A bathroom remodel in an old house is an experience that turns out to be more difficult than a lot people expect. It’s not as easy as the HGTV shows make you think, and it certainly doesn’t take a quick weekend to do right.
After doing my fair share of bathrooms, I figured I’d give you my list of things that can go terribly wrong with your bath remodel that many people never think about until it’s too late. These items can be major budget busters!
You may think your house is different, but if your bathroom was built from the 1890s to the 1950s, you’ll run into at least a few of these issues, if not all of them.
1. Old Plumbing
Don’t just assume you’ll take things apart and put in that new tub, toilet or sink without a fight. Decades old plumbing can be brittle or just plan worn out and trying to take things apart may cause breaks in places you’d never expect. You never know what will happen when it comes to 80+ year old pipes. If you start your demo on a weekend and find something is amiss, remember that the plumber usually charges extra for service calls on Saturday and Sunday.
What to do: Be gentle during demo and removal and make sure you have a plumber on speed dial just in case. Leaks can cause big damage and quick. Plan enough time for unforeseen issues.
2. No Shut-Off Valves
There are a lot of sinks and toilets in old houses that have no shut-off valves, which means you have to turn off the water supply to the whole house before doing any work on them. This isn’t a big problem unless you forget that other people will need to shower and wash the dishes while you’re remodeling.
What to do: Find out where your home’s water shut off is at the street and make sure you are able to turn it on and off. There is a tool called a meter key to do this, but you can usually get away with a very hefty wrench. Some localities put a lock to make it impossible to turn the water on or off without the city or county coming to help. I think this is absolutely CRAZY, but it does happen, so make sure your area isn’t one of the stupid ones.
Try to have your new fixtures ready to go in the minute you remove the old ones or be prepared to either have the plumber install shut-off valves or do it yourself at this point.
3. The Mortar Bed
On the remodeling shows, people come in with a floor scraper and pull up all the tile in one commercial break. This will not be the case in an old house. Tile was traditionally set in about 3-5″ of mortar when your original bathroom was built. That means that you have hundreds of pounds of cement hiding under your tile that needs to be broken up and hauled away before you can put a new floor down.
What to do: I use a sledge hammer to break up the tile and mortar and then I can cart it away in chunks. Make sure you have a way to dispose of all this heavy debris, because it can add up quickly. Also, keep in mind that on 2nd story bathrooms, you may have to fix a cracked plaster ceiling in the room below. Make sure you put it in your plans for an all new subfloor and cement board base if you haven’t already, you’ll need it.
4. Crazy Electrical
Anytime you open up the walls or floors in an old house, you have a good chance of finding old and hodgepodge wiring. If the wiring is just old, that doesn’t mean it needs replacement, but if the wire insulation is in bad shape or you find some bad splices and shoddy work, now is the time to correct it. Read more about the Electrical Pitfalls of an Old House.
What to do: Get an electrician to look things over if you’re unsure. It’s always cheaper to correct now then after the walls and floors are back in place.
5. Lead Paint
If you didn’t already know that your old house likely has lead paint, it’s high time you learned. Especially if you have children, you want to be careful about controlling dust and keeping you and your family protected.
6. Wonky Framing
Wonky isn’t exactly a technical term, but I think you know what I mean. Rarely have I gotten a bathroom demolished and found that the floor joists were all level and the walls were all plumb. Things have often been hacked to pieces by a plumber or electrician, maybe there is some rot or termite damage or all of the above. Whatever the cause, you need a nice level floor and walls that aren’t wavy.
What to do: Sometimes you may need to “sister” on additional framing for rotted or termite damaged studs/joists to help carry the necessary load. More often than not, it’s a matter of studs not being in the same plane. To solve this, I keep a few plywood scraps handy in varying thicknesses so we can fur out any studs that need it. This is an easy fix, but it does take some extra time and attention to detail to catch these discrepancies before you start hanging plaster board or cement board.
One More Thing
Sure, there are other issues that may come up, but these seem to be the biggest and most common in my experience. Do some diligent planning ahead of time, and you’ll come out ahead in the end.
There is one other thing that isn’t exactly something that can go wrong but more of a fun piece of trivia for mid-century bathrooms and historical cusp houses. In my neck of the woods, 1940s and 1950s, bathrooms often had medicine cabinets with a little slot to put used single edge razors in.
You would put the razor in the slot and it would disappear somewhere never to be seen again, that is until someone remodels the bathroom. You see, these razor blades would just drop into the wall cavity and accumulate for decades.
I’ve opened up several walls only to find thousands of old razors blades which can of course be a little dangerous, but it’s usually just a fun piece of history to find. Sometimes I’ll even put a couple back into the wall before I close things up to keep one more piece of the home’s story intact.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.