old bathroom out of its misery. To help ease our guilt (okay, we had none, I’m lying) we planned a rebirth; a Brand New Bathroom. Many contractors were called, many plans were discussed, and we were given many estimates, all costing many dollars. And while we had some dollars, we sure didn’t have over 10,000 of them.
So we decided to spend 3,000 to 4,000 of our hard-earned dollars and redo the bathroom on our own. How hard could it be to tear out a lot of old plumbing? If ordinary couples did it on HGTV, why couldn’t we? My husband knew quite a bit about construction…well, he had a lot of tools…and we were sure we could figure out the rest.
For better or for worse, we did a lot of research online, bought a series of Do It Yourself Home Repair books, and hung around home improvement stores pestering employees in the plumbing and bath section with way too many questions. We tapped random places on the walls of the doomed bathroom, trying to determine where to start the actual demolition, when one of our kids made that decision for us.
My husband was rapping on a wall with a closed fist, trying to see where the studs were located beneath it. Our son decided to help, so he punched the back wall of the ancient plastic tub-surround and was delighted when his fist went completely through it, exposing a dark, musty smelling hole.
Well, this is as good a place as any to start, right?
Pulling the broken pieces free, we noticed that the remaining plastic bowed outwards as we did. Hmm. We pulled a little more, and the whole back section of the tub-surround popped loose and fell into the tub. Behind it was a smelly, rotted remnant of water soaked wallboard. The remaining two sections popped off just as easily, revealing more rotten wallboard. The entire tub surround had never been glued on or water sealed, simply nailed in place with tiny little nails at the corners and scattered at irregular intervals along the edges. Water must have splashed behind the darned thing since it was first put up, perhaps 100 years ago.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that long, but the point is, we now had no supporting walls for the new tub surround, that was sitting outside in the garage, along with the new toilet, new sink, new vanity, new lights, and new faucets we had paid for and had delivered.
First off, demolition of a bathroom means there’s a lot of old stuff to throw out. Most of its heavy and doesn’t fit through a bathroom window. We had rented an impressive 30 foot long commercial dumpster for this reason, thinking, we’ll just pitch everything in there and save ourselves the trouble of hauling it to the dump. And I guess that can work if you can fit a 30 foot dumpster under your bathroom window. But these things arrive on big trucks with hydraulics and stuff, and they have to back up on the property so the mighty hydraulic arms can lift and shove the dumpster off the truck bed and onto your lawn.
Which didn’t work, because: A: the lawn was too slanted and; B: the lawn was too muddy, because it was over the ancient septic tank and; C: if it was placed over the ancient septic tank the weight could crack the holding tank, and; D: the dumpster company didn’t want to get sued for cracking the holding tank. So the 30 foot commercial dumpster was dumped on our asphalt driveway, instead…on the opposite side of the house from where the bathroom window was…which was too small to throw anything out of except the rotted wallboard.
Demolition is exhausting. Sinks are really heavy. So are counter tops, cabinets, toilets, and old bathtubs. I used up most of my energy in the first week helping to haul those things down the narrow, crooked stairs of the funny little house, out the back door, across the lawn, and over to the dumpster. I used up the rest of my energy trying to help lift all these items high enough to tip over side walls of this dumpster, which were taller than me (5’5″).
On some days, when your arms are quivering from trying to dead-lift a heavy bathtub over your head and your much taller and stronger husband is yelling, “Lift your end higher! HIGHER!” there’s really nothing else to do but cry. Which you can do, but not before herniating a few discs trying to push a seemingly 1000 pound tub over a dumpster wall, while standing on your tiptoes and praying your internal organs don’t explode from the strain.
You collapse on the ground afterwards, crying and wanting to rub the cramps out of your destroyed calves, only you can’t because your arms are still rubbery and weak, making you cry even more. There’s a lot of arguing, yelling, and crying in do-it-yourself demolition…at least there was on my part. My husband didn’t cry. He’d massage my aching calves, then pull me to my feet and remind me of how much money we were saving. I wanted to kill him at least once a day during demolition.
Once the walls were down and the old plumbing taken out, we assumed it could only get easier. Wrong.
Moisture from the tub area had not only rotted the walls, it had soaked a good portion of the ceiling as well. That had to be taken down, which revealed serious structural faults in the roof rafters, but that’s another whole Renovation Drama we’ll save for another day.
The wood surrounding the window was rotted, because it hadn’t been installed properly. We broke the window taking it out…no, not just the glass, the entire window…it’s a long story. Anyway, we couldn’t get one to replace it because, as I said, this was an old house, and the new standard sized windows didn’t fit the existing opening.
The sizzle from the light switch came from faulty wiring that wasn’t up to code. We knew this because the expensive electrician who had to re-wire the entire bathroom told us so.
All the shut off valves to both sink and tub faucets were corroded from age and had to be replaced by an expensive plumber. We had to let him tear up part of the old tiled floor to replace all the pipes, after he discovered that none of the plumbing was up to code, either.
Under the old tile (which actually wasn’t too bad; we had planned on saving it) was rotten sub-floor, so now that had to be taken out. But with the old bathtub gone and the floor ripped up, a Major Problem was exposed, what came to be the coup de grace of the entire bathroom renovation.
You may recall that this house was originally an old barn…long and narrow in design, with support beams running the length of it under the second story. Whoever converted the barn into a house…and I have serious doubts it was a knowledgeable carpenter…made the unwise decision to cut a six foot section clean out from the middle of one of the main support beams, in order to fit in the tub. Which had slowly over the years sunk lower and lower through the rotten, water soaked sub floor…and it was simply a matter of time, I was told, before the tub would have fallen completely through the ceiling and crashed onto the family room floor, below it.
The man who told me this was the expensive construction guy we had to hire to splice a section back into the main support beam of the house. Until the floor was stabilized, the plumber couldn’t finish installing the new water pipes, and the cost of stabilizing the floor made us wonder if it wouldn’t be cheaper just to blow the old house up and build a new one.
Really, you reach that point in some renovations. You’re bruised, banged up, and becoming broke. We didn’t anticipate little disasters that blossomed into big repair bills. Our budget had included a lot of things, but we hadn’t expected to afford all new drywall for the walls and ceiling, new sub floor and tile, new window, new wiring, new plumbing, and above all, the costly (but totally necessary) repair of the support beam.
Instead of the two to three weeks we estimated it would take us to renovate our bathroom, it took over two months, and was just as costly as our original estimates. I think a lot of the frustration and extra cost came precisely because it was an old house.
There may be great charm in some old structures, but old homes means old materials, old plumbing, old wiring, and methods of construction that were used long before current safety codes were enforced. If you’re fairly handy, small renovations can be a great learning experience and save you money as well. Sometimes you learn valuable lessons along the way for what you shouldn’t do on a future project…like trying to lift a bathtub over your head, as I did.
Happy Demolition to you!