How an old house bath remodel can go south

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips, Old House Construction

An old house usually has more than enough problems to keep a new owner busy for quite some time, but often these issues are minor and can be handled with a little expertise and a lot of elbow grease. After a while, you become confident in what you can do with your old house. So confident, in fact, that you decide to tackle that bathroom remodel. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Problems to anticipate during an old house bath remodel

At some point, remodeling your bathroom is an absolute necessity. Remember that old houses equal old plumbing, and that fact alone means that somewhere along the way, pipes will fail and water-filled chaos will ensue. To avoid the last-minute fixes, many homeowners take the smarter route and carefully plan out a bath remodel.

But in doing so, they might not anticipate all the problems that pop up. Therefore, as a public service to my fellow old house owners, I am listing out all the things you should expect when you start to rip up that tile and tear down those walls.

You've been warned!

  1. Pipes will not behave. When you open up the wall and look at the pipes, be prepared for what you will see: Odd angles everywhere, corrosion on some joints, an abundance of leaks, and brittle pipes that make you wonder how they are still working. When you start to mess with them, a lot of old pipes will simply break. That's why you need to be prepared to replace all the pipes you find -- just in case.
  2. The water will surprise you. Everything might seem just fine until it's time to shut off the water, and then, guess what? Your old house was designed without a single shut-off valve. You have to turn the water off at the main, which means that you might not have any water flowing at all until the remodel is done. Learn from this and install shut-off valves everywhere while you're in the mood for construction anyway.
  3. Electricity is wild. If you thought those pipes were bad, take a look at those wires! There are few things more fear-inducing that opening up the wall of an old house to see a variety of wiring that doesn't match, seems spliced together haphazardly or even worse, is actually rubbing against insulation or bare wood. Make room in your budget for an electrician.
  4. The paint wants to kill you. Old houses have layers of paint, and that means layers of treacherous lead, just waiting to be stirred up and breathed in. When the dust starts to fly, it's already too late to protect yourself. So when you do the demo, keep your family well away from the area, and wear protective clothing and masks to make sure you stay healthy.
  5. The framing looks…odd. When you open up the walls to move things around, don't be surprised if it appears your entire home is suddenly at an angle. Old houses were often built by hand, or over time they have settled into their more comfortable positions, which are not always plumb and level. Keep this in mind when you are installing a new tub or sink, as you might need to adjust the framing first.
  6. It's smaller than you think. Bathrooms have become larger over the years, and so have all the things that go in them. When you pull out that toilet, remember that the new one will be larger. How will you account for the lack of extra room? You might have to get creative with the tub, shower, sink, and more, or deliberately go with the smallest models to preserve the room's footprint.
  7. The floor will never let go. Installing tile is easy. Right? It might be, but you won't know until you take up the old tile. The problem is that most old tile was set in mortar, possibly several inches of it. That mortar will have to come out, which could be several hundred pounds of debris. In addition, removing all of that will lower your bathroom floor by a few inches, which might wreck havoc with your remodel. Anticipate and plan accordingly!

The most important part of any old house remodel is going into it with your eyes wide open. Now that you know what to expect, make sure your budget can handle the truth!