More people spending big bucks on bathrooms

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For a home and design story on bathrooms we visited Nancy Smollar in her Newtown, Bucks County, home. Here, a recently renovated second floor bathroom that includes a bathtub with a door that allows for easy access, also heated floors and spacious clounters. ( Ed Hille / Staff Photographer )

When Keiko Tsunemoto’s children left the nest, she and her husband found the perfect use for two unused bedrooms in their Center City apartment — a 770-square-foot master bathroom suite that includes a holographic fireplace, 55-inch flat-screen TV, state-of-the-art sound system, treadmill, and aromatherapy shower.

Really, it’s more like a spa than a bathroom, Tsunemoto said.

After years of stalled home renovations, contractors are noticing that homeowners are dedicating time and money to the bathroom — and the economy is the main driving force. Water conservation is a big reason for installing those low-flow shower heads and dual-flush toilets. But in a breakneck-pace world with a depressing financial outlook, bathrooms provide sanctuary.

It’s the "one place where people don’t bother you," said Luis Hoz de Vila, general manager of LA Signature in Philadelphia.

Hoz de Vila is so bullish on the bathroom trend that he opened a brand new 1,300-square-foot showroom in Center City. "New construction began sagging in 2008 and remodeling started picking up steadily around the middle of last year," he explained. "In the past, it was cheaper to have a new home instead of buying an old home and fixing it. Now, with lower prices, it is better to have an older home fixed up the way you want."

The housing market is particularly competitive as a glut of available houses means buyers can demand whatever they want, and more people want to age in place. A comfortable and safe bathroom is key.

Bathroom renovations with all the bells and whistles can range from $60,000 to $100,000 (Carl Cox, owner of ReDesign Contractors in Deptford, said people are "spending double, if not two-thirds more" than was typical about five years ago), but the trend isn’t limited to the wealthy.

"I’ve seen people spend from $5,000 to $7,000 on bathrooms — they are not going crazy," said Bette McTamney, president-elect of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors.

The usual must-haves include double steam showers with seats, multiple multidirectional shower heads, his-and-hers sinks, faucet upgrades, heated floors, and granite or marble vanities.

Barbara and Charlie Beirao downsized to a two-bedroom rancher in Berlin, Camden County, once they hit retirement age. Though neither plans to actually retire anytime soon, they adopted the less-is-more theory in size, but not luxury.

"The bathroom was one of the most important things," said Barb Beirao, 57. "We wanted a double vanity, a large closet, large shower, and a flat-screen TV." To accommodate these things in the 13-by-15-foot space, the Beiraos removed their bathtub completely.

In fact, many people are removing master bathroom tubs in exchange for a larger shower. Even those large spa tubs with jets — what was considered standard until the recession hit — are getting axed for walk-in showers, said Jim Wentling, an architect in Center City.

"As long as they still have a hall bath with a tub for children, they seem to be fine," said McTamney.

After Nancy Smollar had a stroke three years ago, she had trouble balancing, which made it difficult to do even simple things in the bathroom. Lifting her legs into the tub, keeping her balance, and flushing the toilet became impossible. Even getting into the bathroom was a challenge because her wheelchair couldn’t fit through the standard-size door. Stronger today, she is updating the bathrooms in her 25-year-old Newtown townhouse with an eye to the future. "I need to make some changes now so that it might make things easier as my husband and I age in place," said Smollar, 65.

At a cost of about $100,000 to upgrade all three of her bathrooms, those changes included higher toilets with flush handles on top, higher sinks, nine grab bars, and expanded doorways. "I wanted the practicalities, but I didn’t want my bathrooms to look like a hospital," Smollar said. "Even the grab bars are so pretty, while at the same time helpful."

Smollar even installed a bathtub with a door so she doesn’t have to step over the side. She also added a heated floor for comfort. "Those changes have made my life a lot easier," she says. "You never know what can happen tomorrow, and I’ll be much more ready to stay in my home."

Those same renovations will also someday help her resale value, McTamney suggested. "People have been cautious about renovating over the last few years, and I think now they see it helping them sell their homes."

For buyers who still prefer new-home construction, tastes also have changed, giving a greater priority to the bathroom. The master bedroom/bathroom combo even has a new name — "the owner’s suite." And gone are popular trends of the past, including home theaters and two-story spaces, as people are more concerned with practicality and energy efficiency.

Changes in the building code reflect that as well, said Wentling. But conservation doesn’t trump luxury. For instance, when there are multiple shower heads, a diverter valve can switch between them to save water, said Cox. And one-piece toilets include a dual flush, which allows for half a flush when suitable.