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DIY Small Bathroom Remodel AKA Disaster Bathroom

I believe I promised at some point in the past to explain what was going on with the Avocado House bathroom. I am finally ready to let you in on the secret: it was a disaster – but fear not, we have finally solved it all and are happily using our beautiful DIY bathroom!

Things were not always so rosy, however.

The Original Plan

At the beginning, we knew we needed a new toilet (got it for free through a community program for saving water), a new sink/vanity, a new light fixture, a fresh coat of paint, and to finish the floor suitably.

We chose our sink/vanity, got our toilet and light fixture, and then went to work on the floor. We decided to go with white mosaic tiles for the floor, hoping to achieve a clean, classic look. It’s a very small bathroom, so we only needed about 50 sq ft of tile – or so we thought…

Rough times at Home Depot and after installing the tile.
Concrete board down and ready to tile.
Cutting the small tiles with the score and snap method turned out to be very difficult.
Anna installing the tile.
Anna grouting tile. I promise I really did help.


The Bad News

We successfully tiled the bathroom floor (a saga in and of itself – we didn’t know you had to put down concrete backer board first! such newbies), finished painting it the room, and were all ready to install the new toilet and sink/vanity when bad news came crashing down: the city was absolutely, positively requiring that we install a bathtub.

We tried using the dictionary definition of “full bathroom” on them (a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and tub OR shower – not AND!), we tried saying we would install an RV-sized bathtub (nope! not standard), we tried saying FINE WE WILL USE A BUCKET (just kidding, we didn’t do that one), but no amount of pleading and negotiation would change their minds.

When I told friends and acquaintances this, they tended to say, “Well why not just do what you want to anyway? It’s your house.” Unfortunately it was not that simple. We needed to comply with city code, because my parents needed to be able to get the final sign off and permit from the city allowing them to legally rent out the house as a second unit rental. Without that permit, the whole point of the project – adding value to their property by creating a viable second unit rental – would be moot.

So we had to do what Leticia said.

We (and by we I mean my Dad helped a lot with this part) ripped out the perfectly good shower surround and pan, and got to work.

This part was very upsetting.

Plan B

First, we had to find a suitable bathtub. With such a small amount of space, we really wanted to find something that would fit in the already-established “bathing corner” of the bathroom so that we could avoid having to make too many plumbing changes. That meant we had about four feet to work with before we would be encroaching on the toilet area.

Our city (possibly all of California, not sure on this) requires at least 15 inches of clearance on either side of the toilet, measuring from the centerpoint of the toilet bowl. It also requires 24 inches of clearance to the front of the toilet. It ALSO was requiring us to get a “standard” bathtub – not an RV one.

We ended up with a little four foot long tub, the smallest “standard” tub that we could find. It was sold by Bootz and is frankly quite nice, provided you don’t want to actually recline in a bath. Luckily, neither I nor Anna has any interest in taking baths, and the tub was 1) cheap and 2) the right size, so we went with it.

Leticia approved the tiny tub, and we were able to proceed with rebuilding our poor little bathroom.

The are where the tub and shower would go, before we installed the tub. The gray box in the wall is the electrical box.

Electricity + Water = eek!

When we pulled out the old shower surround, we were greeted with a fun surprise – the entire electrical box for the whole house, right behind our shower! Delightful! Excellent placement!

To add dismay to alarm, we realized that not only was the box placed right where it would fall behind our shower, but it was also placed unevenly, and sticking out from the level of the drywall – on one side it stuck out half an inch further than the drywall, and a full inch on the other side. We weren’t strangers to unevenness in this remodel, but that was pretty annoying to discover.

We decided to deal with that problem after we got the plumbing rearranged to accommodate our new tub and approved by the city in the rough inspection.

We had a professional come out and adjust our plumbing because while my Dad is a great DIY plumber, this stuff was touchy and needed to NOT BREAK. Carlos did an excellent job, and we passed the rough inspection with no problems. So, new tub in place, it was time to figure out how to enclose the surrounding walls.

An L-Shaped Dilemma

We had a difficult situation, because most manufactured acrylic shower surrounds are either 3 walls (an alcove) or just 1. We had 2 walls that needed enclosing, and we didn’t want to go for creating an alcove because it would leave the toilet in a teeny-tiny corner which we thought would be uncomfortable.

So with our 2 walls to enclose, we knew we were going to have to create some kind of custom solution. We toyed with the idea of having a custom acrylic surround cast for us, but when we got the quote for that ($4500!! Nearly seven times the whole bathroom budget) we quickly realized we were going to have to buckle down and come up with something ourselves.

Obviously, being the pro tilers we were at that point, we decided to tile it. My Dad was trying to convince us to use cheap plastic sheeting, but we insisted on tile and paid the difference out of pocket. Our reasons were:

  1. We already know how to do it, what tools we need, and how long we can expect it to take.
  2. It will look nice when finished – the plastic sheeting stuff, frankly, looks crappy.
  3. It wouldn’t necessarily cost that much more than the sheeting, just more time.
  4. I love the tile saw and wanted to rent it again.

We decided on 3 x 6 inch subway tiles, with some edging and corner tiles to make the edges look nice. After we bought our extra-super-duty wet area concrete board, tiles, and some plastic house wrap (to make extra sure no water got behind our shower and into the wall…where the ELECTRICAL BOX was) we got to work.


In order to create our shower enclosure, we first needed to make a surface of studs that was as level as possible for us to screw the concrete backer board onto. This proved to be much easier said than done.

My dad and I set to work adding shim after shim and plenty of extra wood between the studs so that there would be ample places to affix the concrete board. It seemed like no matter how much we shimmed it, we just couldn’t get everything quite level. In the end, we had to settle for Good Enough – a good place to settle when you’re DIYing something, in my opinion. Perfect is the enemy of Done.

All the shims we installed to even out the wall.

After shimming the hell out of everything, we covered our soon-to-be shower enclosure area with watertight house wrap to ensure that no water would get through and muck up our walls or our electricity. Then, it was time to attach the concrete board.

All wrapped and water tight. The area to the left without wrap will be inclosed with drywall.
Tub is installed and ready to go.

This was more complicated than we first imagined (isn’t everything?) because of the holes required for the shower head and shower controls, as well as the small ledge we decided to build in on the side of the tub (Anna’s excellent idea). According to the instructions for using concrete board, you’re supposed to score and snap it to cut it. This method didn’t work for us because 1) the concrete board was really thick, 2) we needed small pieces, which tended to break when we tried to score and snap and 3) we needed small holes in the board.

So, we did what you’re NOT supposed to do and we used a circular saw and a hole saw to cut it. This method kicked up a lot of (probably cancerous) concrete board dust, and I definitely do not recommend it. If you must to what we did, make sure to wear a face mask and eye protection.

Once we finally had the board cut and affixed to the wall, it was already Sunday evening. Time was up for that weekend’s work…or was it?

Concrete board installed and ready to go.

Sick Of Not Having A House

By this time, Anna and I had been living in limbo for nearly a month, and I had frankly had enough. I decided to take a sick day that Monday and just bang out some tile work. I took a quick trip to Home Depot in the morning to grab some last minute supplies, and then I got to work.

We had bad luck all through the bathroom renovation process, but I had one stroke of good luck that day: The 3 x 6 ” tiles fit perfectly in the spaces on the wall to where I only needed whole and half tiles, no odd cuts. Yay! During a renovation, it’s the little things that make your day.

Subway tiles all installed in the shower after a very, very long day.

After working all day with a short break for lunch, I was putting up the last row of tiles when Anna got home from work around 8:30 that night. I was sore, exhausted, and a little delirious, but we had our shower tiled. The next day when I got home from work, I grouted the tiles and admired our work.

Woohoo! Tile work done for the shower.

The Final Inspection

The hardest part of the bathroom was finished, but we still weren’t ready for our final inspection, which was coming up soon. We still had to install the toilet, build and install the vanity and sink, install the shower hardware, install our L-shaped shower curtain rod, and touch up the paint.

Those steps went relatively smoothly except for a stripped screw incident with the vanity. PSA: DO NOT use a power drill on IKEA screws. They are basically made out of squishy metal and they will strip IMMEDIATELY. Don’t do what we did.

We had to order our shower curtain rod specially online, and even then we still had to cut it and customize it a little bit. The result is very satisfying if a teeny bit saggy – but that’s what happens with an L-shaped rod with no ceiling support. We decided to forego the ceiling support because 1) our shower is very small and we figured it wouldn’t be 100% necessary and 2) it would be annoying with the shower curtain, probably requiring 2 separate curtains. We cut the rod to size using a tubing cutter (the kind plumbers use).

We finished just in the nick of time, and had the place inspected just a few days before Christmas. We passed, with one note that our sink was 3/4″ too close to the toilet. Thankfully, the inspector let that one slide…

We were so excited to finally be able to live in our functional house! We showered in our new shower (so clean! so new!), bought fancy soap and lotion to adorn our new counter top (that was me…), and generally reveled in our ability to LIVE IN OUR HOUSE.

The bathroom completed except for the shower curtain rod. Please ignore the dirty floor – I cleaned it right after!

But The Fun Wasn’t Over Yet!

We went away for Christmas, and when we got back we noticed that the shower wasn’t draining very well. Anna and I both have very long hair and are used to clogging up shower drains, so we sighed and figured we had done it again. I bought the TubShroom (highly recommend) to catch our hair, and we inspected the drain for hairballs. No hair was to be found, so I asked if my Dad could take a look at the piping.

The next morning, he crawled under the house and announced that he couldn’t see anything wrong with the shower drain, but the toilet drainage situation looked suspicious. He asked us to flush the toilet a few times, and sure enough, it was leaking.

As it turned out, the wax ring wasn’t properly sealing the toilet drainage and water (and other things…) were leaking from around the wax ring. We had to purchase a new wax ring, pull out the toilet, put in the new ring, and re-install the toilet. Once all that was done, the toilet wasn’t leaking anymore!

But. Now it wouldn’t flush. And the shower still wouldn’t drain.

It seemed like there was some kind of blockage in the sewer pipe, so my Dad borrowed a snake from the neighbor and we tried to snake the pipe. We couldn’t get far enough down the pipe to find what the blockage was, and still things wouldn’t drain.

It was dark, it was rainy, and we were stumped. We decided to call in the pros. The Western Rooter guys, bless them, came out at 7 PM on a Sunday night to see what the issue was. They proceeded to pull up a head-sized chunk of roots from our sewage pipe! And unfortunately, there was still more down there. We were going to need to call in the SUPER pros to sort it all out.

Long story short, we had our pipe hydro-blasted later that week, and we are now root-free and very much able to shower and use our toilet. Yay!

A Learning Experience

More than any other part of the renovation, the bathroom fiasco process really taught us about what renovations are like. What we thought would be a simple matter of tiling a floor, painting some walls, and installing some hardware turned into a months-long ordeal where we had to solve problems of space, plumbing, uneven walls, electricity, basically everything a house can throw at you.

Now when we shower in our hand-tiled shower and flush our water-efficient toilet, it is so, SO satisfying. Even though the process was painful, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not everyone who gets to take their morning shower every day with the sense of satisfaction of knowing that they built the shower themselves.

Our fully completed shower, with the curtain and everything.
It’s a little tough to get a good picture of the entire space since it’s so small!


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