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Read the Fine Print Before You Buy

My House / My Life

High-maintenance materials take the joy out of shiny new bathrooms.

December 03, 2000|ELLEN SWITKES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My idea of an ambitious home improvement project consists of driving to Target to buy potholders. I'll mull over this decision for a week: Should I buy potholders with a floral pattern, perhaps a country motif, or opt for the dignity of a solid color?

With tasks like this on my agenda, you can imagine my approach to remodeling our two bathrooms.

But after living in our home for many years, it was becoming clear that we had the two ugliest bathrooms in the San Fernando Valley.

We stopped entertaining for fear that the mildew on the walls was carrying a rare disease. More often than not, toilets were plunged rather than flushed.

And since the Northridge earthquake, the doors don't close completely. Out-of-town company rushed for the nearest motel. Young children would start crying if they had to go "in there."

But it was a stark bathroom in a Hollywood nightclub that inspired me to remodel. You could tell this room had seen a lot of illegal substances, and I'm not talking lead-based paint. Done entirely in black--save the white toilet and white sink--the contrast of the white fixtures against the dark background was visually striking. I had my vision.

Then I got my chance. My husband and daughter were going to Mexico for two weeks, and in their absence, I would transform our two miserable bathrooms into showcases. I stared lovingly into my husband's eyes and promised, "I'll make our bathrooms so beautiful, you won't mind if you get diarrhea."

I started the decision process by checking promotional material from various plumbing companies.

"The bathroom is the most important room in the house."

"Bathrooms are the one place where you can really be yourself."

"A bathroom is a place to meditate, to nourish your soul."

Considering my two bathrooms are 6-by-6 feet and windowless, I'll search elsewhere for spiritual renewal, but I did want bathrooms that are attractive, durable and low maintenance.

Everyone directed me to my local home center, where the toilets are practically suspended from the ceiling. But how can you buy the right toilet if you can't sit on it--take it for a little test drive, so to speak--before committing?

A friend told me, "Don't get tile. You'll spend every night on your knees cleaning grout. Get vinyl!"

But every vinyl floor pattern I saw had those fake tile patterns, with the grid lines. I wanted a design on the floor so I would never know when it was dirty, but I didn't want faux. I selected a commercial vinyl with a terrific pattern--not an ersatz tile in sight.

*

My fiberglass bathtub and shower stall looked wretched. I considered replacing them, but that would have entailed knocking down walls. I heard about recoating fiberglass, but I was warned that a job done poorly would peel.

I became obsessive about checking references. One potential company, when asked for referrals, referred me to its Web site, where the prize reference was an operations manager for a hotel chain. I tracked down the manager to his job in Saudi Arabia. I sent off an e-mail: "Is this guy's work any good?"

The word from Mecca: "It peels."

When I found a recoating company that gave me three good references, all in North Hollywood, I knew I had found my man. They cleaned and coated the fiberglass with a million chemicals. It smelled awful, but the tub and shower are now sparkling white and look brand new.

I ordered custom cabinets and a beautiful, seamless sink-counter top combination. I looked high and low for the counter top, and when I found the soft gray cultured marble, I fell in love.

But love hurts, and in the case of my bathrooms, the pain was caused by sticker shock. No, not the price, but the instructions for care of various products, which I learned about only after the product was paid for and installed in my home.

The delivery men would leave a microscopic sticker affixed to whatever that reads something like this: "For the proper care and maintenance of your new, beautiful whatever, you have to go to these extraordinary lengths, using these specifically designed cleaning substances, and if you go to these lengths, then and only then will your new, beautiful whatever last forever."

Wax the shower door! What's next? Taking the toilet in for a lube job? Has everyone known about this but me? Is this why people don't return phone calls, because they're busy waxing their shower doors?

Or consider my sink-counter top with the banjo shelf. There was a little sticker on it that said something to the effect of: "Caution, hot water may crack the cultured marble."

I asked a lot of questions before I bought, but never in my wildest dreams did I consider asking, "Can this bathroom sink handle hot water?" What am I supposed to do? Wash my face in Woolite?

The other surprise about the counter top is that you're not supposed to put anything on it, because it scratches. I thought that was the point of a counter top--a place to put things on.

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