Think beyond the before and after: The case for the in-between bathroom reno

Expert Sabrina Smelko shows us how she made the space she could live with before getting to the one she loves

Expert Sabrina Smelko shows us how she made the space she could live with before getting to the one she loves

(All photography via Sabrina Smelko)

If you own your own home (and congrats on that in this intimidating real estate market!) chances are you've had to let go of some of your Pinterest-inspired aspirations at some point. Whether you bought a fixer-upper or something that's relatively move-in ready, chances are there's a room in need of a little TLC — and it's often a bathroom. But if you don't have much of a reno budget, how do you make do with a space you can't stand to face? Enter the two-phase renovation — simply put, it's about doing a little work for now and a lot of it later, when you've built up some savings again.

We turned to reno-expert, Sabrina Smelko, a proponent of this 2-phase reno strategy, for her insights into what to renovate ASAP, and what to save for the full-scale redo. Sabrina is a designer of pixels, places + things, content creator, co-host of HGTV's Save My Reno, and also happens to be a homeowner with some wisdom to share. She reassured us that you can have a pretty powder room on a pretty tiny budget.

Why did you decide to do your bathroom re-do in two phases?

The motivation was money—or a lack thereof! It's hard to become a homeowner this day and age, but I don't believe that has to mean living with a space you hate! The first two updates I made (which were really just paint, decor and peel and stick tile) came as a result of desiring pretty, but having a tiny budget.

Doing it in stages not only allowed me to save up for the full monty, but it offered me time to discover the real pain points. More than aesthetics, figuring out what truly bugged me was a valuable exercise. Then, once I finally had the means to do it up right, I knew exactly what I needed and wanted out of the space.

Left: Sabrina's bathroom before any changes; Right: Her “in-between” reno

How do you make an "in-between" bathroom enjoyable without it feeling like a temporary fix?

I think updating paint, lighting and accessories can make even the most heinous vanity or tile work! Paint is such a cheap and easy way to refresh a space, and swapping lighting to not just one that looks good, but ones that cast a more flattering light, makes a huge difference. Then pile on pretty accessories! Also, if you have the means to update most fixtures/lighting, or if you're going to update something that requires patch-work drywall, then just wait until you can do it all in one go!

Give us your top tips for designing a bathroom that will inevitably be redone.

The key with the "in-between update stage" for any space is not wasting money. So lean heavily on accessories/fixtures that you can envision using for years to come—whether in that specific space or elsewhere. And if you insist on updating your floor tile, consider sheet or peel-and-stick vinyl flooring. It changes the whole look for mere bucks! As for wall tile, there's tons of paint options these days. It may not last forever, but if you need a refreshed look for a year or so while you save, it's worth considering. Also—plants! They freshen up any space and live forever—if you know what you're doing ;)

Accents and paint colour liven up the "in-between" reno

In your opinion, what element makes the biggest impact during a first-stage reno?

Paint and decor! And swapping out any little details like knobs and hooks.

Do what makes you happy, in that very moment! If you're doing a "for the time being" update, go nuts! You know you're not going to live with it forever, so you can afford to be impulsive. If there's something you've been dying to try, like bubble-gum pink walls in my case, go for it and have fun. It's there for a good time, not a long time.

What should we not bother with for our first, "in-between" reno?

Re-tiling! Don't bother shattering off wall tile or chipping up the floor unless you plan on fully gutting the space and going full-tilt with the renovation. Also, anything that requires moving plumbing or electrical. If you find a great vanity for $100 and you don't have to move the plumbing to install it, swap it! But the moment you have to move a fixture, you're looking at plumbing costs and dealing with patching floors and walls—and it just won't prove to be worth it.

Left: Sabrina's "in-between" reno; Right: Her full-scale renovation

What are the biggest things to consider structurally when it's time for the full-scale renovation? Is it about adding storage? Or mostly about updating the existing fixtures?

All of the above! When your space is gutted to the studs, that's your only opportunity to frame in built-ins and add support for anything wall-hung like vanities, lighting or heavy shelves, etc. You really have to have a solid plan of action before you get to that point. In my case, adding storage was my biggest priority, so while it was gutted to the studs, I drew up the final layout to my build team so they understood where they needed to add supports to studs, and what to frame.

Making space for built-ins in the full-scale reno

What are your tips for re-doing a small bathroom if we can't increase the footprint (by expanding it)?

Go vertical, recess everything you can, and look between the studs! In most homes, there's 16" or more between wall studs, so consider framing in open shelving, wall cabinets or shower niches and take advantage of that otherwise wasted space. I even recessed my mirror cabinets into the wall to make the space feel larger!

Recessed storage and mirror maximize space in the full-scale reno

What kind of tile has staying-power style-wise?

You can't go wrong with a great duo. If you can't resist a trendy tile, mixing it with a secondary more classic tile will give it staying power. Ditto for luxury items, cost-wise. For the same price of two middle-of-the-road, mediocre-looking tiles, invest in one showpiece set with another that balances the books. I went with an expensive and interesting floor tile, but then paired it with the world's cheapest—subway tile!

New tiling in the full-scale reno

What are your tips for renovating for your own tastes, but keeping resale value in mind?

As a general rule of thumb, be mindful with permanent features (flooring, cabinets/countertop, tile) but go nuts with accessories, decor and furniture!

What is your advice when it comes to what someone should update immediately, vs what can wait for the complete overhaul?

I'd say have a no-holds-barred approach to bedrooms, living spaces and dining rooms. Kitchens and bathrooms should be your greatest investment, so giving yourself time to save up for it is worth it. In most—if not all—homes, these rooms are the highest in terms of needing to deliver function, so don't rush into updating until you've really planned it out—and you have enough dough to do it right!

Left: Sabrina's "in-between" reno; Right: Her full-scale renovation

This interview has been edited and condensed.