Extreme home makeover, Part I: Decision time

Our house is a beautiful, 3,000-square foot home built in 1918 that sits across the street from South Shore Park and Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. But after living in our home for 25 years, we were faced with a difficult decision: Do we spend a chunk of money to fix up the place or move? We had done some remodeling in the past, but it was looking tired and the bathroom upstairs still had all of the original (read: very old) plumbing.

As much as we loved the place, the thought of undertaking another remodeling project was too overwhelming. I embarked on a house-hunting mission in nearby Madison and Middleton, WI, but soon discovered that to recreate anything close to what we have -- easy access to downtown, shops within walking distance, lake view, bike path and a quick commute to the airport -- was going to cost $1 million or more. So we reversed course and decided to remodel -- again. Our initial budget was $25,000 and our sights were on that horribly outdated bathroom upstairs.

Along the way, I consulted with Tom Kraeutler, the home improvement editor for AOL, co-author of My Home, My Money Pit: Your Guide to Every Home Improvement Adventure and host of The Money Pit, a nationally-syndicated home improvement radio program. I've documented my experience from the planning stages to demolition to the finished product, with Tom weighing in on my decisions -- both good and bad.

Below is the first part of a five-part series on how my husband, Charlie, and tackled a major overhaul of our home and the pitfalls we faced along the way.

Tom's take: Move or improve is a question facing many homeowners today. The key to having it both ways is to choose improvements that deliver good value to your home when and if it comes time to sell. Bath remodels deliver one of the highest returns on investment, almost 75%, so it's a good place to start. The other option is to just wait it out – those upscale homes prices will continue to drop.

Once we decided to remodel, we needed to find someone to coordinate the work. I was impressed with the job a contractor named Rick Kasabuske from RK Systems had done on a home in my neighborhood. My neighbors gave him an enthusiastic reference so we decided to hire him. Soon after contacting Rick, he referred us to an architect who drew up some plans.

Tom's take: I'd have widened the search. A good contractor has a long history of satisfied customers. Sound's like you did a survey of just one. That said, kudos to your contractor for recommending an architect for helping with the process right from the start. Too many contractors just have at it without getting the professional direction and support that a design pro can bring. Another option would have been to hire a designer certified by the National Kitchen and Bath Association. NKBA-certified designers have demonstrated comprehensive knowledge in kitchen and bath design, as well as construction, mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems.

Now it was decision time: How many sinks? How big of a tub? What size toilet? What type of fixtures?

We took a trip up to Kohler's bathroom and kitchen center about an hour north of Milwaukee to assess our options. While there, we realized that we needed to consider our lifestyle before buying anything -- or else we'd end up spending a lot of unnecessary money. Neither of us wants the bathroom to be a communal affair, so there was no reason for two sinks. My husband never takes baths so there was no need for a huge bathtub.

One thing we decided to spend a little extra on (roughly $370) was a comfort toilet, which has a higher seat. After helping my mother with two total knee replacements, we felt we could be next. We also decided on a vessel sink for $440 a Devonshire bubblemassage bathtub , which offers 120 jets for bubble massages for close to $1,600.We passed on pricey Kohler fixtures and went with Moen. Our plumber offered to buy all the Kohler products and Moen fixtures wholesale for us so we were able to save about 20%.

Then it was on to the tile shop. We wanted granite counter tops and tub deck with a tile shower. We picked out a popular granite, UbaTuba, for the countertops with the help of designer Kathy Steiner from Lexco Tile and Stone, who assisted us in choosing the right colors and designs for our home.While we decided to buy the tile through Lexco, they didn't install granite so I had to shop further. I quickly found out that prices varied widely.

Tom's take:
You were smart to take a field trip to bath showrooms. The more educated and informed you become along the way, the better the project will turn out. Regarding the "comfort toilet" this was also smart. Years ago we called these handicapped accessible toilets because they were an inch or two higher than the norm. Now however, there is really no reason not to have a comfort height fixture.

After all of our shopping, we decided to add a few frills to the new bathroom: a heated towel rack, a dome over the tub, and a large walk-in shower with glass doors. The total cost for these bathroom extras: $3,750.

Next it was onto the demolition. Read our next installment to see how we fared.

Barbara Bartlein is the People Pro. For her FREE e-mail newsletter, please visit: The People Pro.Tom Kraeutler is the Home Improvement Editor for AOL and co-author of My Home, My Money Pit: Your Guide to Every Home Improvement Adventure. He delivers home improvement tips each week as host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program.

Read Full Story