How This Simple DIY Home Project Turned Into a Full-Gut Renovation – Milwaukee Magazine

Swapping out the light fixture wasn’t supposed to end with an entirely new bathroom … but it did.
One evening in late 2021, I pulled out my laptop and, on a whim, started building a mood board for our downstairs bathroom. In a few hours, I had mentally replaced the aged vinyl flooring, landlord-special vanity and baby blue shower surround. I picked new lighting, the wall color and faucet. My husband and I oohed and aahed at what could be, discussed how capable we would be at doing all the work ourselves, saved the file for later and went to bed.  
Months passed without doing anything, then one day I was spontaneously motivated to order the light, a $66 brushed gold two-light vanity fixture with white globes. With an electrician for a husband, it promised to be an easy and inexpensive swap for maximum impact. As predicted, the new light looked lovely.  

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But the day after installation, I heard a mysterious crash. I wandered through the house in search of the source. And sure enough, it came from the bathroom. One of the globes had fallen from the fixture, shattered onto the vanity below and cracked the sink! I had to laugh, and I may have even shrugged my shoulders. Now we had the excuse we needed to replace the sink, too.  
The thing was, in the months since creating the mood board, we had begun a new home search. Since we would be selling soon, we scaled back the bathroom plans, settling for a nice new vanity from a big box store and updated vinyl flooring that we could lay right on top of the old. Both would be easy swaps. We’d done these types of projects before. The bathroom would be put back together the same weekend. 
Or so we thought. 
My husband quickly discovered that wiggling the vanity out of the small bathroom would require unbolting the toilet and shifting it slightly out of the way. Tools were gathered, bolts were loosened, the toilet was lifted … and up with it came layers of flooring, along with an awful smell. The subfloor beneath was completely rotted out – a slow decay from a leaking toilet pipe. There was no chuckle or shrugging of shoulders this time. This simple project had turned into a burden. The entire floor would need to be rebuilt.  
Which presented another dilemma. I couldn’t in good conscience put cheap vinyl on top of a newly rebuilt floor. It would have to be tile. And if we were going that far, how could we ever leave that awful baby blue shower surround? It would have to go, too. 
At this point, it became obvious: We were looking at a full-gut renovation.  
Getting the floor up and the shower stall down to the studs was as far as we progressed that first weekend. There were countless trips to the hardware store, new tools and supplies to ease the difficulty of the work and careful debate weighing aesthetics against cost. We ended up with sage green walls and white subway tile in the shower. We opted for a premade shower base, which still makes me cringe, but it was the better choice.  
For the floor, we chose black penny tile for its classic but high-impact look. Unfortunately, the selection brought another headache. It turns out penny tiles are difficult to get right, and careful spacing is key. The project dragged on, and we leaned on Reddit and Google every step of the way. 
In the meantime, we fell in love with a new house, and our offer was accepted. It was – you guessed it – a fixer-upper, but with loads of potential. The prospect of our new home made it nearly impossible to focus on the bathroom and finish it up. Sure, we were capable (especially my husband). But we also have full-time jobs, three kids and were prepping to move. So we did something we might have considered unthinkable back when we first installed that light fixture: We called in a pro to finish the job.  
It felt amazing. He had the shower finished in half a day – a project that could easily have taken us two weekends.  
The bathroom turned out charming, and I felt proud to turn it over to the new owners. Now, as we consider the many projects we’d like to accomplish in our new home, I’m grateful for the lessons we learned from the bathroom. That experience showed us that every project is bigger than it seems at the outset, and consequently, we’re more realistic about the time we can devote to it. And while my husband and I are a great DIY team, we now know that there is no shame in calling in a pro. 


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