Installing new shower worth the effort

#525 in a series of true experiences in real estate
November 2006, Hills Newspapers

Accomplishing a tiled shower where there had never been one was more trouble than I had thought. The tile is up now and looks quite wonderful, shiny and clean and new, but the edges are still rough and will need more attention.

A long time ago my then-husband and I bought a duplex, a pair of flats on Alcatraz Avenue in Oakland next door to the Catholic schoolyard. The building had originally been built as a house, probably about 1910, but long before we owned it, the floors had been divided into separate flats.

There are two bedrooms in the upstairs apartment with the living and kitchen areas together at the back of the building in a space where there probably was once another bedroom and adjoining sunroom. On the back wall are casement windows that push out for air and which look out over beautiful trees and neighboring roofs.

It’s an apartment I would enjoy living in.

My husband and I had a lot of energy and enjoyed “fixing up” buildings and so we commenced to working on this one. The bathroom in the flat probably had a claw-foot tub when the building was first constructed but by the time we owned it, there was a regular porcelain tub built across one end of a square room, the end opposite the door.

On the right wall is the only window in the room, plus the toilet and sink. The window is good sized and its casing is old fir which we stripped of its paint and oiled to a soft brown glow.

We didn’t see a way at the time to easily include a shower in the bathroom and so decided not to. Instead, for decoration, we hung on the wide wall above the tub an old stained glass window we’d found somewhere. Very nice, we thought, until we rented the flat for the first time and the tenants said they could not live without a shower.

OK, we had to put in a shower. We bought a hand-held shower nozzle and one of those oval loop frames that attaches to the ceiling, but is forever wiggly, and we hung 2 shower curtains from it telling our tenants that they must be extra careful not to let water soak into the walls, or go over the edge, or wet the old wooden window.

And that has been the situation until a month or so ago when, just as I was re-renting the apartment to some fine new people, I decided that it was long past time to put in a real shower. I asked our contractor Shaun his opinion on feasibility.

The window is a problem. It cannot reasonably be moved and I am not willing to change it to aluminum. Too pretty as it is. Also, as the tub does not extend the entire width of the wall, at one end is a shelf at the level of the tub top, and this would have to be dealt with.

Glass sliding doors could be installed but I do hate them. When taking a sit-down bath, those doors are in the way. There are now available nicer looking swing-out glass doors but in this situation they would not protect the surroundings well.

After thinking and talking a lot, we decided that a curtain rod could be installed with one end curved in front of the window. The shelf end of the tub would be tiled and tilted slightly toward the tub with a short glass splash guard mounted on the side. A proper shower head would be installed inside the wall at the window end, and tile would rise to a height of about 6 feet on all three side walls.

Once we had figured all of this out, it seemed that I had only to select materials and provide money. Shaun had blocked out 3 days to do the work. Anet, my trusted companion and helper, and I still had about a week to buy and bring things. Plenty of time.

We started with the plumbing supply house, one that a friend had recommended. We wanted plain chrome fixtures with old-fashioned handles. Turns out that’s hard. Shower/tubs are nowadays controlled with a stick-shift sort of thing. Well, all right. But even those must be ordered ahead.

Next we looked at tile. There is so much beautiful tile in the world. It is expensive and mostly it is not in stock. We wanted what is called subway tile, 3 inches by 6 inches, because we thought it would look right with the style of the building. Plain white glossy tile, no bumps or crazing. This tile is in stock, we found, which was very lucky, but we also wanted one strip in a contrasting color, which had to be ordered.

We had spent quite a few minutes measuring every which way before shopping but it turned out we needed further measurements. We went back to the apartment, then back to the tile shop. With help from the shop expert, we were able to place an order for the different styles of tile that would be used: flat field tile, edge-glazed tile, and bullnose, the most expensive of all.

Like $3.50 each for very plain white glossy ones that match our tile of choice. Bullnose costs add up quick. Plus mortar, grout and spacers were needed. The tile bill added up to about $800. Total materials for the job were around $1200. Shaun’s labor added close to $2000.

Anet’s and my time was a lot more than I expected: probably 3 whole days spread out over a couple of weeks, and surely, a good 8 hours of that in the plumbing supply and tile shops alone.

Materials arrived and we picked them up with a few mishaps involving return trips. We carried the (very heavy) boxes of tile up the stairs into the apartment. Shaun arrived and spent 3 and a half days tearing out walls, putting up cement board, laying out and mortaring tile. On the last day he grouted and hung the shower rod.

It looks very nice. The job isn’t done though. I went to the apartment to do final cleaning and was dismayed to find that mortar is slopped over onto the walls adjacent to the tile. Shaun says it must be sanded smooth before being painted. Somehow I did not include this in my imaginings about the job, nor did I allow time for these ministrations.

The glass splash guard had to be custom cut and it isn’t ready yet. My new tenants will be moving in before the final finishing. I hope that they will love the new shower and won’t mind that there will be more mess soon. I’ll bet dust from sanded mortar is a pain to clean up.

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