How To Update An Outdated Bathroom Without Renovation


Is it possible to update an outdated bathroom without the expense of a major renovation? Yes! There are a variety of clever low cost changes you can make. With a little thoughtful planning, that outdated bathroom can become a Spiffy Looking Loo and your Personal Oasis in no time…and who doesn’t need one of those every day?


huge gold hibiscus urinal
This flowering urinal is a fine example of a memorable bath fixture update

Coming clean: Did you intend to be famous for your bathroom?

The big featured photo above the article title was the bathroom at CBGB, New York City; a once very famous, now long closed rock band/bar venue, said to be the birthplace of punk rock. R.I.P.

the flowering urinal is in a class by itself.

If not

For the most part, bathroom design and decor is often a sad story of missed opportunity. We tend to take our bathrooms for granted. That is, until such times as it’s in disrepair and the plumber is indisposed.

Having to conduct your “toilette” in the kitchen sink is a real attention grabber.

renovating bathroom in process old sink & debris
Oh no! Major renovation up ahead

First: Ask three questions

Deciding which and how many extravagances can be shoved into a small space aren’t the most important questions, initially.

Before anything else

  • Don’t you want to know how this small space can be designed for better living?
  • And then, don’t you just want to get the job done beautifully, conveniently and at the best possible price. (More about convenient later)

Small is beautiful when little changes can make a big difference. You can have high style at a (relatively) low cost OR a gut bathroom renovation that could cost you a minimum of $15,000 before labor charges.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

  • Does your bathroom truly need a total gut job?
  • How much do you want to spend?
  • Can you get what you want if you just show it some love?

What’s what and what you need

Before you consider anything else, make sure you have the following details covered.

bathroom basics for a great user experience

  • Bathroom fixtures are fixed (attached to the floor) such as the tub, toilet and sink.
  • Fittings refer the useful things we fit around and into the fixtures: faucets, tub fillers, shower bodies, towel racks, etc.
  • You need storage somewhere.
  • And please, let there be (adequate) light.

What else do you need, really?

Question:“How much do you want to spend?”
Answer: “Not much”.

You’re still in luck. Changing SOME of the bathroom basics, rather than ALL OF THEM, can give your little Loo a whole new lease on looks.

While a decorative urinal might not be your idea of a “really must have” for Wow Factor, there are “really great ideas” for living well in one’s bathroom that should not be overlooked…AND They Have Wow Factor too.

chandelier in bathroom
A charming chandelier is an eye catcher anywhere

What kind of lighting do you have?

Unless your concept of the bathroom is strictly Spa-Oriented-By-Candlelight, then yes, bathrooms should be brightly lit, with options.

“Las Vegas Showgirl Make-up Table ” is Overkill.

Conversely, don’t under-light with just one lonely bulb in the ceiling either. The ideal set up would be light sources above and along both sides of the mirror AND a ceiling source to contribute to ambient light AND a recessed waterproof fixture above the bath/shower areas.

There is no reason to soap up in the dark.

Use separate switches on all these sources and make sure they all are on dimmers. You will love being able to specify lighting conditions and location for any activity, such as shaving, applying make-up and/or luxuriating in the tub.

This could be helpful:

READ>>>How To Create The Best Lighting Solutions For Your Home

Good ventilation is essential for more reasons than the obvious.

Is the ventilation up to par?

A Breath of Fresh Air. That a window or a fan in a bathroom is a good idea falls under the most basic home design mandate: “Keep a firm grip on the obvious”.

Otherwise, your bathroom is an oversized container for noxious odors.

Great ventilation is an Unsung Hero. You never notice effective ventilation. You only notice the effects of bad ventilation. Along with being a noxious odor container, a bathroom is also a built-in breeding ground for mold or sewer gasses can leak into the rest of your home. There’s the humidity factor too. Without proper ventilation, you can recreate the worst conditions of a hot, muggy August afternoon.

bathroom with glass door wall
Glass doors/walls are terrific to maximize the illusion of space in a small bathroom

Keep your bathroom update simple

Whether you are making fast easy changes or will be going for a more extensive bathroom renovation, keep it uncomplicated with relatively hassle-free installation. Your solutions should also be easy to clean and maintain.

How to make the most of small bathrooms

Space may be the last great luxury, but you have to fight for it. Have you noticed how your personal stuff seems to propagate exponentially, at an ever accelerating pace? For this reason, a charming little make-up table is far less appealing than the storage space gained with good planning.

  • Having fought the good fight, don’t forget to edit your stuff to fit into the storage you won. Dump what you don’t need or never use. Find small attractive containers for the rest.
  • You can fool the eye by not obstructing your vision. Glass shelves and Lucite accessories work to your advantage in small bathrooms, as does a transparent shower curtain. Being able to see through any obstruction will make the room seem larger.
  • An inspired idea is to use a European-style hinged glass shower barrier. Any splashes are contained but the clear glass lends a more open feel.
terra cotta paint color to update bath
White wall color would have been a missed opportunity for a terrific looking Loo.

How to use paint color in a bathroom

Go gorgeous with paint color. Just don’t go too loud or your home spa retreat will feel as calming as rush hour traffic.

What constitutes loud to one person is a mere whisper to another. Even so, consider saving the wild wallpaper and bold colors for powder rooms and half baths that are less frequently used than the main bathroom.

You can tire of “something fun” much more quickly when you have much more of it.

We associate clean with light, bright and airy. Remember this while you are considering the overall coloration and look you want to achieve.

You may want to save the heavy brooding colors for the library/study/dungeon, as the case may be.

HOWEVER, I saw a terrific looking BLACK bathroom recently. It made sense in a home with a similarly great looking BLACK kitchen and with the overall color scheme of the apartment.

To each his own, thoughtfully.

Your painter or contractor might argue this point, but you don’t necessarily have to use official bath and kitchen paint.
Here’s the deal: paint is essentially a film. The shinier the film, the tougher the finish. Shiny paint repels moisture and is easier to clean. So, yeah, for the most part, you should go with paint that’s designed for bathrooms (this holds true for kitchens too).

Hedge position: if this is a guest bath or otherwise doesn’t get much use, you can get away with pearl or satin finishes.

Here again, good ventilation is key.  At the very least, open a window and leave the door ajar to allow for drying out and dispersing humidity.

You might find this helpful:

READ MORE>>>How To Select Terrific Home Paint Colors You Will Love


How to update the look of old bathroom tiles

Reality check. New tile might be a vast improvement here. Even if it isn’t grubby looking, perhaps the tile color you inherited from the last tenant is cringed-worthy. BUT, it falls under the category of major bathroom renovation because:

  • It costs a small fortune to replace.
  • It’s a big, inconvenient mess to live with in the process.

You can still perk things up:

  • It’s possible to paint over tile! It takes considerable prep and special paint BUT not living with chartreuse colored tiles may well be worth it. While researching for this article, I came across the brand name of White Knight Tile & Laminate paint several times. The base paint can be tinted to whatever color you desire. I haven’t used this myself, but it looks like good a place to start. Check out your local Big Box DIY and paint stores.
  • Even just a fresh coat of grout will make the tiles look new.
  • Is the floor tile beyond redemption? Sometimes extra labor just isn’t worth the extra bother. Look for a large area rug to use as a disguise.

an indoor/outdoor rug could become your new BFF.

white bathroom with red tribal rug
The beautiful rug adds life to an otherwise dead white space

How to add style to the bathroom


“You’ve got to have style. It helps you get out of bed in the morning.”

-Diana Vreeland

Your bathroom is in your home, not a hospital.  Add some personality: Yours.  Express yourself with wit and charm.

This is where a “cosmetic fix” is more meaningful than a fresh swipe of lipstick. A single gesture may be all you need to have a spectacular looking Loo.

bronze hardware to update bathroom
Add interesting hardware for a quick and effective bath update

switch out the hardware

  • The quickest fix for a tired looking vanity is to just replace the hardware. Both chrome and nickel are white metals but nickel has a richer, deeper luster that more closely approximates untarnished silver. In the old days, it had to be polished just like real silver. Chrome is actually short for chromium. It was introduced in the ‘40s as an alternative to labor intensive nickel.
  • You can use both nickel and chrome in the same room, but not together. Up close, you can tell the difference between them.
  • Brass fittings are great in a traditional setting.  Copper and wrought iron, depending on styling, add a rustic touch. 

Any style hardware is given a completely different look and feel when done in oil rubbed bronze.

bowl used as bath sink
Not sure what that container/sink is ‘xactly, but it looks marvelous

dress up the sink/vanity/medicine cabinet

  • Use something interesting for the sink; refer to above photo. If nothing else, a classic solution is a large glass bowl, frosted or clear. Everybody loves them.
  • You don’t have to keep that old ugly medicine cabinet. Take it out and find a fabulous mirror with the size and style that would work equally well for an entryway or living room if not too tall. You’ll have instant chic in a single gesture along with the happy side-effect of visually expanding the room to twice its size. It’s worth the extra effort to sort out new storage for items previously IN the cabinet.
  • Any chest or table of an appropriate size can be re-tooled to become the vanity/surround for your sink and faucets.  A beautiful and unique vanity, fabricated from a treasure found at a flea market, spells Clever and Sophisticated.
  • Instant Wow Factor happens by simply switching out the old sink and vanity for a sleek pedestal sink. As a general rule, you are better off with classic white fixtures. They are cheaper and won’t become dated over time, like your mom’s (or grandmother’s) avocado colored refrigerator did.
updated bath new fixtures & long shower curtain
The shower curtain looks long enough to avoid that “highwater-trouser” look shorter shower curtains tend to have

About the shower curtains

  • The curtain(s) will look much better if they are extra long. There’s something about the length of a regular shower curtain and liner that’s faintly reminiscent of high-water trousers.
  • If possible, hang them as close to the ceiling as possible and all the way down to a fraction above the floor. The effect will seemingly stretch the height of the room. Use drapery wands to open and close if necessary. Shop on-line for longer-than-standard curtains and liners. Another route is to locate a fabric you love and have your local seamstress whip up to measure.
folded towels on stool in bathroom
Adding little touches for your bathing comfort are not to be overlooked

Have you been blessed with a large bathroom by the housing gods?

Don’t treat it like a rented utility at a Holiday Inn. Make use of your good fortune.

  • Real rooms have real furniture. A chaise with cushions slip-covered in terry cloth equals lux for a lounge lizard. Have a bookcase and/or a pair of vintage boudoir lamps for your stand-alone make-up table. You can have a fireplace too.
  • Luxury Is Convenience Spelled Differently. Even a tiny bathroom can often accommodate a little stool by the bath. A small stool can be a handy end table.
  • Art belongs in the bathroom too, although you may want to display the million dollar Matisse elsewhere. Just remember to ventilate by opening a window and leaving the door ajar at least an hour after you shower otherwise it will steam up in there.
towel hung over rod
Make your little Loo into a Spa with Lux details

have good fluffy towels and pretty containers

  • Make “Live well in every room” your guiding mantra. Make sure your towel bar is within easy reach of the shower or tub. If there is no room for a towel bar or if folding the towels over the bar over and over seems too much like the task of Sisyphus, use hooks instead. One double hook for each household member will provide a means to hang both a robe and a towel.
  • Add a Soft Touch. A plush rug, lots of good fluffy towels and nice soap go a long way towards making a visit to your bathroom an uplifting experience. Extra hand towels in a decorative bowl add bursts of color, combining beauty with utility.
  • Speaking of towels, go for the best towels you can afford. 100% Turkish cotton is hard to beat. Avoid the five piece plush bathroom sets…those fluffy toilet seat and tank doilies are particularly “icky”.
  • Even the most ordinary grooming tools look better in a pretty container. Be resourceful. A great vintage ashtray could make a terrific looking soap dish. Use trays to corral loose items and create a pleasing composition on the counter or top of the toilet tank.
bathtub tray on bathtub
Just add water, bubbles and you

A bathtub tray is indispensable for your soaking comfort. You’ll want a place for those lush soaps, oils, gels, bubble bath preparations, natural sponges, foot and nail grooming tools and of course, a place to hold your book.


true luxury ….time for yourself


Over To You

I’d love to know what you think...

Was there a tip that was especially helpful? Hopefully, you found a little inspiration and maybe even resolved a long standing quandary brilliantly!

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Setting out to create the best version of beautiful home design, tailored especially for you, has a lot of potential questions built in. Please let me know. I’m here to help.

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Is it possible to update an outdated bathroom without the expense of a major renovation? Yes! There are a variety of clever low cost changes you can make. With a little thoughtful planning, that outdated bathroom can become a Spiffy Looking Loo and your Personal Oasis in no time...and who doesn’t need one of those every day?

about the author

Cindy Bergersen is a professional design consultant turned full time writer about home design: what is it, how it works and how to make it work for anyone. 

Nearly 30 years experience as a design consultant to private clients in addition to consulting with clients for well known, high end furniture retailers proved to be invaluable training.

In 2010, Decoding Decor won a $1000 cash prize as one of four editors top pick for best content from Demand Media, the largest media content aggregate in the country, with access to over 45 million articles.

She is both passionate and committed to sharing her experience and knowledge to help anyone, to help themselves to a beautiful, comfortable home, without feeling confusion or overwhelm about where to start and how to proceed.

She lives in New York City with Olivia, The Cat. When not writing for the Library, she can be found cycling though Central, Riverside and Hudson River Parks, watching way too much film, or curled up on the sofa with a good book.