A Builder's Minimum Bathroom Gets a Maximum Makeover

See how we turned a boring builder’s-grade bathroom into a spa-like retreat with a custom tile countertop, salvaged wood accents, new lighting and new fixtures – all for less than $1,200.

After: Standard Turns Spectacular

Anyone familiar with design and construction can walk into almost any space an instantly get feel for the time period in which it was built or last renovated. This is especially true of homes built in the 1980s and 1990s when large amounts of sub-divisions and apartment homes were developed. Builders were putting up basic ranchers and townhomes that were all filled with cultured marble vanities, vinyl-sheet flooring and chrome and plastic crystal faucets.

Before: The 80s Called, They Want Their Bathroom Back

In this two-bedroom townhome, the upstairs bathroom serves as a master bath and a shared Jack-and-Jill bath. Before we started the upgrade, the room featured cultured marble one-piece sinks, basic faucets, a large frameless plate-glass mirror, non-standard depth base cabinets without pulls, a mirrored Hollywood light and a lonely water closet under two cantilevered shelves.

Design Plan

Given our budget constraints, the following projects were selected to give the biggest impact: New light fixture accentuating the new design style; frame in the existing mirror to give it a less commercial feel; reclad the medicine cabinet door to match the mirror; remove the one-piece countertop and replace it with marble mosaic tile, larger sinks and new elegant faucets; refinish the existing base cabinets and add door pulls; add custom storage shelves to the cabinet bases; repaint the walls; and cover the toilet wall with salvaged wood and built in shelves.

Custom Countertop

The existing countertop was not a standard depth. Instead of calling an installer to put in a solid surface like granite or cultured stone, we decided to build it ourselves. The owner choose marble mosaic tiles for an upscale look that doesn’t cost a lot. The tile was trimmed in water-resistant cedar. To make sure the natural reddish tone of the cedar didn’t conflict with the new white, gray, green color palette, the wood was stained with a homemade finish made from steel wool soaked vinegar. This concoction gives wood a silvery weathered look, perfect for our elegant rustic style.

Gaining More Countertop Space

The existing countertop was only 22 inches deep instead of the standard 25 inches. Building a new countertop let us push the front edge out slightly so we were able to fit a 20” deep sink into the countertop. Plus, the new square style sink with its large rolled edge creates more usable space. While we were at it, the old single-hole faucet was replaced with a new 8-inch center three-hole design.

Cabinet Facelift

The majority of the budget was spent on the countertop tile so there wasn’t enough funds to replace the base cabinets. The wood vanity was still in good shape, so we decided to transform the cabinets with a base paint and glaze system. This kept the surface visually interesting while letting some of the wood grain still show through. Though we could have sanded, stripped and refinished the wood, this would have taken a lot of hours of work and still cost about the same. To top off the fresh new look, door pulls in the same finish as the faucet were added to each door.

Maximized Space Within the Cabinet

To make the most of vanity cabinet, extra storage shelves were fitted to the back of the cabinets. The shelves take advantage of that odd space next to the plumbing where nothing ever seems to fit right.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Frameless plate-glass mirrors have been a builders’ standard issue for quite some time. While cheap and effective, they lack personality. Another problem, the mirrors are often fully glued to the wall making removal difficult without having to replace drywall and breaking the mirror into a lot of little pieces. We went with the simplest solution, building a floating frame around the mirror. We used cedar like we did for the countertop trim, but this time we finished it in a white wash. The light finish really shows off the character of cedar without overwhelming the room with too many wood tones.

Side Medicine Cabinet

It looked as though the builder's grade plastic preformed medicine cabinet had already received a new louvered door in the past. Unfortunately, the door didn't match anything in the bathroom. Again, because time and money was priority, we used scraps of the whitewash cedar to frame a plain mirror cut to size.

Before: Toilet Nook

The cold and lonely water closet was in desperate need of some comfort. Two small cantilevered glass shelves were its only solace in this otherwise hallway-sized space.

Water Closet Wall

To add a shot of personality, the back wall was covered in reclaimed wood taken from old shipping pallets. The wood planks were sanded to soften the rough edges, then they were sprayed with brews of different teas, and a few of the boards were treated with a solution of weathered steel wool and vinegar.

A Place For Reading Material

To make the wall not only visually stunning but also useful, two shelves were added above the toilet.


The oh-so-popular 1980s “Hollywood” light bar was put to rest and in its place is a new fixture that builds off the rectilinear style of the tile and sinks.

Shower Area

The tiled shower was already a step- up from the basic fiberglass shower-tub combo that is usually found in a builder’s standard. Because this area was in good working order and only devoid of color, new bath accessories were added to bring in warmth and a more luxurious feel.

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