Master bath at front of line for remodelers

While the Great Recession didn’t quite send homeowners diving under the covers, it did find them looking for ways to turn their living spaces into cocoons — cozy, safe havens where they could unwind surrounded by their favorite things and colors. The focus shifted from big and splashy to small and intimate and the idea of doing more with less.

Now that the housing market is showing signs of significant revival, owners and buyers are starting to come out of those cocoons. And one of the first places they want to step into is a glamorous master bath. While warm and snug might be appropriate for the family or keeping room, it’s lost its appeal in the bath.

“The No. 1 question my clients ask is, ‘How can your make it a feel bigger without knocking out any walls?’ ” said Steven Gamper, sales manager for CSI Kitchen and Bath Studio in Norcross. “Wanting an upscale, posh bathroom has never really changed. Part of that is because the kitchen and master bath are what people look at the most. If you put yourself in the mind of a prospective buyer, what would you want to see there?”

The options that could go into a roomy master bath are as varied as one’s imagination and budget, but there is one particular feature both owners and buyers do not want to see. Bathtubs, be they molded, jetted, heart-shaped, in the corner under a picture window or combined with a shower, are off many people’s must-have lists.

“The majority of people we work with are not tub people, and they want us to make the shower bigger — big enough that another person can step in,” Gamper said. “Many see a shower as more beneficial than a big tub, even though most of us thought that as we got older, a tub would be easier. Now when we look at people aging in their homes or recovering from surgeries, a walk-in or step-in shower is what they want.”

An aging population has fueled the anti-tub campaign, particularly as more baby boomers want to stay in their homes as long as possible. At communities that cater to older buyers, tubs are rarely part of the master package.

“We’re specifically serving the active adult buyer who wants low-curb showers with bench seats, soap niches and optional hand-held shower heads,” said Carrie Roeger, the operations manager for Windsong Properties, which specializes in building active adult communities across the Northside. “We can do a tub if specifically requested, and in 2013, we saw a resurgence in soaking tubs. But for us, it’s too soon to tell if this is a trend.”

Those deep, often free-standing soaking tubs are the option of choice for buyers or owners who do want to add that dimension to their master, said Shay Mitton, the owner of Shay Bill Renovations in Kennesaw.

“If they go with a tub at all, it’s a soaker or one with air jets — a lot of little holes all around the bottom, not one with those water-circulating tubes that collect dirt and build up,” he said. “Those large, corner-jetted tubs, well, nobody seems to be a fan of those anymore.”

What has developed a fan following, though, are master baths that combine the feel of a tranquil spa with the luxury expected in a high-end home. And buyers and owners alike aren’t scrimping to get that.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve actually seen a transition of owners wanting to scale up their baths,” Mitton said. “People are starting to open up their wallets and are looking to do it right. They’re more confident in the economy as home values have bounced back. Out of all the projects we’re doing, master baths are the No. 1 request, and the budgets for those bathrooms have definitely increased.”

The first thing people want to spend money on is an oversized shower with a frameless glass surround, possibly outfitted with a roomy bench, rain shower nozzles and decorative or mosaic tiles that add a splash of color or eye-catching design.

“The most popular thing I do,” Mitton said, “is getting rid of the tub and doing a bigger walk-in shower. The old-school thinking was you had to see this grand tub when you walked in, but most people just walked by it at least 365 times a year. Meanwhile, you have a shower that you’re using sometimes more than once a day.”

But won’t a tub-less master adversely affect resale values? Mitton doubts it. “Is there a tub in another bath somewhere else in the house? That means it’s there if someone wants it. The other thing to consider is where the master actually is: If it’s upstairs, the odds are good you won’t be reselling to empty-nesters or downsizers who want a ranch to be on one level, so it won’t matter. I think when buyers come up and see this large, comfortable shower, it actually enhances the value.”

Once owners have pulled the plug on the tub, they’re ready to add some highlights to the rest of the space. Double vanities and private water closets are a must. Stone and ceramic tiles are wildly popular, but porcelains are making a comeback, mostly for their color versatility.

“Stone had maybe two or three colors that came right out of the ground, but with porcelains, we can dial up almost any color,” Gamper said. “We often see owners now wanting the same floor tile in the bath to continue right into the shower. But they don’t want to clean, either. Using the larger tiles minimizes the amount of grout, and the grout we’re using now is much more mold-resistant than what was available even 10 years ago.”

Gamper’s clients are also fond of upgrading to heated tiled floors, especially if the bath is over an unheated space such as a garage.

“The electrical system to do this is usually already in place,” he said. “But it does need to be planned from the beginning. We lay a system that’s the equivalent of a cushioned underpad that you can switch on. Some of our clients even take it into the shower and onto the bench seat.”

Oversized vanity mirrors are giving way to smaller, more decorative ones that leave room for wall sconces on either side. Cabinetry is going dark, into the chocolates and deep grays, to create what Victoria D’Amico of JD Kitchens Baths and More calls a “Zen style.”

“Think Zen co-mingled with the spa look of clean lines, two color palettes, marbles or travertines, very sharp lines and square edges,” she said. “It works well with marble, and it’s great to see that making a comeback.”

The Marietta-based remodeler is putting in marble countertops to match floor tiles, bigger lighting fixtures, square sinks and chrome faucets.

“I’d say for every three [faucets] I do in satin nickle, one is in chrome,” D’Amico said. “It sets a tone and gives a very contemporary feel.”

D’Amico is also seeing more homeowners willing to spend what it takes to create an upscale bath.

“An average master bath for us is in the high $20,000s,” she said. “We’re even finishing one right now that’s on the high side of $40,000, with very dark cherry cabinets, white tiles, marble countertops and a free-standing tub. We also find that, as people age, they want things that look cleaner and are bright and uplifting, and the master bath is often where they want it first.”

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