8 premium bathroom upgrades

Shower in luxury

The National Kitchen and Bath Association says you'll pay on average $18,538 to remodel your bathroom.

Of course, you can complete a stylish update for much less.

But whether you want to replace it all or just change a thing or two, you’ll want to include some of today’s 8 hottest choices in bathroom finishes and fixtures.

We'll show both high-end and mid-range options, so you can find ideas to fit your budget. Indeed, you can make some surprisingly luxurious improvements to your shower, floors, cabinets and more without having to pay thousands of dollars.

No matter what you spend, remember you'll only recoup 65.2% of your cost in the home's resale value, according to our list of the most valuable home improvements.

That’s all the more reason to make choices you love.

Here’s what to look for and how much you’ll need to budget for it.

Shower updates big and small

Showering is no longer just about getting clean — it’s now a personalized hydrotherapy experience involving multiple shower heads, body sprayers and even digital programming.

If price is no object, consider Kohler’s digital thermostatic valve system. Its digital controls let you set a precise temperature for your shower even before you get in. You can configure spray intensity and angle of water delivery, all without multiple valve handles. And its six presets can be customized for different users.

By adding the complementary media module, your shower can have music, ambient lighting, colored lighting and steam.

The system will set you back more than $3,000. You'll pay extra for the shower head, handles and plumbing.

If you’re not a high roller, the right shower head can still help you create a luxurious experience.

Delta’s H20 Kinetic shower technology uses larger water droplets and a unique wave pattern to create a warmer and gentler shower experience. A 2-in-1 shower head and hand shower from this line costs less than $200.

Fancy tile work

To instantly upgrade your bathroom, ditch your acrylic shower wall and replace it with tile.
Fancy tile work is also in style for bathroom floors and walls.

The trend in high-end tile work ($150-$200 per square foot plus installation) is unique and personalized products, says Kirsten Schmit, marketing and product manager of Colorado-based Decorative Materials, a specialty tile and stone retailer.

"Clients want products and design that reflect their individual style," Schmit says. "Water-jet-cut mosaics combining stone and glass are popular choices for high-end bathroom floors and feature walls."

Tile is no longer square and flat; rectangles and dimensional products are in style.

"For the midrange client, porcelain is overtaking the market," Schmit says.

Porcelain tile ($12-$15 per square foot plus installation) now visually and texturally blurs the lines between real and man-made marble, travertine and wood products.

The "cheap" stigma of porcelain is gone, Schmit says, and it does not require the extensive care that most natural stones require.

Ambient lighting

Lighting is one area where you really don’t have to spend a lot to get a stylish look.

Bar lights, which can be placed above or alongside a mirror, are popular, says Sean Murphy, a DIY specialist at Build.com, the largest online-only home improvement retailer.

He recommends George Kovacs’ contemporary-themed Saber collection. These fixtures cost about $100.

Bar lights cast light in all directions, as opposed to just up or down like vanity lighting. They create a more even lighting experience.

Placing lights correctly adds ambience and eliminates shadows on your face when looking in the mirror.

Adding a wall light as a complementary light source is a great way to reproduce a high-end look if you’re on a budget, Murphy says. Remember to reduce the wattage of your primary light source so the total wattage isn’t overwhelming.

For a soothing experience at night, switch out your old ventilation fan for one with a built-in soft-glow nightlight, such as NuTone’s LunAura bath fan ($300), Murphy says.

Furniture-style vanities

If you have the means, a custom-made vanity can elevate the entire look of your bathroom.

However, if you have some carpentry skills or are willing to hire someone who does, consider repurposing a dresser or nightstand for your bathroom’s vanity as a cost-effective alternative.

You’ll get a custom, high-end look that you can’t achieve with an off-the-shelf vanity, says Holly Denihan, a kitchen designer with DirectBuy of Indianapolis.

Add a solid counter top and decorative sink to dress up your bathroom, she says.

Make sure the furniture you want to use is the correct height (about 34 inches) and depth (about 21 inches) for a bath vanity.

You’ll need to seal it against moisture and modify the interior to accommodate your sink’s plumbing.

You’ll also need to modify the top to accommodate a sink and faucet, or remove the top altogether if you want to add quartz or granite.

While repurposing furniture can save you money, a unique vanity could mean higher costs for a properly sized custom counter top.

Granite or quartz counters

Current bathroom design trends lean toward quartz composites and other man-made materials.

Quartz contains recycled content, making it an environmentally conscious choice, says architect Matthew Coates, president of Coates Design Architects in Bainbridge Island, Wash. It also has a uniform appearance. Expect to pay $70 to $90 per square foot installed.

Granite remains popular, and its many variations can make it attractive and unique. You'll pay a bit more at $80 to $120 per square foot.

However, granite can stain if not sealed properly, which diminishes your counter’s look, Coates says.

"Another popular trend is to use salvaged or recycled content for your counter tops," he says.

For example, if you’re redoing your kitchen, you may be able to cut a vanity top out of your old counter.

When looking at materials to cut costs, concrete counter tops are another inexpensive and current trend that also has recycled content, Coates says.

Decorative faucets

Before you replace your bathroom counter, consider what kind of faucet you’d like.

You’ll need to have a different number of holes drilled in your counter, depending on the type of faucet you choose.

Although the widespread (three-piece faucet) and center-set styles (one-piece faucet; three counter top holes) are the most popular, a single-hole faucet offers the best temperature and volume control as well as the easiest installation, says Build.com’s guide to choosing a bathroom sink faucet.

A wall-mounted faucet is unique and fashion-forward, the guide says. However, you’ll need to open the wall to install it.

Brass construction and ceramic-disc cartridges — which control water flow — are the best choices for long-term faucet performance.

Eco-friendly consumers will appreciate a faucet that has a WaterSense label, designated for products that reduce water usage.

You could easily spend $2,000 for a high-end faucet, but the average person will be able to find plenty of nice-looking faucets in the $100-$300 range.

Heated floors

Heated floors allow you to bring a bit of the spa home with you.

They are seen as a luxury item, says Erin Davis of Mosaik Remodeling and Design in Portland, Ore., but she has used them as the main heat source in bathrooms.

This means not having to install an unattractive, energy-inefficient wall heater or run new ducting from your furnace.

Your floors won’t look any different because the warming coils are installed underneath the tile, but you’ll feel the difference on cold mornings.

You'll pay about $15 per square foot to install a heated floor, excluding the tile.

"Also, all heated floors require their own electrical circuit, so you will have to figure that into the final cost," she says.

To save money, heated floors can just be installed in front of a vanity or shower, Davis suggests.

With its electrical component, installation of heated floors is best left to a professional.

She recommends Nu-Heat and Warm Wire brands.

Maximum storage

One way to improve the look of any bathroom is to organize it. Put everything away, and your bathroom just might look like it came out of a magazine.

ShelfGenie’s custom-designed Glide-Outs are full-extension shelves that maximize your cabinets’ storage capacity and functionality. For a double vanity in the master bath, ShelfGenie might cost $800 to $1,200.

For do-it-yourselfers, Rev-a-Shelf offers a similar product that you can purchase at Home Depot or Lowe’s.

Its vanity cabinet pullout organizers start at about $250 per cabinet and feature storage bins and adjustable shelves for stowing everything from cleaning supplies to curling irons.

Storage towers, medicine cabinets, over-the-toilet cabinets and wall cabinets offer additional storage at any price point.

Shelves, racks and holders installed on the inside of cabinet doors are easy, inexpensive options.

For a streamlined look that works in even the smallest bathrooms, consider a recessed cabinet built in between wall studs. Though the cabinet won’t be deep, it will store items like shampoo and medicine.

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