Which Projects to DIY

by Al Heavens | The Home Remodeling Podcast

Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.

It was a New Year’s Day, maybe in the mid-to-late 1990s, and my older son had been complaining that his third-floor bathroom sink was draining slowly.

It was a new vitreous china pedestal sink that stood just far enough from the wall to allow the drain pipe and the water lines to fit behind it.

The late Marcel Paillaird, my long-suffering plumber, had spent considerable time installing the sink, using a mirror to help him assemble the drain line inside the pedestal, remarking the entire time that he “spent more time taking these sinks out of bathrooms than putting them in.”

The sink was, however, an integral part of a bathroom renovation inspired by one completed by a friend that had been featured in Old House Journal. Both were, except for assistance by our plumbers and electricians, do-it-yourself projects.

So that New Year’s Day, I decided to disassemble the drain to clear the clog.

Disassembling was the easy part.

Then I had to reassemble the drain. I could not do it. The next morning, I called Marcel.

“Mrs. Heavens,” Marcel said to my wife, who’s name isn’t Mrs. Heavens, but the plumber was old school and she was OK with it. “Here’s my cellphone number. The next time he gets within five feet of plumbing, sit on him and call me immediately.”

I had put Marcel through a lot during the years he was my plumber. One Sunday night, I was replacing subfloor in that bathroom that Marcel had removed to change the fittings on the bathtub drain.

I put a nail through the hot-water line, and immediately called Marcel for help. When the shutoff valve in the basement turned out to be rusted shut, he had me close the water-heater valve instead.

Mrs. Heavens had no hot water for her shower the next morning.

It was one of the first times I learned that when it comes to remodeling projects, some things are out of my comfort level and I should reach out to a professional for those larger home renovations.

Then there was the time we were replacing the bathroom toilet.

Marcel removed the old toilet, stuck a rag into the closet flange to block sewer gases, and promised to return when I had finished tiling around the flange to install the new toilet.

Work and a new baby delayed the tiling. In the meantime, the city had begun doing some street reconstruction, which disturbed a rat’s nest. One of the rats found its way into our sewer line, then our soil stack and finally through the closet flange and into the third floor.

I called Marcel, told him I couldn’t get to the tiling and we needed to get the new toilet installed immediately.

I made the mistake of explaining why and had to stand shotgun in the third-floor hallway while Marcel installed the new toilet at lightning speed.

I eventually captured and disposed of the rat, but every time Marcel was called to do work in the third-floor bathroom, he gave me the impression that he was still somewhat uncomfortable with the location.

I have one final Marcel story, also involving the third-floor bathroom, but I’ll save that one until the end.

All of these stories deal with the third-floor bathroom, which, when we moved to the house in 1987, had a working sink, toilet and cast-iron, clawfoot bathtub, but a linoleum floor, one lightbulb over the medicine-cabinet mirror and crumbling plaster walls.

The bathroom did have potential, but I had little money. We had a new baby, my wife was on six-months maternity leave, my older son had started private school. We had just closed on the sale of our old house and paying two mortgages for nearly a year had been a financial drain.

Still, we needed a second working bathroom since the working one on the second floor was nothing to crow about either. Because the house was built in the early 20th century when modesty prevailed, there was no first-floor bathroom. We could squeeze a half-bath in what had been the servants’ staircase, but, since the soil stack was on the opposite side of the house, it would have required an expensive change.

Time and money issues turned the project into a two-year affair. Although the result was a much-improved bathroom, including a second shower, new toilet, sink, tile floor, wainscoting and lighting, it could have been better. I learned along the way, making many mistakes before I was finished.

Would I do it again? No. If I did do it again, I would have devised a detailed plan and a timetable. I would have learned the skills I would need in advance on smaller projects.

I think the point I’m making, and that I have made throughout most of my home-improvement career is to tackle projects that satisfy you and to leave the big stuff to the professionals.

That’s exactly what I did in my present house. The master bath had a double shower and no bathtub. My wife wanted a bathtub. The contractor figured a way to accommodate one by moving a wall, relocating a sink and the toilet.

To support the bathtub, an engineer drew up a plan for the placement of parallam beam in the ceiling below the tub, and contractor, to hide drains and water lines, added fake beams to the ceiling.

Plumbing issues were stemming from previous work to be dealt with, which were the primary reason for false beams.

I could have never attempted such a project. It was a job designed for a contractor, and the job he did even impressed the building inspectors.

I also got a new plumber out of the deal since Marcel was now 50 miles away and semi-retired.

We’re considering changes to that bathroom, which was renovated 18 years ago. It is still workable, but the glass-enclosed double shower is getting a bit old and is difficult to clean.

Look at your bathrooms, especially now that we are spending more time at home and are making more use of them.

Let’s start with the toilet, which, in my opinion, is the most important component of any bathroom. Is yours the most efficient one on the market? The one in our master bathroom is the most efficient, but it took two tries before we were able to get it right.

That’s because low-flow toilets from the early 1990s were notoriously poor performers, says Ed Del Grande, a three-time master plumber and spokesperson for Kohler and Sterling.

In 1994, a federal law passed in 1992 took effect, and it required that all residential toilets be manufactured using a 1.6 gallon-per-flush standard.

“Manufacturers were forced, in a short time frame, to convert all of their toilets from 3.5 gallons per flush to 1.6 gallons per flush,” Del Grande says. “the best they could at the time was to lower the water level in a tank designed to use 3.5 gallons per flush.”

The result: Poor performing toilets. The fix was to buy a new one.

Oddly enough, it was the low-end brands that performed better than the ones manufactured by the big names, because the big guys didn’t make the bowl and flush valve properly to accommodate lower water use.

To get any toilet to flush properly, the water must reach the water line in the tank. Even though the brand-name models had enough water, the poorly designed bowl and flush valve got in the way, with resulting clogs and multiple flushes.

I wrote about one solution, American Standard’s Champion model, because it was tested by residents of Champion, Mich., a small town near Marquette in the Upper Peninsula.

Two were installed in Sacred Heart Church and one in its rectory, which serves as a parish house. Sister Margey Schmelzle, who was the parish coordinator, kept a journal to keep track of day-to-day performance.

On one of those days, there was a funeral attended by 85 people, and Sister Margey reported no problems.

Champion’s solution was an enlarged siphon trapway of 2 3/8ths inches and, instead of a rubber flapper, a “flush tower” that allowed just 1.6 gallons through every time, even when you held the handle down.

We still have a 3.8 per gallon model in the first-floor bathroom, which, at the start of the shelter-in-place order in mid-March 2020, was running constantly. When I was able to acquire materials to repair the toilet, even the 3.8 gallons it was using per flush was hard on the water bill.

Using that toilet two or three times adds up to 12 gallons a day. Eighteen to 20 times a day … well, you see what I mean.

That toilet will be replaced as soon as the plumber is comfortable making house calls again.

A few years back, friends of mine were contemplating putting their Society Hill, Philadelphia townhouse on the market. They had gutted and renovated the place in the 1960s, and, for the most part, it was the same house they had renovated, including the bathrooms.

After the house went on the market, the couple reported back, with considerable disgust, that most of the prospective buyers didn’t like their bathrooms, complaining they were too small and out of date.

“They prefer to live in houses with Home Depot bathrooms,” my friends said.

That’s not completely true, but I can understand their frustration.

Since the early 2000s, and perhaps long before that, consumers have been looking at the bathroom as a getaway, a spa, if you will, where you can close the door and “not be responsible for anything,” says Gary Uhl, the director of design for American Standard.

This need for a getaway meant that standard bathroom size increased from the traditional 40 square feet to a more accommodating 150 to 200 square feet.

Bathrooms are big business. Nationally, the most common budget for, as well as the actual cost of, a master bath renovation is $10,001 to $25,000 in 2019, according Houzz.com. Money magazine suggests that master-bath renovation costs should equal about 10 percent of the total value of the house.

Efficient toilets are a given, and homeowners seem to be willing to spend $500, including installation costs, to have them, whether or not they are remodeling.

Four of five homeowners are replacing showers to floors, and countertops to sinks, Houzz.com reports. They are “supersizing” the shower, installing rainfall showerheads, which I first discovered in a hotel bathroom in Houston during the National Association of Homebuilders 1996 show; dual showers; body sprays, footrests, and zero-threshold showers.

As I’ve mentioned, our master bath as a dual glass-enclosed shower that needs replacement, and when we do replace it, I want a curbless or zero-threshold model. It’s not because we are aging, but because we once rented a cottage in the Connemara in Ireland that had a curbless shower in the first-floor bathroom and we liked it.

We liked it. I also liked the shower in the bathroom of the presidential suite at the Omni in Charlotte, N.C., where I stayed when I was president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. It had multiple rain-shower heads, body sprays and a place to sit while water hit you from all sides.

I promised one more Marcel Paillaird story, and I’ll use this thought as a way to get there: If your bathroom renovation involves tile, make sure the contractor orders 10 percent than he needs and leaves it with you for repairs or replacement down the road.

Shortly before we sold the house with my third-floor bathroom project, water was leaking into the exterior wall of the bathroom below. I decided to tear up the tile floor from the bathtub to the soil stack and past the toilet to check the drain line for leaks.

There were none, but when I went to replace the tile, I discovered that they no longer made it. Twenty-four hours left to the pre-settlement walkthrough, a cobbled together a replacement tile floor.

The new owners traced the leak to the supply line to the toilet that Marcel had installed. He said, with great embarrassment, that he didn’t think he could mess that up that badly.