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In Renovator’s Notebook, homeowners open up about the nitty-gritty of their remodels: How long it really took; how much it actually cost; what went horribly wrong; and what went wonderfully, serendipitously, it’s-all-worth-it-in-the-end right. For more tips to nail your next project, follow @reno_notebook.

Location: Prospect Heights, Brooklyn 
Approximate cost: $12,000
Top priority: Infuse personality into the en suite bathroom without ripping out the perfectly fine finishes.

New York–based editor Arati Menon never got to experience the honeymoon phase when she and her husband purchased their Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, apartment at the beginning of 2020. You know, that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling you get when you move to a new neighborhood and discover all the cute restaurants and the 24-hour bodega. “We didn’t have any of that,” recalls Menon. “All we had was this apartment and issues swirling around us.” It wasn’t until the world started slowly opening back up the following year that she was able to wrap her head around settling in. The first space she aimed to put her stamp on? Their en suite bathroom. “The bedroom is such a sanctuary for me, so it was a nice place to start,” she shares. 

The bathroom, before.

What ensued wasn’t a full-on renovation but rather what Menon likes to call a “half reno.” Instead of designing her dream space, she sought to give the room some personality while staying true to her budget constraints, plus she admits it just felt wrong to demolish a perfectly inoffensive space. “Not wanting to send stuff to the landfill forced me to get super-creative,” she says. Menon decided to keep the features she could live with, like the contractor-grade marble mosaic floors, the ordinary toilet, and the glossy white tub. Then she identified her biggest pain points: the stark subway tile in the shower, the inefficient sink cabinet, and the total lack of a mirror. 

Ahead, in her own words, Menon reveals the good and the gritty of her roughly $12,000 bathroom makeover. 

Splurge: Quick-Ship Tile That Says “Sanctuary”

When choosing the new tile for the shower, I was led by scale of the bathroom itself and the size of the floor tile. Fireclay sent us a few samples that I fiddled around with. I wanted to create a sense of airiness, so I became very keen on stacking them vertically. The guy who did the install said it would be simple enough for him to add a niche for our bath products, which was good news, because I hate clutter around the edges of a tub with a passion. We clad the base of our windowsill in the tiles we had left over from the project, so as to not let anything go to waste.

Save: Warp-Proof Paint

As I peered into the bathroom from our bedroom, I noticed it still needed just a little something—it was too blank. I painted the wall closest to the toilet Weekend Getaway by Benjamin Moore, which corresponds nicely with the Rosemary tile. To protect the fresh paint from any water damage from the shower, we opted for the brand’s Aura Bath & Spa finish. 

Splurge: In-Stock Fixtures That Are Unexpectedly Chic

Kohler’s shower system was another pricey element (almost $1,000), but luckily the pieces didn’t require us to make any massive plumbing adjustments—they fit right on the wall. Originally, I was eyeing a vibrant brushed brass coating, but when the company told us there’s no way we’ll get it anytime soon (shipping delays!), I went with brushed nickel…and I’m so glad I did. Brass would have taken up too much attention, while the nickel really holds it all together. 

Splurge: A Sturdy Barrier

I didn’t want to block our beautiful new shower with a curtain, so we installed a glass door in its place, opting for the wider of the two sizes available. This gave us a little more coverage, though we did have an issue in the beginning where water seeped through the tiny gap. We had it sealed and there haven’t been any problems since.

Save: Life on the Ledge

The lingering challenge was: Where to put the mirror. (The windowsill in front of the sink prevented us from placing one there.) Fortunately, there is an expansive wall to the left of the shower. At first, I considered a medicine cabinet, but the truth is we didn’t need the storage space, so I bought a simple $300 pivot mirror. We have plenty of room in our new vanity for most of our things, but this small ledge is perfect for displaying cotton swabs, candles, and everyday skin care.

Splurge: Drawers That Run Deep

The old gray vanity cabinet wasn’t optimized inside (it was essentially a gaping hole). We swapped it out for a floating IKEA version with upgraded Semihandmade fronts, a Kohler faucet, and Rejuvenation hardware. This piece has two drawers, so my husband and I can keep our things separated. I was so thrilled that I found takers for our old vanity and hardware on my local Buy Nothing Group. Not wasting those items and knowing they’re getting used by someone else is such a relief.