How to do a Bathroom Remodel Cheap

One of the things that make a rental unit ‘spark’, is a bathroom remodel.  A renter does not want to get a place that is grungy with a bunch of previous tenants ‘marks’ in them.  They want a sparkly bathroom, one that looks and smells clean.  One that when they have guests over, the guests are not grossed out.  Here is a recent bathroom remodel that I did, with tenants in place.

Steps of a Bathroom Remodel

The bathroom remodel actually should have been done previously, but in the haste to get renters in after I bought the building, I waited.  Instead, I did do a bunch of other projects in the unit, just not in this bathroom.  I may have changed the vanity top from a laminate top, to cultured marble, but at this point I cannot remember.

Check out this bathroom remodel post too.

Sub-Standard Construction

The tenant texted me back in March 2017 that the bathroom floor was getting a bit ‘spongy’.  This building was built with floor joists 24” apart.  The floor joists were a wooden “I-beam” type construction, with something like a 2×4 set flat on each side, and a ½” OSB wood between them to make up a 12” total height.  The 24” on center may have worked well for the living room and other areas, but in the bathroom, you have a heavy toilet with about 5 gallons of water, and a 200+ pound person.  It was far too much weight on that small piece of floor.

After a few years of people taking showers, and water running over the side of the tub, you can then get moisture on the sub-floor.  That makes it even more susceptible to deterioration and softness.  Keep in mind, there was never any danger (yet) of the toilet falling through the floor, but I suppose at some point, it could have.

Vacancy is the Best Time for Major Repairs

The tenants have been living there over two years.  They are not the cleanest housekeepers, but not as bad as some.  When they mentioned the softness on the floor, it was not an emergency.  I had two options, open the garage ceiling and reinforce the existing sub-floor.  That would have worked fine, but would not be a permanent or preferred solution.  It needed a bathroom remodel.

I could have ignored them, like many other landlords may have done.

I told them that the best way for me to fix it would be to come from the top, tear off the floor, replace any bad subfloor, and tile the bathroom.  It would be messy and inconvenient.  It is a multi-day project, and would be best if they were out of town.  They said they would be gone in July for 10 days or so.  I scheduled the fix for as soon as they left the house.  I arrived to do the demo just as they were leaving, I had to wait about 10 minutes until they left – and I already showed up 30 minutes after their scheduled departure.

First Step – Clear the Area

The first step is to remove all the ‘stuff’ in the bathroom.  Get rid of the toilet, the vanity, the trim on the floor, remove the door.  You do not want anything in your way.

After you shut the water off on the toilet, be sure to flush it so that it is lighter.  The toilet can set in the bathtub to get it out of the way.  Any water in the toilet bowl can also be run down the bathtub drain, by tipping the toilet a bit.

The vanity trap and water lines have to be disconnected, and having a bucket under the trap helps to keep water off the floor.

Tear Up Flooring

Bathroom remodelOdds are, the old flooring will not just lift up.  You need to do a bit of manhandling.  I had vinyl flooring over the subfloor.

Using a circular saw set to about 3/8” deep, I cut the flooring into ~2’ x 2’ sections, or smaller.  It is a dusty mess, and it can be a bit crazy when you hit a nail or get some kickback with the saw, as I move the saw along fairly quick.  Once the top flooring is cut to the subfloor, I use a tool similar to this one to help pull the flooring up off the subfloor.

Evaluate Sub Floor

Once your flooring is 100% removed, you can see if the subfloor is in good shape.  In many bathrooms, the subfloor may have been exposed to water, and it may have to be replaced.  I had to cut out and replace an 18” x 45” piece.  I replaced that piece of old OSB subfloor with green treated ¾” plywood.  If the water leaks again, it should not affect the treated wood

Reinforce the Joists

I added four 2” x 4” supports across the I-beams.  To make the I-beam side flat, I had to add a 6” strip of plywood to the I-beam so that I had an even surface to hang a joist hanger.  I used screws and Loctite construction glue to attach a piece of treated plywood to the I-beam.  Once that plywood leveler piece was in place, I attached a joist hanger to each side of the two I-Beams and dropped in a stub of treated 2” x 4” lumber.  I think the span was ~20” or so, and was level with the top surface of the I-beam.

I am not sure what the building code is, but with the old code (and maybe even current code) the extra 2” x 4” reinforcing was not needed at all.  After I was done, the toilet had about a 16” square of supported flooring under it.  It was rock solid.

Put it all back together

Once you have the floor supports in place, you can put a piece of treated plywood over the reinforced area.  You could use OSB again, but I like to make things 100% bulletproof in my rentals.  It may be less exciting to do this repair again after five+ years if I used OSB again.

You need a tile backer board over the subfloor.  I used a tile backer board, called Denshield, to put on top of the subfloor.  It is lightweight, cuts with a utility knife, and very mold resistant.  It comes in 4’ x 4’ x ¼” sheets, and costs less than $10.00.  I needed three of these, and had quite a bit of one piece left over when I was done.

Tile Over the Backer Board

Putting down tile with mortar is relatively easy.  It is a rental apartment, so I was not worried about diamond patterns, or some color scheme that I would have to worry about which tile to put down next.  I start in the most visible corner and put a full tile down.  I try to keep the cut tile against the back wall, and under the vanity as much as possible.

Use Tile for a Baseboard

Bathroom remodelI did not put the wall baseboard tile on until after the floor tile was set the next day.  Once the tile was set, I glued a plastic bull nose piece to the wall.  It stayed in place with the construction adhesive pretty well.  I could then glue the wall tiles down and under the bull nose.  They stayed in place without any support.

I cut the 12” tile into three same size pieces.  Even with a cut edge on both sides, you can use the tile for a baseboard with the bullnose trim.  Use a wet saw to cut the tile.  It will be dust free, and very easy to cut tile.  Snapping tile leads to broken tile.

Once you glue the tile to the wall, it needs to set up for a day or so before you put the grout on.

Grouting the Tile

Bathroom RemodelOnce the tile has set up, you need to grout the tile.  I used an almond grout made by Accucolor.  Use a decent float to push the grout into the tile lines.  If you use a gout that matched the tile very close, rather than a contrasting color, you do not have to be as accurate with the tile corners.  Using a contrasting color, the areas where the four corners meet stand out like a sore thumb when they do not line up exactly.

I had some corners that looked not as good as I like, but with the same color grout, they do not show unless you look very close.

Once you have grouted the tile, let it sit for a few minutes and go over it with a grout sponge.  Remove as much excess grout as you can, without wiping away the grout that is between the tiles.

Seal the tile

You have to seal the grout lines of you want water to stay away from the subfloor.  This is a part that amateurs skip to their demise.  After the grout has set for a day or so, paint the grout lines with the sealer.

I also put a light film of clear caulk along the tub, over the grout.  That helps keep the grout waterproof, even after the tub flexes and the grout wants to separate just a bit away from the tub.  The caulk is flexible, the grout is not.


Overall, it was an inexpensive bathroom remodel that would have cost an extra $1,500 or more if I hired it out.  I did not change out the vanity, but I did think about it.  A new oak vanity would have really brought out a nice look.

Total Expenses

Item Cost
Total $309.74
Tile 40 @ .69 each $27.60
Grout $10.98
Bull Nose $10.94
Adhesive $10.00
Mortar $22.99
Denshield $28.71
Tile Threshold $12.95
Tile Sealer $15.97
New Toilet $149.00
Sub Total $289.14
Sales tax 7.125% $20.60


I used other scrap wood and supplies I used that I keep on hand.  Overall, the entire cost was less than $325.  If I had used the old fully-functional toilet, it would have cut the cost to about half.

Other Projects While the Tenant was Out

I noticed that some flooring trim was loose, so I put a few nails in it with my nail gun.  The tub drain leak was fixed that I noticed after removing the subfloor.  And I replaced the 30-year old perfectly working furnace with a new one.


Written by No Nonsense Landlord for

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