Can I paint that?

Before there was a baby, there was a bathroom.

We love our apartment and have worked hard to make it homey without (1) upsetting the landlords and (2) pouring in tons of money we’ll never see again. We’re not planning to buy a home any time soon (which I guess would be pretty normal if we still lived in Brooklyn but seems outlandish in small-city MA), so making this one feel like ours is a priority!

The first time we visited this apartment after seeing it in a craigslist ad almost two years ago, the bathroom was a mess: no shower curtain rod, no ceiling lightbulb in the buzzing and yellowed old ceiling vent fixture, glaring bare bulbs above the sink, filthy toilet with no seat, missing tiles next to the shower, and the list goes on. I wish we had a true before photo, but I think we were too repulsed in the moment to make it happen.

Updating this bathroom has been quite the saga, and each improvement could easily fill a blog post. I could never seem to find the right moment to take pictures, and every process ended up far more involved than anticipated. I can barely remember the details now! So I’m squeezing it all into one mammoth, rambling, monster post that maybe can inspire another renter somewhere out there.

First things first. We found a workable toilet seat easily at Lowe’s, and the landlords reimbursed us.

The tiles required much more research. Knowing nothing about tiles, we took a photo and measurements of the problem area and headed to our local Ace Hardware one weekend. Ace also knew nothing of tiles but directed us to Tessera Tile in town. The guys at Tessera were incredibly helpful. We found a good enough match, and they helped us cut the tiles to size and mixed up a couple little bowls of the goop we’d need in order to stick the tiles to the wall and grout around them.

Before and After:

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We felt so proud, and the landlords reimbursed us again.

OK, next. Who thought it was a brilliant idea to place this ugly medicine cabinet to the right of the toilet on the wall opposite the sink? I ditched the junky plastic cabinet, salvaged the mirror, and painted over the peeling gold foil frame with a sample pot of Navajo Red. And threw as much color and art up on the walls as possible to counteract the beige box effect.

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Plants in the window! And makeshift medicine cabinet on the toilet tank :-/.

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I found a hand towel ring at HomeGoods and spray-painted it Rustoleum Gold to match the other fixtures. Actually, I hated the super shiny fake gold foil on the toilet paper roll and towel rod, so I brought them outside and spray-painted them (and the yellowed switch plates over the sink) the more matte gold while I was at it.

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Here’s the sad original sink set-up:

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One of the first things I did when we moved in was order a new (and cheap) bathroom light fixture from Amazon. We managed to replace it ourselves after many panicked phone calls to Erik’s electrician stepdad, a ton of swearing, and many near electrocutions … as we do not have access to a fuse box for our apartment. We did not include the landlords in this process because the change was just for looks, and we did not want to be denied.

I also decided that we needed a medicine cabinet above the sink. When I started looking for one, they were all astronomically expensive. Who knew medicine cabinets could cost so much? We weren’t about to make that sort of investment for a rental. I also was not sure that the wall behind the sink was a real wall. It seemed too flimsy to hold the weight of a wooden medicine cabinet. So, I dug that cheap plastic medicine cabinet out of the closet where we had hidden it, scrubbed it within an inch of its life, spray-painted it white, and reattached the (now orange) door. I moved the big mirror to the right-hand wall and hung the medicine cabinet over the sink with drywall anchors.

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OH, so replacing the light fixture and hanging the medicine cabinet created a problem. The wall had been painted around the previous light fixture and the giant mirror. Many many times. We found a teeny bit of the apartment paint hanging around and tried to fill in the unpainted parts of the wall. The paint did not quite match, and the result was a lumpy and messy-looking wall that needed to be covered. Womp womp.

Enter those peel-and-stick removable tiles you see in the above photo. I think they were also from Amazon. I placed them up on the wall first without un-peeling them to get a sense of how they’d look. Busy but better.

I spent WAY too much time one weekend cutting the tiles to fit the space exactly. Here the result:

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Workable for the time-being.

Next up was the corroded sink faucet.

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I had read some blog posts about people finding success spray-painting their bathroom faucets … and I already had that gold spray paint on hand …

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This was another “don’t tell the landlords” project. Since we did not have the plumbing know-how to remove the faucet for painting, it had to happen right on the sink. It was a production.

But it worked! For a while …

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I felt great about the transformation at first, but as time went on, those busy geometric tiles really started to irk me.

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Then, last summer, we noticed mold on the ceiling above the shower. It started out yellowish and was hard to see thanks to the beige popcorn ceiling, but we could not ignore it any longer when it became black! Erik was able to wipe it down with vinegar, but it was back again about six months later. We had the landlords over last winter to take a look and make sure it did not stem from a hidden leak in the attic. Once they determined the leak was isolated to the bathroom, they gave us the go-ahead to re-paint the ceiling with anti-fungal paint.

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Yeah, it ended up being more than the ceiling.

Erik was on painting duty for this one because I was pregnant. When he prepped the ceiling for paint, he used masking tape to tape off the walls. Masking tape! I do not know what possessed him, especially since we had a whole roll of painter’s tape right there in the tool kit. When he removed the masking tape, the wall paint came right off with it! The walls were already peeling and bubbly in spots anyway, so we figured we might as well paint it all … and change up the color while we were at it. Anything to get out of the beige box!

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Before we could paint the walls, however, we had to finish scraping off any loose paint (a frustrating job necessitated by the masking tape mishap) and then use joint compound and lots of sandpaper to smooth out the areas where the jagged edge of stuck-on paint met the drywall. This step took forEVER. Then, we had to spot prime all of those areas we had joint compounded.

Finally, painting time arrived! Inspired by this bathroom (and the fact that we live one town over from Rockport), we chose BM Rockport Grey.

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I’ve never been able to get the right lighting in the bathroom to do the new color justice, but we’re very happy with it!

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The grey walls pull out some of the grey in the tiles, greatly reducing the beige box effect.

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We replaced the colorful shower curtain with this plain white extra-long number.

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The darker paint color and the higher curtain cut off quite a bit of light inside the shower. The darkness plagued us for probably six months because we could not figure out how to get more light in the shower without a long and involved rewiring process, which we were not willing to take on. Rental! I eventually found this motion-sensing battery-powered light fixture, and it’s been love ever since. The fixture was originally light-sensing in addition to motion-sensing, but the ambient light in the bathroom prevented it from ever turning on. One of the reviewers on Amazon posted instructions for opening the fixture and turning off the light-sensing cell. I followed them, and now the light works perfectly!

In the meantime, our spray-painted gold faucet had been taking a beating for nearly a year. It was chipped in places from items falling out of the medicine cabinet, and it was also covered in gunk because spray paint just does not clean like metal! I decided it was time to bite the bullet and spring for a new faucet. Not wanting to make a big investment (see a theme?), we ordered this bad boy. Similar to our trepidation with the over-the-sink light a year earlier, we waited and waited for the right moment to tackle the faucet replacement, especially since the included instructions may as well have been in a different language.

We cobbled together some applicable how-tos from various blog posts and youtube videos, and voila! We had a new faucet:

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(You may be able to see in that photo that we spray-painted the ceiling vent/light white because it was that gross old yellowed plastic. I also repainted the rusty old heater vent on the floor and the medicine cabinet mirror frame. The orange was starting to bother me, though now I think that wall looks too boring.)

The faucet came with a pop-up drain in the same finish, and of course we wanted to replace the drain to match. We could never quite get the instructions to make sense and eventually realized it was because the PVC piping and P-trap under our bathroom sink were all cemented together rather than having one section that was screwed in and hence removable. We realized we could not remove the existing pop-up drain (which was barely working anyway) without sawing out the PVC and then rebuilding the entire thing.

OMG, we’re not plumbers. And we did not want to hire a plumber to make a purely-for-looks upgrade to our bathroom. And we did not want to tell the landlords that we had gotten in so deep with purely-for-looks, less and less reversible upgrades to their bathroom. But I really wanted that matching pop-up drain in the sink.

We waited until a weekend when my stepdad could visit with his reciprocating saw to cut the whole apparatus out. I had watched SO many videos by then that I was sure we could take care of this thing in one afternoon. Erik and John sawed out the apparatus, which took far longer than anticipated due to the tight space. Erik removed the old, corroded drain with brute force, and we went to Home Depot with the PVC contraption to find replacements. Not as easy as it sounds. I think we ended up making three separate trips to Home Depot and/or Lowe’s. We cemented and installed the new PVC p-trap, only to have it leak and require us to saw it out and start over with new parts. Also, we did not have a saw. A kitchen knife was insufficient. We bought a teeny saw for tight spaces from the hardware store, but we could not get a straight cut with it. Finally, we borrowed a larger hacksaw from our neighbor and rigged up this last-minute guide from two scraps of wood in order to get a “straight enough” cut on our replacement PVC.

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I can’t even go on with how many more attempts it took to get the sink put back together without leaking. I think we were without the bathroom sink for a month, and I was petrified that we’d need to call a plumber to bail us out after all the time we spent DIY-ing such an unnecessary improvement.

In the end, however, it all worked out.

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Though, of course, after 6 months of use, the finish on our cheap pop-up drain is wearing off so it doesn’t match the faucet anyway! Sigh. Sometimes, you just can’t win. At least our P-trap under the sink is now the screw-in kind so we can more easily (HA!) replace the drain if we ever want to tackle that challenge again.

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So, there it is. A moderately tolerable bathroom where an intolerable one used to be. Whenever Erik got frustrated throughout this endless series of over-our-head improvements, I just kept reminding him that it was good practice for turning the much more disgusting back room/storage closet into a baby room. Coming next …

P.S. Gratuitous teeeeeeeny baby in the bathroom pics:

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