Hi, we're Hunter and Sarah, a husband-and-wife, luxury wedding photography team. We’re also educators, helping other photographers build profitable and sustainable photography businesses.
Happy Monday! If you were following us back in the Winter and Spring of 2020, you know that we spent four months renovating our cold, damp basement into a stylish and modern two-bedroom AirBnB! Well, after six months free from renovating and general contracting, during the month of November, Sarah and I undertook the next phase of home improvement! We transformed our only bathroom (outside the basement apartment) from an all-original 1960s nightmare into a bright, modern bathroom!
Everyone LOVES before and after photos, and our Basement Reno Blog instantly jumped to one of our most popular blogs of all time when we posted it back in May. So we wanted to return to the world of amateur home-reno blogging, and share all about the process, and what we learned along the way. While we’re certainly no Chip and Joanna Gaines, we’re so proud of what we accomplished in just a few weeks! Plus, we know we’re going to enjoy this bathroom a LOT more for as long as we live in this home!
But let’s start at the beginning…
As with any serious reno project, it began with a lot of planning. Having the basement reno under our belts, we didn’t need to consult quite so many people for advice, but gathering quotes, researching fixtures, deciding on tile and vanities and paint colors all took time. But we had a pretty good vision of what we wanted from the day we first toured the house! We still love our virtual floor plan designer 👌
This was one thing that we never had to do in the basement. But since we weren’t starting with a blank canvas like we did downstairs, the first thing we had to do was hire a handyman to tear out the ugly tile and the old closet! The closet took up a lot of floor space, and Sarah couldn’t reach most of the shelves, so we didn’t feel like it was the best use of our square footage. Plus, we knew if we found spacious vanities, we could make up for all that storage space while adding a second sink!
We knew that this process was going to be loud, noisy, messy and take a lot of man-hours, which is why we decided to hire someone from the very start. When our handyman discovered that the tile behind the shower walls was backed by almost 2″ of concrete that he had to painstakingly hammer out piece-by-piece, we were all-too-happy to be working on our business in the office and not hammering concrete for hours on end! Just a few minutes to get him started each day, and to troubleshoot the issues he ran into added up to about two hours of work on our end, but almost three days for him. Worth every penny!
Once the closet, tile and shower walls were removed, we paused the project for a week or so, as the basement apartment was rented. Until we had access to the basement, this demolished space was our only bathroom! So for several days, we used our cave-like bathroom, dreaming of what was to come. Then, once our last renters of the month checked out, we pulled the trigger and removed the last two pieces of our bathroom that made it… well… a bathroom! In just an hour or so, he had removed the old commode and sink and hauled them off to the dump.
This step, in a way, started the clock for us. We had blocked off the AirBnB in advance so we could use the bathroom down there, but only for 12 days. The basement, after all, had been booked at 85%+ capacity and was what was paying for the reno! So once the sink and toilet were removed, we knew we only had a certain amount of time before they HAD to go back in. And there was quite a lot that had to happen before we’d be ready for that…
So this is definitely cheating when it comes to the budget, but just like with the basement, my parents were able to spare one of their on-staff electricians for half of a day to come do our electrical work, free of charge. They called it another housewarming gift, and we recognize how privileged we are to have gotten that free labor!
Previously, the bathroom had a single light switch that controlled the vanity light, the overhead light/exhaust fan AND the only power outlet in the room. Yes, you read that right: the power outlet would only work when all the lights and the bathroom fan were on 🤪
My parents’ technician was in and out in just a few hours, and we picked up most of what we needed from a single Lowe’s trip and one giant Wayfair order we made before we started. So why did it take us 8 hours if we didn’t do any of the actual electrical work? Well, mostly because we were short by one small piece that we needed to install the vanity light. So Sarah volunteered to run over to Lowe’s… only to find that they didn’t have the piece in stock, and that she’ had to drive to a different Lowe’s almost 40 minutes from our house! Thankfully, after that adventure, we had not only separated our vanity light and the overhead light/fan onto their own switches, but we had a GFCI outlet that worked even when the lights were off! The future has arrived!!
The next day, our plumber was over and tearing up our drywall so we could transform what was once a single, sad floating sink into a beautiful double-vanity! He also removed our 1960s shower handle and valve, then raised our shower head by another foot. No more stooping down to wash my hair!
Unfortunately, in order for the plumber to do all of his magic behind the scenes, it meant removing a lot of drywall. And on top of that, in order to get the space prepped and ready for tile, a lot of other patches had to be made, especially around where the old tile was. And of course, there used to be a 2-foot-wide medicine cabinet embedded in the wall, and a floor-to-ceiling closet. After another couple of days (these days overlapped with plumbing and tile), you never would have known what the bathroom used to look like!
We spent more than 1/3 of our entire budget on tile, and we have absolutely zero regrets. We had fallen in love with the tile we installed in the basement, and decided to reprise that with a few variations. We ordered from the same local supplier and hired the same guy, which made the process super smooth! In fact, most of the hours that we spent were due to a miscommunication between our tile supplier and tile professional that resulted in not one or even two but THREE extra trips across town to buy a single, small piece of trim from the tile store or Lowe’s. But that’s home renovating in a nutshell sometimes 😂
If you recognize the hexagon tiles inside the shower niche, that’s because they were leftovers from the shower downstairs! In fact, we were able to reuse a bunch of salvaged leftovers from downstairs! The main difference is we used larger floor tiles upstairs to make the space feel bigger.
Painting is one area where we did decide to save a little money and do it ourselves. And be “we” I mean Sarah. Something inside her finds painting cathartic, while I’ve been deemed “not good enough at painting”. So over the course of a week and at various stages throughout the project, Sarah replaced our lovely “warm cream” (🤢) paint with a bright, fresh white. We just happened to catch Sherwin Williams during their annual 40% off sale, so that certainly didn’t hurt!
Every home reno project has its nightmare moment. In the basement, it was an unprofessional HVAC guy who got in a fight with his assistant on property, then accidentally cut our internet cable… AFTER starting 6 days late 🤦♂️ And for the bathroom reno, it was the vanity. As the project began to shape into reality late this summer, Sarah and I did a lot of measuring, planning and predicting. And with the start of the project still almost 4 weeks away, we put in a large order with Wayfair and a second with Lowe’s so that we could have everything we needed well in advance.
Several weeks later, mid-way through the reno, I woke up at 2:00 in the morning with a single thought in my mind: we measured to make sure the vanity would fit in the bathroom, but did we measure to make sure we could get it IN the bathroom? It turns out we did not.
So after spending $1,000+ on a beautiful double-vanity (and then planning and purchasing the fixtures, backsplash, lights and mirror around that central piece), we had to call Wayfair and ask them to cancel the order. The kicker? It had already shipped, and because it was such a large and specialized item, they charged us $250 to reroute and restock it 😭 But there was nothing to be done, so we pressed on.
We finally confirmed that the double-vanity wouldn’t fit late one evening, after a photoshoot, and just before tile was going in. The plumber was scheduled to install the new sinks in less than a week, so we didn’t have time to place any special orders or have anything shipped to us. And after all, we HAD to be done soon since we had guests due to check into the AirBnB soon, and this would then become our only bathroom. So we scoured the internet, and eventually landed on two single-vanities that we realized would not only fit through the door, but we could mount flush to each other to appear like one giant unit. It was perfect, they were in our budget, and were available locally!
The only problem? We didn’t own a truck, and the nearest Home Depot was 45 minutes away, one town over. So we borrowed a friend’s SUV, drove over Afton mountain, only to arrive at Home Depot and for the guy doing deliveries to basically laugh at us. We had measured the SUV for the size of the vanity, not realizing that it would be boxed in what felt like a FOOT of cardboard and foam on every side. In retrospect, we MIGHT have made them fit if we had unboxed them there in the parking lot, but at the time, we resigned our fate and ended up making two trips, spending 3+ hours in the car while never being more than 20 miles from home 😂
Then, once tile was done, Sarah and I somehow managed to finagle them into place, and I mounted them up. Once we got them in place, we realized that the internal shelf wouldn’t fit with where the plumbing was, so I had to cut the shelves to fit. Overall, it was a bit of a stressful experience and involved a very costly mistake. But we’re thrilled with the final results, so we can’t complain too much!
With all the stress of the vanities gone, we hoped plumbing would go much more smoothly! It did not. When Lowe’s delivered us our toilet, we discovered a few hours after the delivery guys left that the toilet was a 2-part shipment, and they had only given us HALF of the toilet. After many hours on hold with the local Lowe’s, and then the corporate office, and then our Lowe’s again, we finally got someone on the phone who promised us that the other half would arrive the following morning. Sarah asked her, “Are you POSITIVE? We have the plumber coming tomorrow at 10:00 am to install this toilet. If it won’t be here by then, I can just drive to the Lowe’s one town over and pick it up.”
We were assured that we’d be the first stop for the delivery truck. As you can probably tell by how this story is going, we were not. So the plumber came, installed the sinks and got the shower working, and by 1:00 PM, there was still only half of the toilet. And not even the bottom half that he could have half-installed. So he left, and Lowe’s showed up several hours later.
However, there was a bright side to all this. Sarah being the gracious and wonderful saint that she is, had been working very kindly and patiently with the same young lady from Lowe’s throughout this whole debacle. When we explained the situation (and how we’d have to hire the plumber to come back another time, several days later, costing us extra and delaying the entire project), the not only refunded the full cost of the toilet, but a few other times from the order as well to make it up to us. That helped to offset that $250 we lost from Wayfair 🤷♂️
Our handyman was back for one final day to help us with a few finishing touches. He installed new quarter-round molding, and cut and re-hung our door that no longer fit now that the tile had raised the floor up by an inch. He also fixed a few drywall patches that had come about since the last time he had been there.
“Death by 1,000 small tasks” was what we called the finishing touches stages of the basement, and this was no different (just a bit smaller). We mounted the backsplash. We hung the mirror. We installed the new vanity light. We sealed the new vanity tops with silicone caulking. We hung the new blinds. We mounted the towel racks, towel rings, towel hooks and toilet paper holder. We installed the new shower curtain. We did all the little things that make the space feel like home! It was split between a couple of mornings, but we were so eager to get this done! Also, I’m SO glad that I let Sarah talk me into the matt-black fixtures throughout the bathroom!
This was a big question mark in our minds at the beginning of the project. Our old bathtub was great, but decades of use had left it stained with rust spots, and it was generally just gross. No amount of bleach can fix 60 years everyday use. We were playing with the idea of a bath-fitter, or maybe getting a new bath altogether. When my parents recommended refinishing the bathtub, it sounded too good to be true. No demolishing the old bath and hauling it away, no searching for a new one that would perfectly fit the space, and no worries about new drain lines not matching up. Just 24 hours of a very smelly bathroom and a few hundred dollars later, and we had what looked like a brand new bathtub! Our tub guy recommended that this be the final step, and he was RIGHT. The bath got even more torn up throughout the rest of the reno, but now it looks brand new!
Our goal was to spend between $10k and $12k on this project, so after completely blowing our basement reno budget, it felt great to come in almost $1,000 under our most conservative estimate! We felt really proud to have done such a thorough and high-quality renovation for under $10k, and without committing hundreds of hours to the project. From the beginning of demo through the end of tub repair, we had 32 days of bathroom chaos. But we know we made the right call (based on what we learned in the basement) to stand firm in our role as project managers, and not DIYers. After all, we averaged only 1.5 hours/day (or 45 min for Sarah and I each). That left us enough time to shoot 12 portrait sessions and a wedding, and still run our business during the normal 9-5!
Since it looked like we were going to come in under budget and have some leftover tile, we splurged a little bit and had our handyman remove our old “Taco Bell Tile” from in front of our fireplace while he was in. Then, after a thorough scrubbing, Sarah put three full coats of black fireproof paint on the red brick!
A few days later, just before they finished up, our tile guys installed a new hearth with the leftovers from the bathroom floor! We even took the time to clean and repair our fireplace cover that had been falling off the wall. Now, the center of our living room is even prettier than before!
Here are just a few quick lessons we learned throughout the process of renovating:
1. It’s totally different when the reno is IN your space – We thought that we knew what renovating was like after our basement reno. But for the most part, we could avoid that project by simply walking upstairs. The bathroom reno was spatially (and therefore, mentally) much less separated from our day-to-day lives. Our dining room became the staging area, and since our home office shares a wall with the bathroom, we KNEW IT if people were working in there. For most of that month, this was our only bathroom, and to be (even partially) living in a construction site was more inconvenient — and at times stressful — than we had thought. We’ll have to keep that in mind when it comes time for the kitchen reno…
2. COVID makes everything harder – In the middle of the project, I had a COVID scare. I woke up one morning with a sore throat, and immediately rushed to MedExpress for a COVID test. As I sat there awaiting my rapid-test results, a gut-wrenching thought entered my mind. If I tested positive and had to begin a two-week quarantine, NOT ONLY would we have to postpone several engagement sessions, and find replacement photographers for our wedding the following weekend (my greatest nightmare). But we would also have to send our tile guys home mid-project. This would push the tile by two full weeks. And we couldn’t install the toilet until the tile was done. And if we wouldn’t have a toilet for two additional weeks, we’d have to cancel multiple AirBnB stays in our basement. Then we’d lose our Super Host status for a full year, which would in turn affect our bookings for the basement. And on top of all of that, all the tile guys who had been at our house the prior four days would have to either a) go home and not work for two weeks, which we know would be a financial disaster for many working class Americans OR b) ignore medical wisdom and go back to work on a different project, potentially spreading COVID to other clients.
Thankfully, the test came back negative, and my sore throat turned out to be from a small cold that I got over in just a few days. But just those few hours of fear were enough to make me realize how easily COVID could have turned this entire reno into a dumpste
3. We make better photographers than handymen – We touched on this a bit after our last reno, but felt affirmed in our decision. Thanks to several new wedding bookings, some big album sales, and a busy calendar of portrait sessions, November was a BIG month financially for our business. Sarah and I would much rather use our unique ability — to love and serve couples on their engagement session and wedding day by providing beautiful, timeless images of them — and then pay someone else to demo or sheetrock or tile than try to learn those things ourselves. As entrepreneurs, every hour we aren’t working in our business has an opportunity cost, so we want to make sure that if we aren’t working, we’re either doing something restful, joyful, and/or life-giving!
For this reno, we spent about 12 hours per week, down from 20 in the basement, where we tried to “save money” by doing as much as we could ourselves. We were much happier to have the extra time to keep loving and serving our couples!
Well, thanks for reading! We already have plans for a kitchen reno underway, but think that we’ll pick that up next winter and take some time to enjoy our new bathroom for now 😂
For those that have been asking, here are all the awesome vendors we used who we would recommend! Let them know we sent you 😉