Are Retro Bathrooms Back in Style?

If you’re buying, or considering selling, an older home this spring, you may reckon with one of the biggest questions in the real estate market: Should you remodel your bathroom? Although a lot of people like a nice, modern loo, there’s a significant subset of people who want something a bit more authentic. If your home — or future home — is a classic rambler or a post World War II cottage, for example, that bathroom may just be worth saving.

[What’s the Latest in Retro Design Style?]

What’s Old Is New Again

There was a time not long ago when leaving a retro bathroom in place, rather than remodeling it prior to sale, meant that you knew your home would have to be sold for a discount because buyers were not into that. No matter how much you might have loved it, the market said no. That’s changing, and very rapidly, as it turns out.

“When I first began in the real estate industry in the 2000s, retro and vintage bathrooms were fairly unanimously not well received by buyers,” says Ian Katz, a real estate broker with Compass in New York. He said that recently, however, he’s seen retro and vintage bathrooms appeal more and more to buyers with particular aesthetic preferences.

“Bright and pastel colors and unique decorative wallpapers are back in vogue, as are repurposed fixtures and fittings. These features are often found here in NYC in idiosyncratic and ‘non-cookie cutter’ prewar properties, and buyers who like this look and feel — and want to use the bathroom as-is — have begun to compete with those who would tear them out.”

The story is the same across the country. Not only are preserved retro bathrooms doing well, but so are well-designed, historically similar reproductions.

Retro bathrooms are making a major comeback, especially in Los Angeles, says Casey Napolitano, real estate broker and founder of NDA Real Estate in Los Angeles. “From midcentury modern to Spanish revival architecture, this city offers so many beautiful character homes that buyers swoon over. Some may have original pink-tile clad bathrooms and others may feature newly remodeled bathrooms that pay homage to their past with ceramic tiles and vintage-looking fixtures. My clients love when a newly renovated, historical home hits the market.”

Napolitano says it’s rare to find one of these dream homes that has been renovated perfectly to restore the original character, so these homes typically generate multiple offers well over list price.

[READ: How to Design a Bathroom Wet Room]

Some Like it Vintage

A home with an intact vintage bathroom is an absolute gem in the crown for some, and a thorn in the paw for others. If vintage is your aesthetic, there’s nothing wrong with keeping your bathroom the way it is, and marketing to the buyers who are into it. It’ll save you money on remodeling that isn’t necessary if your bathroom is in great shape.

“What I find is there are two groups of people that land in different categories,” says Natalie Rebuck, principal at Re: Design Architects in Brooklyn, New York. “One group of people loves the historic bathroom and wants to do everything they can to retain as much as possible of its history. The other group wants to rip everything out and modernize. I tend to think that these groups are evenly divided.

“I don’t think having a vintage bathroom makes the home harder to sell. If someone likes vintage bathrooms, they will always be drawn to more historic homes. They would be taking tours of those types of homes and find them more desirable. Whereas if someone does not like retro bathrooms, they are going to have a tendency to build from scratch or find a newer home built in the last 10 to 20 years.”

Doing Vintage Right

Execution is the key to success with vintage bathrooms. A well-done or well-preserved bathroom can attract a lot of interest for a home that might otherwise not stand out from many of the other houses in the same market.

“If the vintage bathroom is done right, the home will generate multiple offers over asking,” says Napolitano. “If the bathroom seems tacky or cheap, it will sit. Most of the time, I recommend my clients stay a bit more neutral when it comes to design because there is less risk. However, if these retro bathrooms are beautiful, they will elevate the home.”

She says people love vintage-patterned wallpaper, ceramic muted colorful tile — she’s seeing a lot of rose pink and light green — and black and white checkered tile. Pedestal sinks are also quite popular, with brass faucets and legs.

If you have to remodel your bathroom, but want to keep the vintage charm, there are options. It’s often easier to keep the big stuff like tubs, wall tile and floor tile in play and work with them, rather than try to reinvent the wheel.

“If you have a retro bathroom and you can keep the existing cast iron tub and reglaze it you will help yourself out,” says Rebuck. “Removing the cast iron tub can create a lot of issues in terms of matching tile, putting something back that’s the same size, etc. I would also recommend that any fixtures that need to be replaced go back in the exact same position. If you move bathroom fixtures, you run the risk of needing to replace the existing tile and I can speak from experience that finding a replacement tile for many of these bathrooms is very difficult.”

[How to Paint Your Bathroom]

Bottom Line: Your Home Should Flow

Whatever you do with your bathroom prior to your sale, or right after you buy a new place, it’s important to consider the overall aesthetic of the home. One weird room can throw off the entire feel of the place, which can then hurt your opportunity for resale. So, if your whole home is vintage, keep the bathroom, but don’t just add a vintage bathroom to a contemporary home unless you’re prepared to do more to make it fit the overall feel of the place.

Katz says he tends to see vintage bathrooms in special or character-filled apartments in historic buildings and/or locations where the look and feel is very contextual with the overall property. “In these cases, the bathrooms tie together the whole design composition and can help boost resale value,” he says. “But in cases where these bathrooms don’t fit with the rest of the apartment or the building, they can bring down the property value, as a buyer who walks through that door is less likely to be looking for a fun bathroom and want to discount the price by the reno they think it will need.”

[SEE: 15 Secrets to Selling Your Home Faster.]

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