This Quick Fix to My Tiny, Outdated Bathroom Made It Feel Way Bigger—and Helped Sell My House

published Jan 8, 2021
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Credit: Katie + Joe/Stocksy

A few weeks before we listed our house, we had everything ready to go. The walls were painted, the carpet was shampooed, and space was staged. There was only one problem. Not only did we only have one bathroom in the house; the bathroom we did have was tiny and outdated.

We didn’t mind having one small bathroom when we bought the house, but I suspected future buyers probably did. The single bathroom would probably deter some people from scheduling a showing. But for those who didn’t see it as a dealbreaker, I worried they’d get one look at its ’90s vibes and run in the other direction.

We couldn’t afford to expand the space before selling our home, so we moved on to the next logical idea: cosmetic updates. Our realtor agreed the modern vanity, fresh paint, and a new light fixture would make the bathroom more appealing in photos—and we hoped that once potential buyers actually came to see our house in person, the rest of it would outweigh the fact there was only one toilet and shower.

The problem was, even simple cosmetic updates were super expensive. Unsure if we’d reap a return on our investment, we chatted with our contractor. He confirmed our suspicions—if we wanted to replace the vanity with something smaller to open up the space, we would also have to replace the stone tile. A $10,000 renovation price tag felt less and less appealing as our listing date approached. 

Fortunately, our contractor is creative and he’d worked on several low-budget renovations, including his own house. He suggested a simple, cost-effective fix: paint the entire bathroom white, including the walls, wainscoting, and vanity. We called our realtor to get her opinion, and she agreed that a bright, freshly painted bathroom would look cleaner, bigger, and more modern. So we went with our gut and dished out the $700 to paint it all, hoping buyers would more easily see past the imperfections we were fixated on.

Brandon Tyler, a Milwaukee-based real estate agent, says he sees predicaments like these often: sellers want to add value and appeal to an outdated or small space in the home, without spending thousands of dollars they might not earn back in a sale. In certain circumstances, Tyler says, he recommends simple fixes like a fresh coat of paint over larger-scale renovations. “When selling, you are looking for the most return on your investment, and putting too much money into a space that won’t be yours isn’t ideal,” he says. “If a total overhaul would cost more money than you’re likely to earn back, a simpler solution is usually a better idea.”

Obviously, not all quick fixes are created equal. If you’re going to spend a few hundred dollars on improving a space, try to stretch those dollars to improve the room as much as possible. For example, instead of installing fancy, expensive drawer pulls that might not appeal to everyone’s taste, it would be better to put that cash toward making a room look bigger. 

Opting for white paint is a timeless way to automatically expand a room, while also creating a blank canvas on which potential buyers can imagine their own taste. “Painting a bathroom totally white allows the new owner to put their personal touch on the space without having to redo it completely, which is key in today’s market,” Tyler says.

When we got home from a weekend trip and saw the newly white bathroom, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The things we hated about the room—the 1990s tile, the glass doors, the tiny footprint—were all still there. But we were able to see past the things we didn’t love because the space really did feel more airy and open. For a $700 price tag, it was worth it, and I’m guessing our buyers thought so, too.