The perfect first project is a small bath remodel

16 min read If you are stuck in neutral on your remodel, the best way kickstart the work is to find a perfect first project. Piece of cake, right? Right!

My DM’s are full of tales of remodeling overwhelm and woe from mid-century homeowners who just don’t know where to begin. Overwhelm is not just for folks mid-remodel! We get to experience the doubts, the decision paralysis, the budget blues all along the remodeling journey. Including before construction actually starts. The best way I know to kickstart the work is to find a perfect first project. 

I hear you out there yelling, “Della! I don’t know which project is the perfect first project!!! If I knew, I’d start already.”  

I have good news for you. I know exactly which project is your perfect first project. In fact, it’s the perfect first project for almost any remodeler. 

A Small Bath Update = the Perfect First Project

It’s your small bathroom…your puny powder room, that basement “bath” (really just a free standing toilet next to a tiny shower?), a shabby shared hall bathroom.

Why a bathroom, you ask? A bathroom is the perfect opportunity to deal with plumbing, electrical work, color choices, fixtures, finishes, and tiling. Even if you just swap out fixtures in place, you’ll have a chance to put your style guide into action. A bathroom remodel involves choosing new lights and a faucet and a paint color. And the work happens within a confined space (hopefully) without affecting the rest of your home. Especially if you have multiple bathrooms!

Here are three schemes we presented to a recent client for just this kind of “perfect first project” bathroom.

A bathroom is a great place to learn through doing!

You can test your tiling skills, install your first cabinet, or embark on beginner electrical work in a low-stakes area of your home.

A kitchen often feels incredibly public and a bedroom may not have enough complexity to feel quite as satisfying. The bathroom strikes a perfect balance! 

Now, I know some of you may still feel hesitant about a bathroom update. An even smaller start? Pick a paint color and some new towels to add your style to the bathroom.  Grab my Mid-Century Room Recipe for an easy mid-century upgrade in any space. 

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • Why the “perfect first project” is a small bathroom update. 
  • The tale of my bathroom remodel regret! 
  • How to make your small bathroom the perfect first project – no regret required. 

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Resources to help you tackle your perfect first project

And you can always…

Read the Full Episode Transcript

If you were staring down your first ever remodel project, you might be feeling a little intimidated. You might be feeling frozen right in place. Do you have to know how to make this happen? How hard will a whole home overhaul be? Is it going to cost what you’ve estimated in time and money and energy?

The best way to answer all those questions for yourself is to start with a small discrete update project and take all your plans for a test drive. And I believe that a small bathroom update is the perfect first project to do just that. So today, let’s talk about it.

Hey there. Welcome back to mid modern model. This is the show about updating MCM homes helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann, architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast, you’re listening to Episode 1303.

Okay, last week, I used a bath as an example, as one part of a master plan to pivot with it’s a great project you can tune up or down the scale. And similarly, it’s a great, simple first project. In fact, I think it’s the perfect first project to get yourself moving. Before I even get into that, let’s just check your level of intensity enthusiasm experience right now, because it might be that even a small bathroom update is too much for you at this moment.

And if that’s true, you can start even smaller, there are easier things you can do to begin some home improvement, some home personalization. If you’re wondering whether you’re even going to do anything you’re feeling completely stymied, then set the bar lower, set the bar on the ground, so you can step right over it.

Don’t start with a bathroom. Start with something like new hand towels for the bathroom and your favorite color. OR begin with new modern house numbers attached to the front of your house. Start with a fun vintage coffee table you dig up by hitting a couple of estate sales and thrift stores this summer with a friend really small. This is your permission slip to go at your own pace because no one’s grading you on this.

The point isn’t to pass or fail remodeling your house. Instead, the point is to like your home better. The point is to feel good about yourself in such a way that encourages you to do a little more next time. So if you’ve been wanting to make changes to your home, and you feel like everything is too much for your time, your money, your attention right now, then make your start really, really, really small.

I’ll send you all the way back to another pep talk episode about starting super small, where I focus on a room recipe for an easy mid-century upgrade to any room. You can grab the freebie at mid mod dash midwest.com/room recipe or check out the podcast that walks you through that process. It’s episode 203. So you can find that at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 203.

So if you are listening to me talking about small bathrooms and perfect first projects right now and you’re thinking nope, nope, I don’t want to get out pliers or hammer or wire cutters or call a plumber, or really buy anything very expensive. That’s fine. dial it back, you can do a pretty effective light remodel of your mudroom, for example, by just following the room recipe as much as you could by getting into major construction projects. So try that first.

I’ll pull together all of these resources that I mentioned, as always plus a transcript of this episode at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1303. But let’s get back to our topic.

If you’re thinking you want to start taking on some real home improvement projects around your home in the near future, make some significant changes. tweak your time capsule house a little further down into the modern era, or a lot of people are in a place where they have bad remodels layered over their mid-century home and they need to roll that back. Those things are bigger projects, they can be intimidating, I get that.

And even if you’re hiring someone out to do all the work, they’ll still be a lot of choices involved in any remodel, there’s a lot of expenses and a lot of questions from the contractors. In some cases, that kind of big contractor project can be as intimidating as a DIY project because you have a professional perhaps raising their eyebrows at you and telling you that they don’t like your midcentury choices. Now, by the way, if you’re having trouble communicating with your contractor or you’re worried about how to find the right contractor, I’m going to do an episode on that a little later this season how to find a contractor who can work with you on a mid-century remodel. So stay tuned for that.

But right now, I would love to let you stick stake in the ground. test your mettle against a small bathroom remodel and I really think this is the perfect first project whether you’re DIY in it or hiring the workout. remodeling a bathroom in your house is a great microcosm for the bigger project. It has all the moving pieces, you’ll need to deal with plumbing, you’ll need to deal with electrical you will choose colors, fixtures, finishes tile, there are a lot of choices packed into a small space. But at the end of the day, it’s just a small space and ideally it’s not the only bathroom in your house.

Sidebar. Part of the reason I think of a small bathroom update as the perfect first project is because it has a little bit of a trailing wheels at Fact, you’re not decommissioning one part of your house, unless you are in the boat I was in when I started working on my house, which is that I totally decommissioned all the bathrooms in my house at the same time. I don’t recommend this.

Let me just tell you this story. When I bought my house, it had a full bath, on the main floor between the bedrooms that serve to the entire house, and one of those freestanding toilets you sometimes find in a basement and mid-century house. Over the years, I’ve heard a number of different stories about why these basement toilets exist that just stand out in the middle of an open room.

People sometimes say they were a cheap plumbing fixture that the plumber could use to test drainage better than a floor drain. Other people have told me they were a relic of the cloth diaper era. And that’s why you find them next to the laundry, they were the place where you could swish out a dirty diaper before throwing it into your 1950s dream washing machine.

But whatever the reason for that I had one in my basement. And I now have a three quarters bathroom that I moved all the plumbing slightly to set up in exactly the layouts, but I wanted to for reasons of my own derangement. I didn’t do this in a logical order where I had one bathroom set up so I could take the other offline. instead. While I was working on the basement, I decided really quickly I wanted to make a toilet replacement in my upstairs bathroom. And I had already torn out the basement plumbing because it was in the process of relocating that new bathroom. So the only toilet in the house was my main bathroom. And I decided to take that out, replace the flooring in the bathroom and put in a new fixture fully removing all modern plumbing and indoor plumbing from my house.

So believe me when I tell you, I did a speed run through that project, I roped my dad into it. And we did that part of the project in a day we remove the existing toilet, scraped up the existing probably original laminate flooring in the bathroom, identified a few weak areas in the sub floor and repaired them cut out and uninstalled new cork flooring. Yes, I love cork in a bathroom. I can talk about you more, talk about that more with you later.

And install the new toilet back into its spot between seven in the morning and seven at night. And we went over to the library in the middle of the day to make use of the public bathroom and just tried not to drink too much water. Here’s one of these do what I say not what I do things because part of why I’m recommending to you a small bathroom update as an easier as like a perfect first project is because I’m assuming you’re not going to do what I did.

Don’t take your entire indoor plumbing system offline at the same time if you can possibly help it certainly not while you’re living in your house. But this is why a bathroom can be a training wheels project and can be an easier because you have ideally something else in the house that can serve that purpose. So you can go a little slower, you can take your time, you don’t need to do a seven in the morning to seven at night, turn around on your updates, you can have the time to have a lag between contractors coming or get busy in your own life and let things drag a little bit.

Now there’s a reason to why I think a bathroom is a perfect first project over say a kitchen as a starter project. A lot of people start with their kitchen update, and then tie in a few other spaces. And that’s because it often feels like the most pressing area the most frustrating part of the house the thing you most want to do.

And there’s some logic to that, particularly if you have more remodeling experience if you’ve remodeled in a previous home, or you have a partner who has or you’ve got good advice even from parent or loved one who’s on your side, you can take the Go big or go home approach and do your kitchen right now when you do your kitchen correctly, it can be the template for the entire house, you get a master plan approach to the entire thing you set your style in the kitchen with the woodwork with the trim with the finishes.

Once you’ve done that, all of the other smaller repair projects, tweak projects, updates you do you just follow the template you set for yourself in the kitchen. And that can be really a way to take a huge leap forward in a project all at once. Even if you don’t have the time and the budget to do your entire remodel in one swoop. If you put your kitchen at the front and center of phase one, you will have done more than half the work of the project by the time you finish that kitchen. But it’s a lot it’s not a beginner project, a kitchen update is the sort of 202, 303 maybe graduate level work.

So when you are new to remodeling when you’ve never done anything, you’re a first time homebuyer, you’ve never picked up a hammer, you’re not handy. You’ve never dealt with contractors before. I love to think about a starter project a small one to just test the waters before you go in on something bigger. And it’s nice to get your toes wet on something that you could potentially DIY part of.

You don’t have to, but you could or that you can find a friendly jobbing plumber to help you with a few key parts. You might be able to leave the electrical and a bathroom entirely alone or just replace a few fixtures in their spots, which is a homeowner project. Anyone who’s cautious and responsible can do by making sure they’ve turned off the relevant breakers and they test their work right afterwards. Or you can find a small time electrician to help you with those pieces too. And anyone can lay tile if they’re willing to be careful. And it’ll turn out perhaps slightly less perfectly than a professional.

Anyone can paint. Anyone can hang shelves if you have a desire to do so. All these are tasks that you could theoretically do now and learn whether they are parts of the project that you would like to be responsible for DIY being in the greater house, because another thing I often see homeowners do is assume they’ll want to do more of a project. And once they get into it, they realize this is not a task they enjoy. But they assigned it to themselves. And they’ve budgeted for it not to be a hired out part of the work when you’ve done one or two small starter projects. And again, a bathroom can be a perfect burps project.

In this way, you get to learn what’s fun and what’s frustrating to your personality type maybe to the way you and your partner work together. So a bathroom, particularly a not main bathroom is such an easy place to hone a variety of skills with low stakes and figure out if you feel like you like the quality of your own work, and you enjoy doing that work.

For myself, I have been involved in hanging drywall exactly once in my life. And while I was capable of doing it, I did not enjoy it. So I have learned that I will always hire out hanging drywall, I actually like electrical work. I’m not a licensed electrician. So there’s part of the work I can’t do. But I often try to find an electrician who will let me work as their assistant and do some of the rough and work the prep work. It’s meticulous in a way that I find really satisfying.

So you’ll learn these things about yourself. Maybe you love laying tile, maybe you hate it. But these are things you can figure out places where you’ll learn where if you want to get involved in some DIY work in your house, you can find out what actually will be fun as opposed to what you imagine might be fun.

So remember, as you’re looking around your house for the perfect first project to start on to get your toes in the water. It might be a small outdoor building project, like a decorative fence to put your house numbers on. But you want something that’s complicated enough that it’s gonna let you test things out, but forgiving enough that you can have a little leeway. Ideally, a basement bathroom can be a great place to start. If you already have an existing basement bathroom, and you’re not planning to change the layout, it can be very forgiving. Any space you’re not going to end up using on a daily basis allows you to experiment and maybe even make a few choices that you don’t forever love and not feel too upset about them.

This actually just came up; I see people identify with some of themselves. Some recent clients, I just finished a master plan for them last fall, they were sitting with their solutions package. That’s the version of the deliverables where there’s still multiple options on the table. And they sat with that for a little longer than usual, then came back with me recently to work out their final, we choose this version, we choose this version, we choose this version schematic drawings.

And in the meantime, I was delighted to hear from them that they’ve been working on the basement bathroom, which was odd shaped, tired looking and grossly in need of an update. We’ve made some design proposals to them, and they have tweaked those and just dived in on making some of the problems go away.

So they are really getting to test out the process not only of doing this work each individually but their this is their first couple of projects. So finding the right plumbers, finding the electrician, getting into some of the tile work themselves working through these processes, they’re really getting to test out the process even the feeling of having strangers in their home doing work while one of them works from home.

All of these things are very helpful to have a relationship with to have some experience with once you start a bigger remodel. And they’re getting to know all of that because they’ve started in on this somewhat DIY small bathroom update. Perfect first project. So if you’ve been holding yourself back from starting in on your bigger plans, a small addition a kitchen upgrade opening up some spaces inside the house, adding an owner suite or anything else. It’s not at all a bad idea to start really small.

Make a microcosm of the house with a small bathroom update. And anywhere along the range from just giving it some fresh paint and shining up the tiles you already have to recreating a color themed bathroom from the vintage era By sourcing a whole bunch of different vintage pieces and replacing the 90s cabinet with original or building something new in a custom way.

Finding the pieces of the project that excite you and finding the balance of how much you want to hire out and how much you want to do yourself is really going to teach you a lot about how you want to run your own remodel in the future. This seems counterintuitive based on everything I always advise about Having a fully fleshed out master plan before you begin. Well, I’m going to do an entire episode a little further along the season about the design basics to keep in mind for a mid-century bath update.

But this is also where having a style guide can grow up from one space, or it can be a holistic vision that then focuses down for one space. And this is the process I talk about. In my recent live recorded design workshop on mid-century style guides. The mid-century style guide clinic walked through the process of thinking about your whole host house style, through the lens of a single space.

And in that workshop, which I gave live in April, I walk the people who attended and anyone watching the recording through every step in the process of focusing your decision making starting with your why your dreams, those nebulous, big picture things about your style, and then getting down to how to make it easier to choose every individual product and finish that’s going into a space like a bathroom.

Even a small bathroom space can easily overwhelm you with the level of decisions that are necessary. And if that’s what’s holding you back from taking this process in hand, especially if you’re not planning to do the work you’re planning to get hired out, you just don’t know what you choose for tile, for a faucet for light fixtures and more, then I have a magical process of simplifying all those choices.

And I will walk you through exactly how to do that including half a dozen templates, guides and forms that you can use to get yourself through the process, taking it bit by bit, or just sitting down and watching the entire two hour workshop. In one chunk to bang through this process. You can grab that at the learn with us page on our website. And I’ll put a link to it in the show notes for today. In fact, during that workshop, I use the example of a small bathroom as the demonstration project for how to see the entire process. You can see the style quiz, the sample mood board images, the materials collections for bathroom and basically follow the leader to make to adapt those choices I suggest for your own space.

If you’re at the what’s the perfect first project to kick off my remodel stage right now, then I also have another suggestion, I think you might really benefit from joining the ready to remodel program because that is the perfect forum to share your ideas with other homeowners get feedback and encouragement from people in the exact same place, or who did this a year or two ago, and have really fresh memories of how it feels. Find that community of other mid-century homeowners going through the exact same struggles and triumphs that you are, you can use the energy of taking on that perfect first project to kickstart bigger changes in your home when you have a framework and a group of people all encouraging you to do that.

The bottom line here is that if you’re looking for the perfect first project to kick off your remodel plans, it’s a small bath update. It’s forgiving and yet complicated. You can tune it up or down the level of intensity of a project that you want to take on how much you want to DIY versus hire out the work. And it’ll be a great exercise in coordinating in setting a scope of work and commuting with contractors and feeling what it’s like to have people in your home during the workday, especially if you are a work from home person, like many more of us are these days.

All of these are experiences that will help you as you think about your bigger down the road projects. So grab the transcript that I’ve just talked you through and the links to the resources, the room recipe, the style guide clinic and more at midmod-midwest.com/ 1303.

And then stay tuned next week on a podcast I’m sharing the secrets of great mid-century bedroom storage. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever done a home remodel project? Are you deeply experienced? And if so, what was your starter project when you began? And if you’ve never done anything on your remodel before? How does it sit with you? Send me an Instagram DM and let me know if you’ve been inspired to take on this perfect first project in your house.