Picking a Vanity Fair
Here's what to do when your bathroom cabinets look as tired as you do in the morning.
The vanity gets no respect. We use a word that means self-satisfied and frivolous for one of the most important fixtures in the house. The bath vanity is one of the first stops we make each day and the place we retreat to when we need to freshen up. The vanity has to be tough enough to weather drastic changes in heat and humidity as well as stand up to soap scum, toothpaste, and makeup. In many bathrooms, it's the only storage space available. And it must hold up its end in the decorating department.
Fortunately, they not only do what we expect of them but there is a lot to choose from — everything from simple boxes you can find at the local home center to made-to-order cabinets. Prices vary too, but you don't have to break the bank. You can put in a new vanity, counter, and sink for about $250; even one with a solid-surface counter and integral sink can be had for as little as $325.
As with kitchens counters, vanities are made of separate components — cabinets, counters, and sinks (or an integral top that combines these last two items) — that are usually assembled on site. A tired and dated vanity is often the eyesore that prompts homeowners to remodel a bathroom, but that doesn't always mean you should tear out and toss the whole assembly. Consider replacing that gaudy cultured-marble or laminate counter, but spruce up the vanity cabinet itself with a coat of paint. Unless you need a different-size vanity, refurbishing your old vanity can save you up to $200 and no one will notice the difference. You can even improve its storage capacity with add-on accessories like baskets, shelves, and lazy Susans.
But make sure the vanity is worth the time and trouble. Check the operation of doors and drawers, and make sure water from the shower or tub hasn't gotten into the cabinet sides or toekick. And if you're installing additional cabinets, say a linen closet or above-toilet units, make sure you can match the style of the existing vanity if that's important to you.
Today's vanities offer more styles and options than they did in the past, and they have gotten taller. Heights range from the one-time standard of 30 inches up to 36 inches. You can tailor the size to the user, and in two-vanity bathrooms you can mix heights and banish stooping altogether. Vanities are also available in several depths from 18 to 24 inches. Deeper cabinets provide more storage and counter space, while shallower units free up valuable floor area.
In addition to new sizes, you'll find features like slide-out trays, wire baskets, hanging wastebaskets, and tilt-down drawers in front of the sink. Details you usually find only on fine furniture, such as carved panels and molding, are also available on some cabinets.
Bath cabinetry comes as custom, semicustom, or stock. Custom cabinets are made to your exact specifications, and are generally the most expensive choice — cabinetmakers charge upwards of $60 per hour. However, if your bath is small or unusually shaped, custom cabinets will let you make the most efficient and attractive use of every inch. Order this type from a kitchen or bath dealer or a designer, or directly from a cabinetmaker. Leave 6 to 10 weeks for delivery.
Semicustom cabinets are factory-made units — you pick the door style, finish, materials, size, and storage features. Again, you'll need to buy through a showroom. With semicustom units you give up some of the options you get with custom cabinets, but you gain in delivery time and price. Expect delivery to take at least four weeks. The price for a 36-inch unit starts at about $315.
Stock cabinetry is made in standardized sizes and finishes. Basically, you get what you see in the store, but in the last few years more options have become available. Stock vanities are a good choice for many bathrooms.
Traditionally, the "stock" label indicated questionable quality. That's no longer true. There's a wide range of materials, features, finishes, and warranty periods in this category; if you shop a little you should find a vanity that meets your standards at a decent price. Stock units are available in home centers and other retail outlets. A plywood unit with an oak veneer starts at about $100.
Vanities can do much more than just hold up the bath-room sink. These Wood-Mode cabinets extend out for linens and up to create an attractive soffit.
Choosing a Counter
Vanity tops are custom-fabricated by a cabinet shop or counter fabricator, or purchased ready to install. They are made from a number of different materials. Most require a lavatory sink — made of porcelain over cast iron or vitreous china — that can be top-mounted or undermounted. These bowls come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Just make sure your choice will fit your top and vanity in depth and width and that it includes a paper template for cutting the hole in the vanity top.
Another lav option with two common vanity-top materials, solid-surfacing and cultured marble, is a sink that's part of the top — literally cast in one piece. These integral tops have a seamless look and are easy to install and even easier to clean. Here's how all the vanity-top materials stack up:
"Laminate is the best buy in the vanity top market," says Bob Adams, president of D&D Countertops, a counter fabricator in Mackefney Park, Illinois. "It offers the most colors, patterns, textures and styles at a good price." While laminate is durable, dark solids, tightly spaced patterns and gloss finishes show scratches, chips and burns more easily than lighter colors.
Solid surfacing also offers tremendous choice, and it's also easily repaired and impervious to water. However it runs about three times as much as laminates.
Veneers made of solid surfacing, such as Solid Surfacing Veneer from Wilsonart, are thinner — 1/8 inch compared with 1/2 inch — but have the same look, feel and warranty as regular solid surfacing. They are glued to a substrate of fiberboard whereas standard-thickness solid surfacing doesn't require a substrate and is attached right to the cabinet. Solid-surface veneers typically cost 30 percent less than standard solid surfacing.
Another excellent option with solid surfacing is a top with an integral sink. These are made for vanities in sizes ranging from 25 to 73 inches wide, with both single and double bowls. Popular solid colors and stone-look patterns are available. Prices range from $208 to $550 for a single-bowl model and $660 to $1,100 for a double-bowl unit.
Another integral-sink option is cultured marble. Made of chipped or ground stone and fiberglass bound in resins, cultured marble has come a long way in terms of appearance and durability. It's also available in many more shapes, sizes and styles, but it's still vulnerable to scratches, burns and wear. It costs about the same as laminates with fancy edge treatments.
Many people love the look of natural stone. Although it's not as expensive as you might imagine, it's also not as impervious it might seem. Stay with harder, less porous stone like granite to minimize staining and scratching. But if you prefer softer stone like marble and limestone, it can be made less susceptible with penetrating sealers and low-gloss or honed finishes. However, sealers need to be reapplied periodically.
Color and pattern also have an important impact on stone care and cost. Although veining camouflages stains better, very light and very dark stone tend to show watermarks more than medium colors. Lightly veined white marbles, the most common varieties, are comparable in price to simple solid surfacing. Costs gradually rise as stone color darkens and veining increases.
If possible, buy stone directly from a stone yard instead of a showroom, where you pick a stone based on a sample. It will probably cost less, and you can choose the slab, or the part of it, that you like. Have the salesperson wet unpolished stone so you can see the true color and veining.
Ceramic tile surpasses even laminates in terms of choices. It can be mixed and matched in countless combinations for a custom look. There's a price for every budget, from $4 per square foot to more than $50 per tile. One concern with tile is keeping grout clean and mildew-free. Epoxy-based mixtures are more stain- and mildew-resistant than regular grout, but you'll still probably need to replace it long before the surrounding tile.
Although these choices may seem more confusing than helpful at first, keep looking and you'll find there's a vanity out there that's right for your bathroom and your budget.